Tuesday, June 3, 2014

“Schoolhouse Rock” interview: co-creator/producer/songwriter George Newall

Introduction to the Schoolhouse Rock interview series (including the list of interviewees).

What was your role on Schoolhouse Rock?

In the early ‘70s, I was co-creative director of McCaffrey & McCall, a mid-sized New York advertising agency. It was my habit to get to the office around 7 a.m. Often, that would lead to my having coffee with another “early bird,” my boss, David McCall. (Dave had previously hired me as a copywriter at Ogilvy, Benson & Mather when he was copy chief there in 1963.)

One morning as we chatted, Dave told me about taking his kids on a dude ranch vacation. His son, Davey Jr., had been having a lot of trouble with multiplication tables in school, but Dave noticed that as they were riding along the kid was singing the lyrics to every rock & roll hit of the day. What if we produced an educational phonograph record of the multiplication tables set to rock music? Great idea. But Dave said he had no idea who could write that kind of music.

Actually, I didn’t either, but at the time I did a lot of hanging out at a club called the Hickory House on 52nd Street listening to Billy Taylor and his trio. One night I asked Billy’s bass player, Ben Tucker, if he knew anyone who could fill the bill. “Of course, “Ben said, “My partner, Bob Dorough.” Ben had started a jingle company with the longtime bop pianist. He told me of Bob’s recent record release This Is a Recording, in which Bob created songs from the words of mundane everyday objects like mattress tags, phone answering messages, and dictionary definitions of words like “love.”

We set up a meeting for Ben to bring Bob to meet Dave McCall. Dave told Bob his idea. Also in attendance was Tom Yohe, my co-creative director and head of the agency’s art department. Dave was very pointed in telling Bob not to talk down to kids as had been the case in most attempts to educate children through music (i.e. “The Singing Lady”). Bob then promised to return in a couple of weeks with a demo.

When Bob came back with “Three Is a Magic Number,” we were astonished. He had put the three times table into a context, based on the role of three in mathematics, religion, and even furniture-making.

So my role started as the catalyst in bringing Bob Dorough to Dave’s project. Subsequently, I continued as one of the producers, one of the composers, then co-executive producer, and after Tom Yohe’s untimely death in 2000, executive producer and president of our little subsidiary company, Scholastic Rock, Inc.

What else were you doing professionally at the time?

I ran the copy department of McCaffrey & McCall and supervised the creative work for half the agency’s clients. I had established a close working relationship with Tom Yohe when he began working with me on Hai Karate Aftershave (a product that I had “invented,” positioning it as a spoof of the Aqua Velva advertising campaign, “There’s Something About an Aqua Velva Man”).

Where were you living?

119 East 84th Street in Manhattan.

What did you think of the
Schoolhouse Rock concept when it was pitched to you?

As a former musician, I was intrigued when Dave McCall first told me about it. But after hearing Bob Dorough’s first song, I was very excited.

Did you have any say in which topics the series covered?

Of course. I was one of the originators. And everything we did was collaborative. The atmosphere was always congenial, a reflection of the general atmosphere that made McCaffrey & McCall such a pleasure to work at. (I don’t recall any resemblance to what’s depicted on Mad Men even though I worked in the thick of that era!)

Did you propose any songs/topics that were rejected?

I don’t remember any specific incidents. The first song I wrote was “Unpack Your Adjectives,” then “Them Not So Dry Bones” and “Energy Blues.” In the early ‘90s, we produced an on-air series called Money Rock. I wrote “This for That,” a description of barter as an early form of currency.

When we produced the 30th Anniversary Edition DVD with Disney, I wrote the lead song, “I’m Gonna Send Your Vote to College.” It attempted to unravel the Electoral College. Tom Yohe, Jr. designed the animation. Jack Sheldon sang it on the soundtrack. (He also sang my song “Energy Blues” for the original Science Rock series.)

In 2007, I produced
Schoolhouse Rock Earth for Disney Educational Productions.  I originally meant it to be a series on geography, but the idea morphed into a DVD that dealt with today’s environmental issues. I’ll discuss that further in answering one of your other questions

However, I think the song that I’m most proud of is one that I didn’t write. In one of our brainstorming sessions, I came up with the concept and title for “Conjunction Junction.” It took Bob’s genius to make it work. And Tom’s design to make it stand out as the all-time favorite among those who grew up with
Schoolhouse Rock.

How long would it take you, on average, to produce a
Schoolhouse Rock song?

I’d say getting a song written would take anywhere between three weeks and a month. Getting the lyrics vetted by an educational consultant, another week, and then getting ABC on board, another two. The actual production of the animation was initially quite lengthy. Back in the day, animation cels were hand painted. There were no computers to help.

Of course, during the production of
Schoolhouse Rock Earth, approvals from ABC/Disney became much harder to get. It seems that the new executives who had grown up watching the series became more expert at evaluating potential songs than we were. And I found that songs were being judged by the standards that had taken hold in using exhaustive research to produce “effective” advertising. Too many MBAs in the process.

Examples: We could not get even one of the songs Dave Frishberg wrote approved. And not even one of Bob Dorough’s original song proposals. He and I had to collaborate on “Report from the North Pole.” His eccentric style didn’t fit into any of the cookie-cutter molds the MBAs had created. I did get a couple of songs that I wrote included: “You Oughta Be Savin’ Water,” “Windy and the Windmills,” and “Don’t Be a Carbon Sasquatch.”

