Schoolhouse Rock Rocked (Mostly)

ABC Television

Back in the early days of my childhood, it could not be overemphasized how important Saturday morning television programming was to us kids. Each year, sometime in late summer, the networks would run their prime-time specials previewing their Saturday morning line-ups for that fall. Those programs built excitement for the upcoming season and they softened the blow of the impending school year. Here’s NBC’s 1974 preview show.

Much of the programming seems awfully silly to me now, but when I was a kid I was enthralled. I know I’m gonna sound like an old man here, but kids today are missing out on the excitement of anticipation for the Saturday morning cartoon shows. See? I sound like an old man.

In 1973, ABC debuted a series of interstitial cartoons meant to educate as well as entertain. It was Schoolhouse Rock! And we kids loved them. (Well, most of them.) They were three minute long cartoons, played during ad breaks or between shows, featuring songs that taught about math, history, grammar, science, etc. They were the brainchild of ad man David McCall. McCall noticed his son was having trouble with math, and yet knew all the words to the pop songs of the day. McCall thought that maybe school lessons set to catchy tunes might help his and other kids learn.

In 1971, McCall recruited Bob Dorough, a musician and songwriter, to write a math lesson song, which became Three Is A Magic Number. Tom Yohe, who worked with McCall at the same ad agency, drew up some illustrations to go along with the song. Next thing you know, they were creating a whole series of songs to animate and put on television.

Some of the episodes haven’t aged very well (Elbow Room especially, despite still having a good tune), but most still pack a delightful punch.

And now a break from the blog for a brief rant…

There he is! Little Twelvetoes!

Schoolhouse Rock! also taught me the concept of overkill. As I recall, certain episodes became very popular indeed and started getting played with much higher frequency. One in particular.

Each time I would see the Schoolhouse Rock! intro, I would plead for one of the less frequently played, but much liked by me, installments:

“Little Twelvetoes! Little Twelvetoes! Little Twelvetoes!” I would repeat as I waited to see which would play.

(I liked Little Twelvetoes. It had a mysterious and somewhat creepy vibe. Sort of an early X-Files thing.)

But, no. It would be Conjunction Junction. Again!

Again?! Sigh.

Or, maybe, Figure Eight.

Both were excellent, but they were seriously overplayed.

Rant over. Now back to the blog.

So, what were my favorites? I thought you would never ask.

As I look through the list on Wikipedia, I’m noticing how many I really like that were written, many of which were also performed, by Lynn Ahrens. In no particular order, some of my faves by Ahrens include: A Noun Is A Person Place Or Thing, Interjections!, No More Kings, Interplanet Janet, Fireworks (sung by Grady Tate), and The Preamble.

There’s one that was written by George Newall and sung by Blossom Dearie that I would put in my top three: Unpack Your Adjectives.

I love the art style of I Got Six.

But, it was Bob Dorough who has the most episodes to his credit and the most of my favorites. I’ve already mentioned the first of all the Schoolhouse Rock! cartoons, Three Is A Magic Number and that mysterious alien Little Twelvetoes. Add to those the following (unless otherwise noted all of these were sung by Dorough): My Hero Zero, I Got Six (sung by Grady Tate), Figure Eight (sung by Blossom Dearie), Ready Or Not Here I Come, Sufferin’ Till Suffrage (sung by Essra Mohawk), and the bestest of them all – Lolly Lolly Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here.

Tom Yohe’s simple illustration style was excellent. I especially like his work on I Got Six. The sketchy yet disciplined linework over a white background and limited use of color is brilliant. There may be some eyebrow raising moments in there, what with the harem and the “prince” character and all, but it was 1973 and people were still learning. Heck, we’re still learning today.

How’s that spelled?

The initial run of Schoolhouse Rock! was from 1973 until 1984. The series returned to Saturday mornings in 1994 with a selection of the originals and eight new episodes, including one called Walkin’ On Wall Street. That one has an amusing typo that slipped by everyone. There’s a shot featuring a newsstand. Look at the picture. Can you spot the error?

In 1993, the series was taken to the stage with the production called Schoolhouse Rock Live! Then in 1996, a tribute album featuring ’90s’ alternative artists’ covers titled Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks. And in 2009, Schoolhouse Rock! released several new episodes direct to DVD covering topics related to the environment called Schoolhouse Rock! Earth.

