A whimsical Cat in the Hat in school play
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    Do you remember Miss Frances’ Ding Dong School?

    Captain Kangaroo was the morning man from my childhood. I remember well his mutton sideburns, flabby neck and flat-top hair, along with his sidekick Mr. Green Jeans.

    So, when I came across two books in a box at auction recently written by someone named Miss Frances, they were a mystery to me. I knew the books were old because children don’t call their elders by the title “Miss” these days.

    Us baby boomers remember when the lady next day was Miss So-n-So (always the first or last name where I came from), and her husband was Mr. So-n-So. Those were titles of respect that we knew to use when addressing or mentioning someone much older than us.

    These two children's books were my introduction to Miss Frances and her "Ding Dong School."

    I opened one book titled “Mr. Meyer’s Cow” and read that Miss Frances was actually Dr. Frances R. Horwich, “one of the country’s foremost educators” and the producer of her own TV show “Ding Dong School.”

    I had never heard of Miss Frances or her program, so I looked for a publication date on the books to see when the show was on TV. Both were from the mid-1950s, meaning the show was on around the same time as Captain Kangaroo. My CBS affiliate station, though, didn’t carry it (probably because it was an NBC show, as I learned later).

    Both books had some wear and tear (the back had torn off “Truck”), indicating that they had been read a lot but cared for. In each, Miss Frances pointed out the lessons that each was meant to impart.

    My curiosity piqued, I Googled to find out more about her, and learned much about a woman who seemed to have gotten lost among Captain Kangaroo, Mister Rogers and Sesame Street. In fact, hers was among the first education programs on TV for preschoolers and other children. She could be called a pioneer who got lost in the dust – a precursor to the others, some of whom apparently picked up her style of talking directly to children.

    Horwich had both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education, had taught school in Chicago and headed education departments at two colleges. She was tapped by Judith Cary Waller, a pioneer in radio and TV programming (she brought the original white Amos ‘n Andy to her Chicago station), to help put together the “Ding Dong School.”

    The half-hour program was an instant hit, probably because there was nothing like it in 1952. Miss Frances began each episode by ringing a bell, and talking to children as if they were there with her and not hundreds of miles away. She told them stories and worked on activities with them, always with a lesson to be learned. It was a simple program with very little gadgetry.

    Television, she said, should offer enlightenment to children (she wasn’t above pushing sponsors’ products, however).

    Inside front pages from "Mr. Meyer's Cow" by Miss Frances.

    I watched a black-and-white episode on the web and saw a matronly woman who talked kindly, reassuringly and slowly to children as she demonstrated how to make the age-old peanut butter sandwich with a twist (peanut butter, lettuce and banana). The show looked old-fashioned and dated, and likely would not be a exciting and fast-paced enough for today’s children.

    “Ding Dong School” was immensely popular, and Miss Frances won a Peabody Award in 1953. NBC liked its results so much that a short time later, the network picked up the show, broadcasting it at 10 a.m. on weekday mornings. It was said to have been seen by more than three million people in 36 markets.

    Miss Frances’ show seemed to have been short-lived, on the air a little more than a decade (Captain Kangaroo was the longest running for 30 years, starting in 1955). Ding Dong ran on NBC until 1956 when it was canceled. Horwich was then named supervisor of children’s programming for the network.

    Inside pages from "The Big Coal Truck."

    The program aired locally in Chicago until 1959 and then was syndicated until the mid-1960s. One site said that she had kept the rights to the show and syndicated it. Another noted that she had rebroadcast rights to many of her shows.

    Miss Frances died in 2001 at age 93 in Scottsdale, AZ. About three years later, many of her items were auctioned off, including inscribed Ding Dong bells, a Peanuts cartoon signed by admirer Charles Schulz, recordings and photos. Her stash also included some of her Ding Dong School Books.

    The books at auction were among the two dozen or more she wrote that were published by Rand McNally from 1953-1956. She also wrote two books for parents. The books opened me up to a new author and personality.

    Happy to meet you, Miss Frances. Were you a Captain Kangaroo or Miss Frances kid?

    A chair that was among the items auctioned from Miss Frances' estate in 2003.

     

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