That’s a fun way I’ve come to instantly connect with my audiences at speaking engagements, after telling them I once ran ABC Children’s Television.
“Conjunction Junction ...” I sing.
“... WHAT’S YOUR FUNCTION!” is the enthusiastic crescendo that never fails to burst back.
It astonishes me that a series of three-minute musical cartoons called “Schoolhouse Rock,” airing in my ABC Saturday Morning lineup 40 years ago, can still be sung by millions of baby boomers and younger. “Conjunction Junction” is unquestionably the most popular program, in which a portly train conductor signals colorful boxcars to crisscross railroad tracks, to a catchy tune.
I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they only made it through English with “Schoolhouse Rock” favorites “Interjection” and “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here.” Others rave about the role of “I’m Just a Bill” or “Preamble” in helping them with history class tests.
Here’s the back story on “Schoolhouse Rock,” and had it not been for Godwinks, it would never have been born.
In the early ’70s there was an activist groups of homemakers outside of Boston, led by Peggy Charren, who called themselves Action for Children’s Television—ACT. They were highly successful in their first aim—to create discomfort among network executives. They did this by taking their complaints to Congress. They argued that the television networks should increase attention to good programming for children, while decreasing the advertising for less-nutritional food groups.
Michael Eisner was the head of ABC Daytime and Children’s Programming. At the conclusion of a meeting with his ad agency, David McCall, president of McCaffrey & McCall, suggested that his son was having difficulty in learning the multiplication tables and perhaps ABC could produce some short programs teaching kids the fundamentals of math. Michael nodded and the meeting ended.
Later that day, Jim Duffy, president of the network, called a planning meeting for an upcoming annual gathering of ABC affiliated television stations. “What are you doing to address the concerns of Action for Children’s Television?” asked Jim.
“I’m working on it,” said Michael sheepishly, not having a clue.
But a few weeks later, Michael’s presentation to the affiliates included an announcement that ABC Children’s Television would unveil a series of short programs, called “Multiplication Rock,” in between all the regular cartoons.
McCaffrey & McCall was surprised and pleased to get the order, and put their top creative guys in charge, George Newall and Tom Yohe. Tom was a soft-spoken artist who created the distinctive look for the series. George was a musical aficionado who had once encountered the talents of a jazz musician named Bob Dorough. He hired Bob to write all 10 programs on the multiplication tables, from “My Hero Zero” to “Naughty Number Nine.” Together Newall and Yohe produced the programs under a new division for the agency called Scholastic Productions.
The following season Michael Eisner moved on to head up ABC prime time television, triggering my entrance, a few months later, into the role of vice president for ABC Children’s Television. Eisner remained at ABC only a short while longer, when he was lured to Paramount as president, and then to his most vaulted role, CEO of Disney.
One of the first pleasures in my new job was to meet with Newall and Yohe. A small Godwink: Tom Yohe and I had met before. He had been a fraternity brother of mine at Syracuse University.
It was clear that “Multiplication Rock” was a successful program. George and Tom offered that they could create additional programs encompassing other school curriculums, such as English, history and science.
Musing on that for a moment, I said, “Well ... we certainly can’t call it “Multiplication Rock” any longer ...” My mind then drifted to the name of their production division, “Scholastic,” and I blurted, “Why not call it ‘Schoolhouse Rock’?”
So that’s how it started. As simple as that. And who would think that 40 years later an entire segment of the population would claim an unusual ownership to the “Schoolhouse Rock” programs? I can think of no other television programs that elicit the same response—audiences just feel as though they own those experiences in their childhood.
In the end, here’s what we have to conclude. Without the displeasure of a group of mothers in Boston, and without the difficulty with math by the son of an advertising executive, “Schoolhouse Rock” would never have seen the light of day.
Godwinks? Oh, yes.