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August 2009

Miss Frances' Ding Dong School

Miss-frances-horwich Like other “graduates” of Ding Dong School, just thinking about the show and its motherly host, Miss Frances, gives me a warm and safe feeling.  Airing nationally from 1952 to 1956 and in syndication until 1965, Ding Dong School set the standard for TV shows aimed at preschoolers and was a clear influence on Mr. Rogers and other shows that followed in its footsteps.

The show was simplicity itself.  Its only host/character/performer was Dr. Frances Rappaport Horwich (“Miss Frances”), head of the education department at Chicago’s Roosevelt College.   With her ease in front of the camera and lack of self-consciousness, Dr. Horwich was a natural on TV.  She talked directly to the camera, addressing the home viewers as if they were there in the room with her, even asking questions and waiting for the response.  I know that I felt that she was talking directly to me.  She had a wonderfully calm, gentle, yet lively way of speaking, and just exuded maternal warmth and caring.  Like Mr. Rogers after her, she didn’t talk down to her young viewers but always addressed them with respect and dignity. 

Like any good preschool, the show presented a mix of education and play. Miss Frances talked about some of the new experiences and challenges that preschoolers would be facing, like going to the dentist, and told them what to expect.   She showed them how to play games or do various arts and crafts activities.  

One of the most wonderful things about Ding Dong School came at the end of the show, when Miss Frances asked her young viewers to go get whichever adult was at home with them and bring them to the TV (of course most moms did not work outside the home in those days).  Miss Frances would then tell the children to go and play, so that she could talk privately to Mom.  Miss Frances would tell Mom about what she and the children had talked about and done during the show, so that Mom would be prepared for any follow-up questions her child might have or requests to play the games or do the activities that were covered during that day’s show.  But she would also talk more broadly to parents about preschoolers' educational, social, and developmental needs and interests, and give them suggestions and pointers about how to address these needs.  So Ding Dong School was designed as an educational show for parents as much as kids.  

Though Miss Frances didn't seem to mind selling Kix on the air, she later quit her job as head of children's programming at NBC over her discomfort with the increasing commercialism and decreasing educational focus of children's TV.  

Seeing videos of the show today, one has to marvel at its slow and gentle pace.  Would today’s toddlers sit through three minutes of Miss Frances blowing bubbles with a bubble pipe?  I sure hope they would. 

You can read more about Ding Dong School in The Golden Age of Chicago Children's Television

Andy's Gang

If Salvador Dali had decided to create a kids' TV show, it would have been Andy’s Gang, probably the strangest and scariest show I remember watching as a very young child.  There was something surreal and creepy about the show, which was sponsored by Buster Brown shoes and started with a shot of the inside of a shoe with the Buster Brown logo, which featured a live little boy with long blond hair and hat (presumably Buster himself) and his dog.  The show was not broadcast live but was one of the first kids’ shows filmed in Hollywood.  Using the "magic" of film, the show employed a variety of cheesy special effects, allowing characters and objects to suddenly appear or disappear or change form.

I didn’t see the original version of the show, which was hosted by Smilin’ Ed McConnell and was based on his popular radio show.  When McConnell died of a heart attack in 1954, he was replaced as host by the folksy character actor Andy Devine, and the show was renamed “Andy’s Gang”.  It ran on the New York City NBC affiliate until 1960, with a brief network run on NBC in 1957-58.

The show seemed to be taking place in a theater, with Andy and the other characters (mostly puppets and some live animals) on a stage, and an audience of kids sitting in the theater seats.  However, the reaction shots of the audience laughing and shrieking had been filmed separately and were edited into the show (they were always the same shots).  The show began with Andy sitting in a big easy chair reading from a book, Andy's Stories, which were illustrated by film clips.   During the show there were also filmed segments about an Indian boy named Gunga and his friend Rama, who were often shown out in the jungle dealing with wild elephants or other threats to their village.    

The main character on the show was Froggy, a rubbery frog hand puppet that lived in a grandfather clock and would magically appear when Andy Devine said the words, “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!”   There would be a twanging sound and Froggy would suddenly appear, saying “Hiya kids! Hiya!  Hiya!” in a weird voice that scared me. He was a rascal who usually misbehaved while Andy wasn’t looking.  Froggy had some kind of magical power over people, since he could get them to smash cream pies into their own faces or do other silly or bizarre things. Froggy would engage in increasingly wilder shenanigans as the studio audience shrieked and howled louder and louder, until finally Froggy would begin to vibrate and then suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke. 

Other regular characters were Midnight the Cat and Squeaky the Mouse. Midnight, who looked like a real big black cat but was probably a puppet, would sometimes operate an organ grinder.  If she liked something, she would say “Nice” in a simpering meow-like voice.  Midnight also scared me.  There was something creepy and menacing about her lifelike appearance. 

Does anyone else remember watching this show as a child?  Were you as creeped out by it as I was? 

To see more of Andy's Gang on DVD, try Andy's Gang or  Hiya Kids!  A 50's Saturday Morning Box .     


The Howdy Doody Show


“Say kids, what time is it?” 

If you’re anywhere in the vicinity of my age group, you know the answer to that question automatically:  “It’s Howdy Doody Time!” 

Featuring the red-headed, freckle-faced, iconic all-American boy marionette, his human sidekick Buffalo Bill, and a gang of other puppets and people, Howdy Doody was a huge hit on NBC in the 1950’s, even entering the age of color television before sadly going off the air in 1960.  The show was set in the fictional small town of Doodyville and featured a live studio audience of young children, called the Peanut Gallery.  Each show began with Buffalo Bob asking, "Say kids, what time is it?" and the kids yelling in unison, "It's Howdy Doody Time!" Then the kids all sang the show's theme song (to the tune of "Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay").


Even now, when I hear the names of some of the other characters on the show, I can clearly see them in my mind’s eye:  the funny expertly-handled marionettes Phineas T. Bluster, Dilly Dally, and Flub-a-dub; the live characters, native Americans Chief Thunderthud (who originated the exclamation “Kawabonga!”) and Princess Summerfall Winterspring of the Tinka Tonka tribe, and of course Clarabell the clown. 

Next to Buffalo Bob, Clarabell was probably the most prominent and beloved live performer on the show. Played by actor Bob Keeshan, who later went on to become Captain Kangaroo, Clarabell didn’t speak but communicated via body language, honking horns, and an always ready seltzer bottle that he (she?) didn’t hesitate to use on others.  Though I didn’t see the final episode of the show myself, that was the first and only time that Clarabell talked, when he/she sadly and quietly said “Good-bye, kids” at the end of the program.  Do any of you remember seeing this episode?  How did it make you feel? 

You can see many of the elements of the Howdy Doody Show in Sesame Street and other subsequent kids’ shows – the little town (though in a country setting, not an urban one) populated by a diverse and rich mix of unusual,  even eccentric puppet and human characters, with the humans interacting with the puppets as if they were real.  The Howdy Doody Show also mixed education with entertainment, using some of its skits to teach moral and practical lessons.   And, despite the many pranks and pratfalls that made the studio audience shriek with laughter, it had a gentleness and sweetness to it that was replicated in later shows like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. 

To see the Howdy Doody Show, check out these DVD’s: The Howdy Doody Show – 40-episode collection ,   The Best of Howdy Doody – 20 episodes . Say Kids What Time Is It? It's Howdy Doody Time: The Lost Episodes (2006). 

To read about the Howdy Doody Show, try these books:  Say Kids! What Time is It? Notes From the Peanut Gallery (Hardcover) , Howdy and Me (Plume) (Paperback) , Howdy Doody: Collector's Reference and Trivia Guide (Paperback) .