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40th Anniversary Sing-Along at the Kennedy Center

The largest crowd in the history of the Kennedy Center's Millenium Stage

‘Schoolhouse Rock’ at 40



‘Schoolhouse Rock!’ 40th-Anniversary Singalong

By Monica Hesse January 4, 2013


        Back in the heyday of Saturday mornings, back when cartoon viewing was a scheduled date for 8-year-olds and their ­cereal bowls, back before Nickelodeon made animation into a 24-hour buffet, there arose a phenomenon that was good and pure and true. It was called “Schoolhouse Rock.”

“I still play the songs in my jazz jobs,” says Bob Dorough, who wrote and voiced much of the original “Schoolhouse” canon. “I used to play very hip songs, but then one of the waiters — who would be 25 or 30 — would say to me, ‘your voice sounds familiar.’ ” Dorough would reveal why. The waiter would get excited. “Oh!” he would say. “Can we have one, please?”

        Bob Dorough just turned 89. “Schoolhouse Rock” turns 40 next week: On the morning of Jan. 13, 1973, a three-minute animated video called “My Hero, Zero” materialized on ABC, sandwiched between programs such as ­“Superfriends” and “Yogi’s Gang” and “The Roadrunner Show.”


        “Schoolhouse Rock” wasn’t a show. It was the thing between the shows — two to three insterstitial, educational minutes about math or grammar or science. It was “Lolly Lolly Lolly Get Your ­Adverbs Here,” teaching young viewers how to modify verbs in a jaunty, helium-induced ditty (“Slowly, surely, really learn your adverbs here. You’re going to need ’em if you read ’em”). It was “Naughty Number Nine,” accompanied by a bluesy video depicting a feline pool shark.


        No video was ever longer than a potty break, but somehow “Schoolhouse Rock” became a totem pole around which children of the 1970s have chosen to gather and reminisce. More specifically: The moment when the cartoon boy in the “Schoolhouse Rock” video “Interjection!” — Ow! Hey! — got stuck in the butt with a big needle has become the totem pole.


A decade of childhood, reduced to one sharp poke.

On Sunday, on the Millennium Stage of the Kennedy Center, Dorough will perform a selection of Schoolhouse favorites in a free concert. Meant for children, it may be appreciated more, perhaps, by their parents who still sing, “Neither now nor ever — Hey, that’s clever!” to remind themselves of the function of conjunctions.

“Some of the vocal performances are indelibly etched somewhere in the back of my brain,” says David Cotton. He goes by “Coach Cotton” professionally, and is one-third of the D.C.-based children’s group Rocknoceros, ­selected to accompany Dorough for the Kennedy Center concert. “The woman who sings ‘Interjection!’ — I just remember the tone of her voice.”


        Dorough was a jazz composer in the early 1970s when he turned to writing advertisements to earn extra cash. One day he was called in by David McCall, a Madison Avenue adman, who had a job offer. Dorough was hoping for a cushy little jingle, something well-paying and easy. “But instead he said, ‘Bob, my little boys can’t multiply, but they can sing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones.’ ” Couldn’t Dorough write something, McCall wondered, that would be both catchy and informative? Something that didn’t talk down to kids? Something cool? Dorough returned two weeks later with “Three Is a Magic Number.”


        And it was cool. Not preachy, not medicinal. Kids liked it, but what’s more interesting is how they kept liking it. How “Schoolhouse Rock” has remained an irony-free experience, how the Gen-Xers it was designed for have nurtured and protected it, deep into middle age. In 1996, Atlantic Records released an album of the day’s alternative stars covering their favorites: Blind Melon with a mellow “Three Is a Magic Number,” Moby with an aggressive “Verb: That’s What’s Happening,” Man or Astroman blaring “Interplanet Janet” with earnest devotion.

If the series was invented to introduce kids to jazzy multiplication, it also introduced their adult selves to generational bonding, shared reference points, the vast collective oversoul of 1970s humanity.