But my heart belongs to the Schoolhouse Rock! that ruled the 1970s.

“Darn! That’s the end.”

Packing Peanuts!

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Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Please check out our eBay page, as well. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on Apple Podcasts.

Our Star Blazers!

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It was 1979 when I met my good friend Greg. We were both in the ninth grade, Greg had just transferred in that year. As I recall, we had a slightly rocky start. We were in phy-ed class (which I hated with a passion), learning how to run and kick pass a soccer ball. I was paired up with Greg and I wasn’t very good. I could tell Greg was a little frustrated, but he did his best to help me get better.

I guess it wasn’t that rocky.

We got to talking about our interests, as kids do. We learned we both really liked Star Wars, but in 1979 what kid didn’t? Well, there was my friend John, but he’s a story for another day. Maybe.

There was one interest Greg and I shared that once it was mentioned a fast friendship was formed. Sure, we both liked Star Wars, but when one of us (I forget which) brought up Star Blazers, we each thought to ourselves, “Henceforth, this man shall be my brother!”

The series first appeared on American television in 1979, having been adapted for an American audience from the Japanese series Space Battleship Yamato (1974). I remember seeing ads for the series, which must have made me curious enough to check it out.

This animated series was unlike any Saturday morning cartoon show I had ever seen before. It had a couple things in common with the original Jonny Quest series (my all-time favorite) in that it wasn’t made specifically for kids and characters could and did die. (I seem to have a weird appreciation for cartoon characters dying and yet I’ve never worked for Disney. Hmm.)

Star Blazers also had a look like no other Saturday morning cartoon show. It was my first exposure to anime and probably was for most American viewers, as well. The series was unique in that it had a continuing storyline filled with cliffhangers that flowed through the entire season. Jonny Quest didn’t even do that!

The Synopsis

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Earth ain’t lookin’ so good.

It was the year 2199, Earth had been under attack by the evil Gamilons, an alien species from beyond our solar system, since the mid 21st century. The Gamilons had been bombarding the Earth with radioactive bombs for a century and a half to destroy all life on the planet. In that time, humans had been forced to live underground. Immense cities had been constructed, but eventually the radiation was making its way underground threatening to destroy the remaining life once and for all.

It’s never explained why the Gamilons had decided to attack Earth. I guess just being evil is reason enough.

The radiation was reaching a critical point. In one year’s time, all life on Earth would be snuffed out. Earth’s meager space defense force was being decimated. When it was defeated in a great battle near Pluto, things were looking awfully bleak.

During the Battle of Pluto a strange spacecraft, not from Earth, not from Gamilon, passed through and crashed on Mars. Its sole passenger, a young and beautiful woman died shortly after the crash. She carried with her a device that held a message. A message, sent by Queen Starsha, from a far distant (148,000 light years distant) planet called Iscandar. Her message was to let the people of Earth know that Iscandar has Cosmo DNA, which could restore our planet to its proper state. But, the humans would have to travel the great expanse to Iscandar to get it.

To help the earthlings make the journey, Queen Starsha included plans for a Wave Motion engine that would make it possible to travel at warp speeds. With no other choice, the people of Earth decided to trust this alien savior and built a spacecraft with this new technology. They salvaged and refit the sunken World War II Battleship Yamato with the alien technology, which made for a very cool and unusual spaceship.

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They renamed it the Argo.

The Argo would have to travel alone through hostile space, battling Gamilons at every turn along the way. They had starfighters, space torpedoes, and deck guns for defense, but they also had the Wave Motion gun. Based on the same technology as their space warping engine, the Wave Motion gun was capable of great destruction.

The series ran 26 episodes that first season, each episode ending with the narrator pleading to Star Force, that’s what the brave space soldiers were called (too bad it wasn’t Space Force, eh?), to hurry and he let the audience know how many days the Earth had left to live. Would the Argo survive the journey and make it back in time?

Each week I would tune in, excited to see what would happen next. My dad even took to making sure I was up in time on a Saturday morning, so I wouldn’t miss out. And I think he was enjoying the show, too.

The Characters

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Star Force is led by the very capable, yet often stern, Captain Avatar. He is an experienced military man who commands the Argo and knows how to get the most out of his crew. He never shies away from making hard decisions, because he never forgets how desperate the situation is for Earth. He is also suffering from radiation sickness, which he keeps secret from his crew. Will he even survive the journey?

