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.
Sunday at 6 p.m. Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org.