As you all may remember from my fascination with the somewhat corny and somewhat terrifying pilot Rosie, I love forgotten classic TV oddities. And recently, I discovered another while browsing the Internet Archive — a show not quite as odd as Rosie but just as cheesy.
Ding Dong School was an NBC program marketed as “the nursery school of the air” — a program aimed at young children which was somewhat educational and showed the kids activities that they could do at home. It had a catchy theme tune…
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!
Ding… dong… ding… dong… ding!
…and a host, Miss Frances, who thoroughly embodied the stereotype of a kind, middle-aged elementary school teacher. Miss Frances always spoke directly to the camera as though it was a child, having a one-sided, instructional conversation, pausing for the child on the other side of the television to talk back at her.
One episode of this series is available on the Internet Archive, originally aired in July of 1953. The episode covers a lot of ground: a discussion of what dentists do; a bubble-blowing demonstration; a few poem read-alongs*; a Kix advertisement in which Miss Frances shows off breakfasts that combine the cereal with various fruits; a handkerchief-folding demonstration**; and finally, a demonstration of how to bounce a ball.
*Miss Frances reads “The Little Turtle” and “The Moon’s the North Wind’s Cookie” by Vachel Lindsay plus “My Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson
**A handkerchief is folded into a rabbit shape and a cradle shape. Miss Frances encourages the children to borrow a handkerchief from the man of the house when he gets home from work and show off their new knowledge.
After the kids have their fun, Miss Frances addresses the parents, telling them what has been learned in the episode and encouraging them to help the children make use of what they’ve learned. She also delivers another Kix advertisement, with the same bowls of cereal and fruit, but takes on the role of “expert” to convince the parents that Kix is the very best breakfast they can provide.
Miss Frances and her Ding Dong School were a simplistic predecessor to children’s programming like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. No fancy sets, props or toys — just a woman sitting in front of a plain background, using books and household items as her tools of instruction. The delivery of Mister Rogers certainly seems to have been influenced by Frances, as he also addresses the camera directly, making the young viewer feel as though they are in the Neighborhood.
Miss Frances herself, Frances Horwich, was a truly fascinating character behind-the-scenes. She earned a Master’s in education at Columbia University and a doctorate at Northwestern. She was the head of the Roosevelt College department of education. Beyond her impressive education, she was a Peabody Award winner and a woman of steadfast morals, refusing to advertise toys that were too violent or products that were not of use to children.
In the time of Ding Dong School, children’s programming was popular, but most of it consisted of skits, music and fictional stories (Howdy Doody) or shows crafted simply to promote a product (The Magic Clown, created to sell taffy). Though I’m not sure if Miss Frances was the first, her show certainly is an early example of a type of children’s programming that would continue to grow in popularity and in numbers in the decades that followed her. She was a true pioneer of educational programs, and I’m kind of surprised it took me 23 years of life and a random Internet Archive browse to hear of her!