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Derek Wildstar is a hotshot pilot with a fiery temper. His older brother sacrificed his own life and the lives of his smaller crew in the Battle of Pluto, so that Captain Avatar and his larger crew could get back to Earth. (The needs of the many…) Young Wildstar, for the early part of the series, holds Captain Avatar responsible for his brother’s death.

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Mark Venture is a navigator who was stationed with Wildstar on Mars. He is a steadier presence and, at times, a rival of the hotshot pilot for the affections of…

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Nova is a nurse member of the bridge crew and the lone woman on the Argo. I’m not sure how many crew members there are on the ship, but I’m sure she never wanted for male suitors. However, she falls for Derek. It must be his hair.

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Dr. Sane and IQ9 throwing back some “spring water.”

Dr. Sane and IQ9 are mainly there for comic relief. Dr. Sane is the Argo’s chief medical officer and (I learned this from another blog while doing some research), in the Japanese version, a drunkard. However, in the American version, Dr. Sane is constantly drinking “spring water,” instead of sake as in the Japanese version. So, to American audiences, he’s just well hydrated. IQ9 is Dr Sane’s robotic assistant, who saves the day more than once through the series and he develops a crush on Nova. A robot with a crush on a human? That’s funny… to a kid.

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Deslok is the tyrannical leader of the Gamilons. He really doesn’t like earthlings and Star Force, in particular, but he does have respect for his sworn enemy. Deslok has a Caligula-like evilness to him. He speaks in a sweet and gentle tone, which adds to his menacing nature. He’s a great villain.

The Problems

There aren’t many problems with this series. There’s some awkwardness to the dialog, but I assume that’s mainly due to dubbing English from the original Japanese. There’s a mention of the distance of the moon Mars from the Earth that is wildly off, Venture says the distance is “thousands of light years.” And there a hilarious visual of a hot-headed Wildstar stomping away in anger after an argument with Venture.

The biggest problem is Nova being the only woman on the crew. Not only does that seem unlikely, given it’s 2199, but there’s also a certain sexist behavior toward her at times. In the first episode, she is asked to leave the room when IQ9 has information to give the men. And, later in the season, I recall a scene in which IQ9 rudely lifts Nova’s mini skirt. As if!

There are two other seasons that follow this one and both also utilize the year long beat the clock gimmick, but I think, that though those series aren’t bad, that’s going to the well two times too many.

Overall, the first Star Blazers series is exciting and fun and far more sophisticated than any other Saturday morning cartoon series of the day. I dare you to try to listen to its theme song and not feel inspired. And to not have it as an earworm for the rest of your day. Good luck.

You can watch the series on YouTube. Here’s a link to the first episode. You’ll love it! Update 8/24/18: Unfortunately several of the episodes on YouTube are not viewable in the US. Sorry, America.

Packing Peanuts!

Writer’s note: I am re-watching the series, so you may notice some corrections.

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My Three Favorite Episodes Of The Original Jonny Quest

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It has long been my favorite Saturday morning kids’ cartoon show, except it didn’t start life on Saturday mornings. Jonny Quest actually started life as a prime time animated series for a general audience. I didn’t see it when it originally aired. I was a little too young then. In fact, I wasn’t even born until the series was halfway through its original run, so I first saw it when it made its way to Saturday mornings.

This is going to a bit on the morbid side, but the main difference between the original series (which is the only version I’ll talk about, because I hated all of the other incarnations of the show) and other kids’ cartoon shows was that people died in Jonny Quest’s world. That just isn’t allowed in cartoons for kids. In fact, I recall an episode of Thundarr the Barbarian in which the “barbarian” and his team were battling several knights in shining armor. One of the enemies was punched hard enough to fall apart revealing it to be a robot. Realizing they weren’t living beings, Thundarr let his team know it was OK to stop pulling their punches. Man! I thought barbarians were always set to kill.

So, in Jonny Quest, if a jet plane blew up, we wouldn’t see the pilot parachuting to safety. If there was a gun fight, people got shot and died. There was even one episode in which Race Bannon used the plow of a bulldozer to ricochet his shot around a corner to kill a bad guy. And we know Race got him, because the fellow fell into sight having been the recipient of an incredible shot. That Race Bannon. What couldn’t he do?

