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Thomas Yohe; Co-Created 'Schoolhouse Rock'

Obituaries

December 26, 2000|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thomas G. Yohe, who helped give the post-baby boom generation jazzy mantras about multiplication and grammar as co-creator of television's Emmy-winning "Schoolhouse Rock" cartoons, has died.

Yohe, 63, had pancreatic cancer and died Thursday in Norwalk, Conn., said his wife, Diane.

Yohe and partner George Newall produced more than 40 three-minute animated features under the banner "Schoolhouse Rock," which ran from 1973 to 1985, sandwiched between Saturday morning cartoon shows on ABC. The series was reprised in the 1990s and new segments were commissioned.

The educational series has been called the "Howdy Doody" of the "baby bust" generation, today's twentysomethings who grew up memorizing such catchy lyrics as "Conjunction junction, what's your function?" Gen-Xer Winona Ryder and friends burst out in their own rendition of the classic song in the 1994 movie "Reality Bites."

Yohe contributed the drawings on which the animated characters were based and also collaborated with singer-songwriter Bob Dorough on some songs. He wrote one song, "Tyrannosaurus Debt"--about the history of the national debt--on his own.

For the song, he sketched a dinosaur eating money behind the Capitol dome. "It was a wonderful idea," said Newall, his longtime collaborator. "That's what he would do. He was a terrific idea guy. He was never without a Pentel in his hand."

Yohe was an art director at a New York advertising agency, McCaffrey & McCall, in 1971 when his boss, David McCall, hatched the idea that became "Schoolhouse Rock." McCall had noticed that his son had no problem reciting the lyrics to Rolling Stones songs but struggled to memorize the multiplication tables. So he challenged his co-creative directors, Yohe and Newall, to set the multiplication tables to music with the idea that they might produce it as an educational recording.

Newall, who was an accomplished jazz pianist, contacted Dorough, who had demonstrated talent for turning ostensibly dreary topics like the "Do Not Remove This Tag" label on pillows into music. Dorough delved into his daughter's math textbook and came back with "Three Is a Magic Number," a song with lyrics so visual that Yohe started doodling as soon as he heard it.

"[Yohe] said it would be fun to do a cartoon on," recalled Newall. A co-worker at their agency knew that ABC was looking for an educational project and suggested that Yohe and Newall produce a storyboard and pitch the concept to the network's head of children's programming, a young executive named Michael Eisner.

ABC Buys Idea of Catchy Math Tunes

Yohe drew a storyboard featuring a magician and brought it with a demo tape of Dorough's composition to a meeting with Eisner. The ABC executive also invited legendary animator Chuck Jones, who was looking for material for a children's anthology show for ABC. At the end of the presentation, Eisner asked Jones what he thought. Jones' response was emphatic: "Buy it!"

Eisner, who would later become chairman and chief executive of the Walt Disney Co., now the parent company of ABC, did just that. "Multiplication Rock," an 11-segment series, was born, with tunes and lyrics by Dorough and animation layouts by Yohe, composed on his kitchen table. The show became a family affair for Yohe, whose children provided some of the voices for "Schoolhouse Rock" characters.

Yohe and Newall kept their day jobs in advertising while working on "Schoolhouse Rock." They eventually formed their own company and produced other educational series, including "Drawing Power," which earned Yohe an Emmy for animation.

A native of Flushing, N.Y., who grew up on Long Island, Yohe attended Syracuse University, graduating with a bachelor's degree in fine arts. He worked for the Young & Rubicam advertising agency before joining McCaffrey & McCall, where he and Newall created a high-profile campaign in the 1970s for an after-shave called Hai Karate. He was working at Grey Advertising in New York when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Yohe did not realize the impact of "Schoolhouse Rock" until several years after it went off the air, his wife said. In the spring of 1990, Yohe and Newall were invited to participate in a senior symposium at Dartmouth College. They were astonished to walk into an overflow crowd of 900 undergraduates, each of whom seemed to know by heart the lyrics to "Conjunction Junction," "Zero My Hero," "Sufferin' Til Suffrage" and other hits from the series.

In 1994, a Chicago theater group produced a musical revue based on the series, which ran off-Broadway and toured across the country.

Songs from the series have been recorded by alternative rock bands such as Blind Melon and the Lemonheads. In 1996, Rhino Records released a four-CD box set of 50 original "Schoolhouse Rock" songs.

Devotees told Yohe and Newall how the songs changed their lives. An immigrant told them she owed her U.S. citizenship to a "Schoolhouse Rock" song featuring the preamble to the Constitution. Copies of a segment on the legislative process called "I'm Just a Bill" were often requested by lobbyists who wanted to use the piece to instruct their staffs.

"Who knew?" Yohe told the Dallas Morning News in 1996. "We were just having fun doing it, and it had an impact on a generation."

In addition to his wife, Yohe is survived by six children, a brother and four grandchildren.

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