In the beginning, when we were producing Multiplication Rock, Mike Eisner was baffled by the premise of “Little Twelvetoes” and didn’t think kids would understand the concept. But our educational consultant from the Bank Street School of Education called Eisner and told him not to underestimate the kids. He said “Okay, you’re the expert,” and we produced the film. Clearly, those days are over!

Schoolhouse Rock song/video was your favorite and why?

“Three Is a Magic Number.” That was the song in which Bob Dorough created the conceptual approach that took steered us away from the mere repetition of numbers and facts.

Any funny stories from the recordings?

I can’t remember any single moments of hilarity. But, by the grace of Bob, every recording session was fun to be a part of. Just getting to work with the likes of Dave Frishberg, Jack Sheldon, and Blossom Dearie in the relaxed atmosphere that Bob created when he ran the sessions was great fun.

What did you think of the finished animated musical shorts?

I thought most of them were wonderful. One visual standout was Roland Wilson’s design of “Little Twelvetoes,” one of Bob’s most unique concepts. And, of course, anything that Tom Yohe designed worked. He set what became the familiar “look” of
Schoolhouse Rock. And after Tom’s death, the same can be said for his son Tom. (Tom Jr. is an artistic clone of his dad!) Tom Jr. designed “Mr. Morton” and “I’m Gonna Send Your Vote to College.”

Funny, to me there were songs that were successful because of the music, like the alliterative “Conjunction Junction.” Then there were songs in which the animated character was most memorable, like “I’m Just a Bill.” In it, Dave Frishberg’s lyric lays out the information in a relatively straightforward way. But Tom’s “funny little scrap of paper” is what keeps the songs popping up on MSNBC, late night, and even in Congress itself! Here, a southern senator uses Bill’s image to make a point I didn’t agree with:

Any controversy over Schoolhouse Rock?

Probably the most egregious case was ABC not putting Lynn Ahrens’s “Three Ring Government” on the air because of their fear that the FCC and Congress would resent being compared to a circus and threaten their broadcast license renewal.

Then there was the politically incorrect use of manifest destiny in “Elbow Room.” (It was a justification for expanding to the West at that time in our history!)

One galling moment for Tom and me was during the ‘90s when one of the former ABC Children’s’ Programming executives started marketing himself as the “Father of
Schoolhouse Rock” when, in fact, it was he who had taken us off the air and replaced Schoolhouse Rock with a fitness series starring Mary Lou Retton.

Then, most recently, there were the reviews on iTunes of
Schoolhouse Rock Earth that accused Disney of producing nothing but “climate change propaganda.”

What are your most cherished/funniest
Schoolhouse Rock stories since (a reaction when someone you meet discovers you had a role in it, seeing its influence in an unexpected way, hearing a celeb you admire sing its praises, etc.)?

There are literally hundreds of these gratifying moments; from people I play golf with to Rachel Maddow and Wolf Blitzer and even President Obama himself!

I was invited to production of Schoolhouse Rock! Live, Jr. put on by the third grade of local school. (Schoolhouse Rock! Live was initially produced by Theatre Bam in Chicago. It ran briefly in NYC, off Broadway. And it is now licensed though Music Theater International. For almost ten years now, there have been a total of more than 500 individual productions a year—around the world! (Army bases, I suspect.)

But perhaps the most gratifying for me was this year at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The center sponsored a “
Schoolhouse Rock 40th Anniversary Singalong” featuring Bob Dorough. The event drew the biggest audience in the history of the center’s Millennium Stage (over 2,000 people!). And in the post-concert autograph session, I had the incredible experience of being told by three different Asian couples that their kids could never have learned English without Grammar Rock!

What are you working on these days?

Mostly my golf swing (a curse!). Also keeping track of merchandising deals made by ABC and helping my wife with her singing. I did have the fun of producing a CD with her right here in my basement. I did all the arranging and played all the parts in on my Mac. There was only one live “recorded in a studio” musician on the album, John Allred, a terrific trombonist.

Where do you live?

Hastings-on-Hudson, NY.

If you have kids/grandkids, what did they think of your
Schoolhouse Rock songs?

I have one stepson. It’s hard to tell what he’s ever thinking!

Has anyone else ever interviewed about this? If so, when and for what publication?

Yes, many times. Several times with Bob on NPR. By our local newspaper, The Rivertowns Enterprise, which headlined it as an interview with “a rock star.” Florida State University’s FM station. Charlie Gibson on ABC in the ‘90s (with Tom) and Jane Clayson on the CBS Morning Show (with Bob and Jack Sheldon).

Do you still have any ongoing connection (professionally or personally) to
Schoolhouse Rock?

I’m Executive Producer, President and Chairman of the Board of Scholastic Rock, Inc.

Have you appeared at any fan conventions to sign autographs? If not, would you?

Bob Dorough, our education consultant, Gil Dyrli, and I do seminars for educational groups, etc.

What is your perspective on the longevity and legacy of Schoolhouse Rock?

I’m pretty sure
Schoolhouse Rock will be around after I’m gone. The films are evergreens and every year a brand new audience arrives in grade school.

12/7/22 addendum: Today it was announced that George, the last surviving member of the core team who produced Schoolhouse Rock, passed away 11/30/22.

Next: Rad Stone.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...


If I'm not mistaken, George Newall & Tom Yohe also developed the short-lived Metric Marvels for NBC in the late 70's. Not many of those were made, as memory serves, and it didn't have the staying power of Schoolhouse Rock.

It's too bad Disney can't be bothered to bring Schoolhouse Rock back.