Jonny Quest was also the first prime time animated series in which the characters were rendered to look like actual people. Not stylized the way the characters in its predecessor The Flintstones were depicted. The Quest characters were simplified, sure, but they had hands with five digits instead of the typical cartoon four. And they looked like people. The overall design was terrifically done by illustrator Doug Wildey. Wildey gave the series a comic book illustration style, using lots of black and varying line weight. Most animated series use a thin unvarying line, which isn’t as interesting to this viewer.

It was produced by the giants of television animation Hanna-Barbera, who had pioneered a style of animation that limited the amount of drawing that needed to be done, making a weekly animated series economically possible. And Hanna-Barbera had several series, some in prime time, others on Saturday mornings. Even with that process there would still be time crunches and at times the animation suffered.

What never suffered in the original series was the score. It was excellent. Hoyt Curtin was the composer and his musical score is among the best ever for any adventure series. It enhanced the action and set the tone so perfectly for each scene. And the opening theme is perfect.

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Watch your mouth, Race!

The series was not without its flaws. It was produced in the 1960s and wasn’t terribly sensitive in its portrayals of people who weren’t of the Western world or white. When depicting more primitive societies or Asians or Egyptians, etc. the languages spoken would just be gibberish. When issuing the series on DVD at least one line of dialogue was removed from the episode titled Pursuit of the Po-Ho. Bannon had painted himself purple in order to impersonate a god of the primitive Po-Ho people. He was attempting to instill the natives with fear. In doing so, Race called them “heathen monkeys.” That line was removed.

As an adventure series, Jonny Quest really captured my interest. The design and music were great. I loved the characters, although their dog Bandit would get rather tiring at times. All that barking. Which, incidentally, was provided by Don Messick, who was also the voice of Dr. Benton Quest for most of the series.

So, here are my Top Three Favorite Episodes:

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3) The Robot Spy (Originally aired November 6, 1964) This episode wasn’t a favorite when I was a kid, but as I got older I grew to appreciate it. It features Dr. Quest’s arch-nemesis the mysterious Dr. Zin. Zin really has it in for Quest and he wants to steal the secret of a powerful ray gun Quest is developing, so he sends in an unusual spy. It’s a robot designed so simply, it’s essentially just a large black metallic ball, that it is treated as a curiosity, which Quest brings into the secret military compound. It turns out the black ball has an eye and legs and tentacles that, when they strike the guards, can render them unconscious.

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Dr. Zin was a recurring villain. This episode was his second of three appearances and I’m certain that, had there been a second season, there would have been more Zin. My research tells me that later versions of the series featured Dr. Zin very prominently, but I don’t care about those shows. Those were made for kids.

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2) The Curse Of Anubis (Originally aired October 2, 1964) Jonny and his crew have been invited to Egypt by archeologist Ahmed Kareem, an old friend of Dr. Quest’s. Unknown to Quest, Kareem had become a radical Arab nationalist and he plans to frame Quest for the theft of ancient Egyptian treasures, which Kareem had in fact stolen. The radical believes this deception will unite the Arab nations against the Western world. However, in stealing a sculpture of the god Anubis, Kareem unknowingly causes a mummy to return from the beyond to punish those who had violated an ancient tomb.

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What I really like about this episode is the ever encroaching threat of the mummy. However, no one is aware that the mummy has been reanimated and is on their trail. In the end, when things seem most desperate for our heroes, the mummy arrives to exact justice.

This one uses Curtin’s score particularly well when building the tension of the stalking undead avenger.

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1) The Invisible Monster (Originally aired January 28, 1965) This is a popular favorite and it’s easy to understand why. Dr. Quest gets an urgent call from a scientist friend whose experiment had gone terribly wrong. Somehow he had created an invisible creature that feeds of electrical energy.

The Quest team head to the remote tropical island where Dr. Quest’s colleague had been running his experiment. But they are too late. The scientist’s lab has been destroyed and he has disappeared and is feared dead. Something has left footprints and a path of destruction in its wake. Part of that destruction is a local village of island natives.

There is so much that is cool about this episode. The invisible menace, the sounds it makes, and, when Jonny gets an idea how to make the creature visible, it looks great. A giant hump of a creature with one eye and a gaping mouth. Such a good episode.

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That first season had plenty to like: Admirable heroes, interesting villains and monsters, great futuristic gadgets, exotic locations, and plenty of adventure. All with fantastic music, great sound effects, terrific design, and people who would actually die.

