TV Education for Preschool Boomers: Ding Dong School vs. Romper Room

Before there was a Big Bird or Mister Rogers, and even before there was a Captain Kangaroo, there was Miss Frances. As the very first generation born after the War was growing, right along with television, many felt the medium could become a great tool for education. Indeed, networks were charged with acting in the public good, and educational programming’s time had come. Dr. Frances Horwath, a life-long educator, saw the need and originated the preschool children’s program, Miss Frances’ Ding Dong School, in Chicago in the early 1950s. It quickly gained in popularity and by 1952 was broadcast nationwide, Monday through Friday on NBC. The show’s run continued through 1956, when it was replaced by The Price Is Right. Owning the rights to the program, Dr. Horwath continued the show in syndication until 1965.

She is said to have originated many aspects of children’s TV programming that are now taken for granted, especially speaking directly to children through the screen as if they were present in the studio. NBC made her the head of children’s TV programming in 1954. There she was known for her uncompromising spirit for education and children, refusing to air any commercial that advertised a product a child could not use, or that in her estimation glorified violence. Ultimately she resigned her post over clashes with the network.


Yes, there was a time when age and looks wasn’t a major consideration for being a television host. But as you watch this amazing clip, if there is anyone out there who has actually made or eaten one of these sandwiches, Mister Boomer would love to hear about it!

Mister Boomer does have some recollection of watching Miss Frances. As part of the second wave of boomers, he came of preschool age right about the time the show ended its national broadcast run. His brother would have watched the show, so it was most definitely on in the Mister Boomer household. What creates a bigger memory for Mister Boomer is Romper Room, a program that was a competitor for a while, but could be called a direct descendant of Ding Dong School. It ran from 1953 to 1994 in one form or another, and is poised for a return to the airwaves for a new generation.

The show had a group of kids in attendance as the hostess of the show pretty much ran a kindergarten class of games, exercises and songs. (If Bend and stretch/Reach for the sky/Stand on tippy toes oh so high stays with you the rest of the day, don’t blame Mister Boomer.) Each episode pushed the prevailing themes of Eisenhower America at the time, starting with the Pledge of Allegiance, which had just added the phrase, “under God,” in 1954. When cookies and milk were served, first the hostess would have the children say a prayer. Continuing as a preschool indoctrinator and national moral compass, each show had a list of “do-bee” behavioral tips for children, as well as a “don’t-bee” list. Live characters in bee costumes represented Mr. Do-Bee and Mr. Don’t-Bee.

Mister Boomer has a family connection to the show that was broadcast in his area; his cousin appeared on TV with the group of children for one week. Though broadcast nationally, the show was also syndicated — that allowed affiliates the option of running their own telecasts. As a result, several women played the part of the hostess, all taking on the salutatory title of “Miss.” Nationally, the hostess was Miss Nancy. In one particularly memorable episode for Mister B’s family, the teacher/hostess (her name at his local affiliate at the time escapes Mister Boomer), showed pictures and talked to the children about the difference between camels and dromedaries. “The dromedary is fast, isn’t he?” she asked rhetorically. Mister B’s cousin raised his hand and she called on him. “Not as fast as our station wagon,” intoned Mister B’s cousin. It’s a story that still makes the rounds at family gatherings.

At the end of each episode, the hostess would grab the “Magic Mirror,” which was more of a spinning fan than a mirror. Looking “through” it, she gazed out to the TV audience to name several children who had viewed the program and presumably had fun that day. Many children thought she did actually see them when she said their first names. The TV station encouraged children to send in their first names so the hostess could recite a list at the end of each show.

How about it, boomers? Do either of these programs elicit good or bad memories for you?

Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma

TV commercial makers know a good song when they hear one. It has come to Mister Boomer’s attention that recently there has been a virtual plethora of TV commercials that use songs from the boomer era. One of the latest to cross Mister B’s path is the song Brand New Key. Sung by Melanie in 1972, it now backs a Hewlett Packard commercial.

Melanie was one of those artists who had been around forever, playing with some of the greats of the time. In fact, she happened to be on the bill at Woodstock, yet comparably few people knew much about her until her first U.S. hit, Candles in the Rain, in 1971. A year later, Brand New Key was released. Some radio stations refused to play it because they perceived the lyrics to be a double entendre for sexual innuendo. It became a hit anyway, possibly — who knows? — because of it. (For Mister B, the song was pretty high on his dislike list, preferring her ironic Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma. Besides, he is still trying to figure out the lyrics to Louie Louie.)

Many of us gave a mighty boomer “right on” to artists like Bruce Springsteen for refusing to have his songs used in commercials. The whole 60s anti-establishment thing seemed the direct opposite of this type of commercialization. The words that often came to mind by boomers when referring to artists who allowed their songs to be licensed were, “sell out” and “sacrilegious.”

Now that decades have passed, it’s no longer a handful of songs that are being pressed into the service of commerce. Songs by Bobby Darin, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop (did Carnaval actually listen to the lyrics to that song?), The Shirelles, The Yardbirds, Johnny Nash, The Kinks, Herman’s Hermits, The Ronettes, The Turtles, The Fifth Dimension, The Isley Brothers, The Partridge Family, The Association, The Spencer Davis Group (that one really hurt Mister B!), Barry White, Led Zeppelin, Donovan, Al Green and The Beatles, to name a few, have made their way onto our TV screens to sell everything from cars to cruises, mops to allergy medicines, and everything in between.


Double whammy: The Easy Rider himself and Gimme Some Lovin. Oh, the horror!

In case you haven’t played your scratchy Spencer Davis Group 45 in a while, here’s a version in a rare, priceless video:

In some marketing-universe way, it probably makes sense. After all, the boomer generation is the largest demographic the marketing world has ever seen. Still, many of these commercials aren’t aimed at boomers. It appears they are aiming at the two generations after the boomers — today’s homemakers and parents. What can we make of that?

In days of yore, people would play the Victrola in their homes, when they could afford the contraptions, at designated times and special occasions. For our parents’ generation, they most often heard new songs on the radio and in clubs. Boomers kept the radio tradition, but with the advent of rock ‘n roll, bought records to play at home in astonishing numbers. Once boomers started families of their own, their music went along with them. Many a child now in their twenties or thirties grew up listening to the great music that we boomers put forth, and thus will recognize the tunes on TV.

Mister Boomer has a friend whose son discovered Jethro Tull and King Crimson in his teenage years. Another swears her daughter’s favorite bands are The Beatles and The Mamas and the Papas. Many a child of boomer parents loads sixties music onto their phones and iPods, not because they have to, but rather because they like them.

So what are we to make of boomer music used in TV commercials? In an era when a new song used in a commercial can often mark it as an upcoming hit, the use of oldies — OUR oldies — obviously isn’t going away any time soon. Maybe we should look on the bright side. With the songs only a quick download away, the music of our era is alive and kicking, and some of those musicians even get to benefit from the uptick in interest.

Mister B will try and lighten up, too. He is now reminded that he has to go online to buy a few songs that didn’t make it to his vinyl record collection.

What do you think of boomer songs used in TV commercials?