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?