        “Schoolhouse Rock’s” original run lasted from 1973 until 1985. It reemerged in the mid-1990s for several years, before disappearing from television. The Millennium Stage concert is a one-time event, organized for the 40th anniversary. The closest Metro station to the Kennedy Center is Foggy Bottom, which is eight stops away from Capitol Hill, which, as everyone knows, is where bills sit, hoping and praying that they may one day become laws.






























     Songwriter Bob Dorough will be 91 years old in less than a month. Has anyone older ever headlined the Echoplex?

If they have, they certainly weren’t performing for audience members 85 years younger than them.


     For more than two and a half hours, Cinefamily’s Animation Breakdown took over the cavernous Echoplex with a seated, all-ages show dedicated to the children’s educational program Schoolhouse Rock!, with Dorough front and center for much of the evening.


     Starting in the 1970s, Schoolhouse Rock! served as a prime source for teaching kids mathematics, civics and grammar with cute, succinct songs composed largely by jazzbo Dorough. They were used as interstitials during Saturday and Sunday morning children’s programming, proving particularly influential with a generation of rockers like The Lemonheads, Blind Melon and Elliott Smith, all of whom used Dorough’s tunes as B-side tangents.


     Prior to his affiliation with the show, Dorough had been a successful singer-songwriter, recording his first album in 1956. His hep swing had a wide-eyed slyness that filled nightclubs and even earned him the honor of being one of the few vocalists to guest on a Miles Davis record.


     As he composed and performed the songs for the television show starting in 1973, he employed many of his jazz world friends, including drummer Grady Tate, trumpeter Jack Sheldon and vocalist Blossom Dearie, all of whom sang some of his world-weary paeans to numbers and bills.






















                                  Alex McDonald (left) & George Newall discuss the Schoolhouse Rock! origins.


     Last night’s event opened with a half-hour interview with Schoolhouse Rock! co-creator George Newall. The charming former ad executive, prodded by Cinefamily’s Alex McDonald, dug into the shows origins. “Don’t talk down to the kids” was the motto in creating the show, which was inspired by his boss’s son’s inability to remember his multiplication tables, despite being capable of reciting Hendrix and Rolling Stones lyrics with ease.


     Newall’s PowerPoint presentation of the show’s history closed with a video displaying the broad influence Schoolhouse Rock! had on American education and pop culture. TV clips of Conan O’Brien, The Simpsons and Barack Obama made a compelling case that Dorough’s ditties had done more than anyone could have imagined.


     The inherent goofiness of Dorough’s persona is kind of irresistible. He is a jokester poet with a great sense of swing and understanding of his audience, and at the age of 90 all of those talents seem completely intact. He was playful and quick, inserting references to Pitchfork and Wes Anderson into one of his co-writing gems, “I’m Hip,” and at one point declaring, “They said I’d go far, but I never thought it’d be the Echoplex.”


     Dorough sat at an electric keyboard, joined by a local rhythm section including bassist Jennifer Leitham, who alternated between electric and acoustic. After an opening set that included Schoolhouse Rock! staples “Three Is the Magic Number” and “Figure 8,” Dorough took the opportunity to dig into half a dozen of his pre-TV tunes. Absurd, catchy songs like “Love (Websters Defined)” and “This Is a Recording” showed off his meta-qualifications for the Schoolhouse Rock! task, but were met with dismay by the kids in the crowd.
























                                               Bob Dorough closes out strong. "What's your function?"


     Dorough closed his more than hour and a half set with more Schoolhouse Rock!, singing and playing “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction” in front of a projection of the accompanying animation and with help from guest vocalist Skip Heller.


     Throughout the night, Dorough was clearly fulfilling the sing-along dreams of many in attendance. As far removed as they may have been from their childhood, Dorough's still-strong voice could instantly transport them back to consequence-free weekend mornings and a crippling inability to remember their multiplication tables without the help of a piano player.



Photos by Christina Limson O'Connell



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