If you would like to hear me and a couple friends go on about how great this series is, you can download my friend’s podcast The Assault of the Two-Headed Space Mules episode #29.

Packing Peanuts!

Update 5/25/18: It occurred to me I ought to link to the source of much of the information I related  here. It’s from a fan produced YouTube documentary about the original series. It’s in three parts and filled with lots of interesting insights. Click here to see part one.

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Scooby Doo, How Could You?

Writer’s note: The following is another blog ripped from my personal blog at dimland.com. It has been updated and rewritten just a little bit…

I’m a skeptic. What that means is I require good, scientific evidence before I accept an extraordinary claim. I’ve learned that, throughout history, ever mystery ever solved has turned out to be not magic. Not ghosts. Not demons. Not monsters. Not any paranormal or supernatural phenomenon at all. Nope. The mysteries all turn out to be something in this world and not out of this world. (Thanks to Tim Minchin and Michael Shermer for much of what I just wrote are their words.)

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The Saturday morning cartoon series Scooby Doo, Where Are You? did a lot to set a skeptical foundation for a generation of kids. Debuting in 1969, the series followed a group of four kids and their dog who traveled the countryside looking for mysteries in need of solving. These intrepid trust-funders (there was never any mention of any of them having a job) would stumble upon a mystery involving apparently supernatural causes. They would then search for clues. Chased by ghosts, witches, werewolves, and other assorted creeps, our heroes would manage to reveal the truth and catch the bad guys.

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The bad guys never turned out anything anywhere near being supernatural. It was never a ghost or a witch or a werewolf. It nearly always turned out to be someone in a costume, except that one time when it was a robot run amok in an amusement park. It’s a wonder the gang, especially Shaggy and Scooby, would continue to be scared of g-g-g-ghosts. After all the times the mystery turned out not to be supernatural, you’d think they would no longer believe in ghosts or anything similar.

I watched Scooby and the various later incarnations up until Scrappy Doo came along and ruined the show. But, even up to that point, the mysteries were always normal and natural phenomena.

In 1999 came the full-length animated special Scooby Doo and the Witch’s Ghost. A few years ago, my son was watching that adventure on DVD when I came home from work. I was shocked and disappointed. Sometime during the 30 years since Scoob and the gang debuted, the ghosts had become actual ghosts! No! Say it ain’t so.

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The show featured a grrl rock band called The Hex Girls. They referred to themselves as “eco-Goths.” From what I could tell that meant they were rockin’ girls that liked to look like the undead and sing about saving the earth. All the Goth look with none of the nihilism.

One of the group was Wiccan. No problem. But the show kept treating Wicca as though it was an ethnic group and not a religion. I may be wrong, but I don’t think Wicca can be considered an ethnicity.

But, I’m just picking nits.

What really bothered me was the fact Hanna-Barbera, the producers of Scooby Doo, thought it would be a good idea to drop the no supernatural policy and have an actual ghost witch in the story. My skeptic’s heart was broken.

The first two thirds of the show followed the original Scooby Doo ethos by having bad guys in costumes using trickery to scare people, but in act three it went supernatural. A character who turned out to be a double-crossing villain found a book of spells and released the witch’s ghost from whatever limbo in which it had been imprisoned. This time it wasn’t smoke bombs and mirrors or any other tricks. This time it was magic. Actual magic.

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That’s not smoke and mirrors, it’s an actual ghost witch. For shame!

It took the Wiccan girl, who was pure of heart, to read the spell that re-imprisoned the witch’s ghost. Mystery solved.

I was appalled. I explained to my son how it was wrong for Scooby to have been promoting the supernatural, after having shown kids that such mysteries always have a real world explanation. Scooby had taught kids that the supernatural, the paranormal, and the unexplained are merely mysteries that can be solved without invoking magic.

I don’t have a problem with other TV shows and movies, for kids or adults, indulging in supernatural fantasy. I am a a fan of The X-Files, Jonny Quest (the first season), Harry Potter, Dracula, Frankenstein, haunted house stories, etc. Those shows always allowed for the supernatural to be real (despite Scully’s protestations). Scooby Doo didn’t accept the magic when it started and for years after. But when Scooby Doo went supernatural, I felt betrayed.

Scooby Doo, how could you?!

Packing Peanuts!

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