Saturday, 1 May 2021

Phrases and Words and Newscasts

Saturday mornings, at least for me back in the 1960s, were for fun. They were a break and a rest from five days a week of school. I didn’t want school on weekends, too. I wanted to see George Jetson bumble around in reruns, or Bugs Bunny put one over Yosemite Sam dressed as a pirate or a knight of olde or a desert sheik.

But do-gooder groups thought education was just fine on Saturday mornings. And while they caused the bowdlerisation of new cartoon series, they also forced some creative ideas to come to the forefront to teach kids stuff that may have bored them at school.

I enjoyed the CBS “In the News” featurettes. It wasn’t much of a stretch from the short newsbreaks on the network during weekday afternoons, Christopher Glenn had a smooth, credible sound and I was not far away from starting a radio news career.

The “Schoolhouse Rock” segments on ABC didn’t interest me as much. They were designed for a pre-teen audience. There were a lot of Americanisms. And they were shown over and over and over and over. They were good to get something to eat. No childhood nostalgia for me about them. But watching them now, I can appreciate the creativity that went into them.

It’s not often that newspaper columnists write about Saturday morning programming, other than to bash it for violence or poor taste or banality. But the Associated Press’ Jay Sharbutt put something together before they began a second season and urged parents to watch them. The column is from Wednesday, Sept. 5, 1973.

ABC’s ‘Scholastic Rock’ Sets Grammar, Math to Music
AP Television Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — One of the briefest, hippest kid shows on television—ABC’s “Scholastic Rock”—will start some swinging grammar lessons next Saturday morning It already has put a lively beat to basic math.
The new lessons are in ‘‘Grammar Rock,” a companion series to the 11 “Multiplication Rock" segments that have been part of ABC’s Saturday and Sunday morning childrens’ programming since Jan. 6.
The method of both series is simple but highly effective: The usually dull rules of multiplication and grammar are written as catchy lyrics to pop music with cartoon characters moving about briskly to illustrate the number or rule of grammar involved.
Each show lasts only 3½ minutes, but you might try to catch one some morning. They’re excellent. The music is billed as rock, but It really isn’t. It’s more in the jazz vein.
Several of the singers behind the cartoon characters are respected jazz artists, albeit not as widely known as some of today’s pop music stars.
The "Multiplication Rock" team consists of Blossom Dearie, an excellent pianist; jazz drummer-vocalist Grady Tate; and pianist Bobby Dorough, who composed all the multiplication songs.
Another well-known figure in jazz circles—trumpeter Jack Sheldon—sings in the new grammar series according to spokesmen for Scholastic Rock, Inc., the New York-based producers of both shows.
Segments from both series will air five times each Saturday and twice on Sunday, according to ABC, which says yet another “Scholastic Rock” series—dealing with American government and history—may be ordered up at a later date.
Another project aimed at young viewers is in the works right now at CBS-TV. It involves current news items and an effort to put these stories into perspective for the 10- to 16-year-old viewer.
CBS says the shows, each running nearly two minutes, will start in October, run Monday through Friday and examine one current story a day with detailed but easy-to-follow background material on it.

I may not be nostalgic about the “Schoolhouse” featurettes, but some people of a later generation are. Saturday Night Live parodied “I’m Just a Bill” while a musical based on the shorts was put together with a three-man, three-woman cast in 1993. A version hit the stage in Poughkeepsie, New York in 2000. Columnist Dana Anhalt explained in the Millbrook Round Table how they came about.

Many of us remember waking up on Saturday mornings, planting ourselves in front of the television for a hearty dose of our favorite cartoon programs and watching those catchy little "Schoolhouse Rock" vignettes during the breaks (that is, if we happened to be in our Saturday morning cartoon prime anywhere from 1973-1985).
In the early 1970s, advertising executive David McCall was concerned that his son was having trouble memorizing his multiplication tables, but at the same time he could effortlessly spew forth the lyrics to every pop song on the radio. To McCall, the solution seemed obvious: Why not marry pop music with information that kids need to learn?
With the fusion of these two elements came the pop-culture phenomenon known to us as "Schoolhouse Rock." McCall worked with creative directors at his ad agency to come up with scripts and storyboards. They hired jazz pianist Bob Dorough to compose a song based on the multiplication tables, and the result was "Three is a Magic Number." The concept was quickly snatched up by Michael Eisner, head of ABC's children's programming at the time, and other "Schoolhouse Rock" cartoons came soon after, each with their own delightfully infectious tune and entertaining animation. They cover a wide range of topics including history, grammar, math, science, government and finance (basically, anything an elementary school child would otherwise dread). The outcome: children walking around singing (brace yourself) EDUCATIONAL LYRICS!

Whether the little cartoons are still airing somewhere other than being posted on a video website, I don’t know, but why not put them back on TV when they hit their 50th birthday in 2023? There’s a gaping need to teach American kids about bills, and phrases and words and clauses.


  1. I was around the right age when Schoolhouse Rock first aired; they weren't too didactic and they didn't condescend. I notice the articles didn't mention the underrated Dave Frishberg, who contributed a few songs. I didn't know that future Disney CEO Michael Eisner was in charge of kids' programming at ABC then.

    Christopher Glenn was smooth and professional (and he didn't condescend either); he went on to anchor CBS Radio's "World News Roundup" well into the early 2000s.

  2. The strangest educational shorts on early '70s kid TV, though, were "Pop Up" - letters, letter combinations and words popping up on a black screen, with a female monotone enunciating them.

  3. Jack Sheldon would pop up here and there playing " The Bill " and " The Conductor " in other cartoons as kind of a hat tip, parody, and homage to " Schoolhouse Rock ". " In the News ". Those segments would start right after the final cartoon credits would fade out. I can still here that synthesized music and Chris Glenn; " From Peanut farmer, to President. Jimmy Carter *next* In The News " or something like that. Then, that ending logo music. I believe a few of those have been posted on a certain video website. In 1976, CBS would also do the same with " The Bicentennial Minute " right after the ending credits of their prime time shows.

  4. Hans Christian Brando10 May 2021 at 17:23

    Have you noticed that the generation brought up on "Sesame Street" and "Schoolhouse Rock" in turn spawned a generation graduating high school barely able to spell their own names and unable to perform simple arithmetic without mechanical aid?

  5. "The Simpsons" did a hysterical parody of "I'm Just a Bill," with the same singer voicing "I'm an Amendment-to-Be." Look it up on YouTube.