DING DONG SCHOOL!
Before there was Sesame Street…
Before there was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood …
Before there was Romper Room …
Before there was Captain Kangaroo …
There was Miss Frances and Ding Dong School. The show not only was the first in its genre, it literally created children’s television—and set the bar very high, too. Let’s hop into the Wayback Machine and revisit 1952.
Television was brand new then. TV stations were launching all over the country and big, cumbersome TV sets were popping up inside more and more American homes.
Judith Waller was public service and educational programming director at WNBQ-TV in Chicago. Most local stations produced hours of their own programming daily, way more than they do today. As Waller was talking with her boss one day, he noted that with the Baby Boom in full swing there were more than 235,000 pre-school children in the Chicago area. Then he pointedly asked, “What are you going to do about it?”
Waller rolled into action. She devised a nursery school program to teach kids watching at home. Because viewers would be little people, the show utilized six cameras that shot from angles toddlers would see. All props would be easily recognizable to little children.
Auditions were held for the program’s host. Frances Horwich was one of the educators who tried out for the gig. A woman of a certain age with a kindly disposition, she headed a local college’s education department. She lacked showbiz experience, but had once taught nursery school. While the thought of being alone on set for a full hour each day scared her, she thought, “Why not?” and gave it a try. She was soon hired to be “Miss Frances,” then successfully negotiated to own the rights to the show. When the producer’s three year-old son was told each episode would begin with an old-fashioned teacher’s desk bell ringing, he blurted out, “Ding Dong Show!” And so they had the program’s title.
A pilot episode was filmed. One horrified station executive said the show was so bad it would kill television and make TV viewers listen to radio again. So it was decided to air the program just once. WNBQ didn’t issue a press release announcing it or promote it in any way. They figured they’d let it die of its own embarrassment.
And so Ding Ding School debuted on Thursday morning, October 2, 1952. Primitive by today’s hi-tech standards, it began with closeup of Miss Frances’ hand ringing the aforementioned bell, followed by a cheesy studio organ playing the show’s equally cheesy theme song. Miss Frances sang in a warbly voice that was better suited for a little country church choir than television:
“I’m your school bell
ding dong ding;
boys and girls
all hear me ring.
Every time I
ding dong ding,
come with me
to play and sing.”
Then she jumped into the lesson. Miss Frances talked like she was speaking to actual children. “How are you, boys and girls? What are you doing today? (Pause.) Really? That’s good!”
WNBQ’s big brass cringed for an hour until the show ended. No one expected what came next. The station’s switchboard was flooded with more than 150 calls in 45 minutes as parents told how their kids loved the program. That was nothing compared to the tidal wave of enthusiastic fan mail that followed.
Ding Dong School instantly became part of WNBQ’s morning lineup five days a week. It was such a hit, NBC picked it up in 1953 and broadcast it nationally. Miss Frances even became a TV star. More than 12,000 children and parents attended a promotional event in Boston. She was stopped by adoring fans 18 times daily. When she and her husband flew to Florida for a vacation, kids on the plane recognized her—and sang the show’s theme song over and over all the way to Miami. (Likely making it history’s most miserable flight for the passengers.)
But TV is a cutthroat business. Despite its success, NBC cancelled Ding Dong School in 1956 for the more lucrative The Price Is Right. The show continued in syndication until 1965.
Miss Frances eventually moved to Arizona where she dabbled in local public television until her death in 2001 at age 94.
Children’s television is one of broadcasting’s few success stories. And it’s largely due to the huge influence of a single teacher and her little bell.
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