A Schoolhouse Rock! tribute to honor the passing of its last surviving creator

Now he's a law! Schoolhouse Rock!">

Enlarge / Now he's a law! "I'm Just a Bill" is one of the most popular and best-known animated shorts featured in Schoolhouse Rock! (credit: Kari Rene Hall/Getty Images)

Ars readers of a certain age grew up in the 1970s and 1980s watching Saturday morning cartoons and singing along to Schoolhouse Rock!, a series of whimsical animated shorts setting the multiplication tables, grammar, American history, and science to music. We were saddened to learn that George Newall, the last surviving member of the original team that produced this hugely influential series, has died at 88. The cause of death was cardiopulmonary arrest, according to The New York Times. The series turns 50 (!) next year.

Newall was a creative director at McCaffrey and McCall advertising agency in the early 1970s. One day, agency President David McCall bemoaned the fact that his young sons couldn't multiply, yet somehow they remembered all the lyrics to hit songs by the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. He asked Newall if it was possible to set the multiplication tables to music. Newall happened to know a musician named Ben Tucker who played bass at a venue Newall frequented and mentioned the challenge to him. Tucker said his friend Bob Dorough could "put anything to music"—in fact, he'd once written a song about the mattress tag admonishing new owners not to remove it under penalty of law.

Two weeks later, Dorough presented Newall with "Three is a Magic Number," the song featured in the pilot episode of Schoolhouse Rock! Everyone at the agency loved the tune, including art director and cartoonist Tom Yohe, who made a few doodles to accompany the song. That one song—meant to be part of an educational record album—turned into a series of short three-minute videos. (Today we'd just put them on YouTube, and you can indeed find most of the classic fan favorites there.) They pitched the series to ABC's director of children's programming, Michael Eisner (future Disney chairman and CEO). Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones was also in the meeting and was so impressed he advised Eisner to buy the series in the room.

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