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Frances Horwich, former chair of the Department of education, Roosevelt University

Roosevelt professor was pioneer of children’s TV

Posted: 11/07/2013

By Laura Janota

Before Sesame Street was conceived, a Roosevelt education professor enraptured millions of preschoolers weekday mornings as host of NBC-TV’s Ding Dong School.“Miss Frances,” as Frances Horwich, a Roosevelt faculty member from 1946-56, was called, would ring an old-fashioned school bell and sometimes sing a song – “I’m your school bell! Sing dong ding…” as the wildly popular show began.

An advocate for early-childhood education who lobbied for passage of an Illinois law permitting children to enter school at the age of four, Horwich won a 1953 George Foster Peabody award for distinguished achievement in radio and TV for her role as host of the pioneering children’s show that premiered on Chicago affiliate WNBQ in 1952.

Horwich was chair of the Department of Education at Roosevelt when she received a call from an NBC producer to discuss over lunch the show that was named by the producer’s three-year-old son. However, instead of going to lunch, she mistakenly was sent to an audition. By the time the error was noted halfway through the audition, Horwich had won the job as star of Ding Dong School.

“Wasn’t it fun to finger paint yesterday? Wasn’t it?” she would ask while seated on a hassock with gold fish, finger paints, dolls and a sprouting sweet potato as props – all captured by a single camera positioned at eye-level for three and four-year olds.

“And were you careful not to touch anything with your hands when you asked mother to help you clean up? Were you? That’s fine.”

The half-hour Ding Dong School initially aired for four seasons. “She imbues in the youngsters a sense of friendliness, confidence and faith that is truly magical television,” Jack Gould, a TV critic for the New York Times wrote at the time Horwich won the Peabody award. “She is a teacher, yes, but she is also a very genuine friend of the tots who sit entranced before the receivers.”

“Frances Horwich made a difference not only for Roosevelt students but also in a much broader way was a pioneer in children’s TV,” said University Historian Lynn Weiner. In addition to her role on the television program, Horwich was president of the National Association for Nursery education and author of a pamphlet titled “Nursery School Education First, Then Kindergarten.”

By 1954, Ding Dong School, which moved to Hollywood, had an audience of approximately 6.5 million viewers; Horwich was fielding at least 50 requests a week to speak before parent-teacher groups and at schools; and she had received 140,000 fan letters and 7,000 Christmas cards in 1953 alone, according to a news report.

Horwich, who died in 2001 at age 93, said Ding Dong School was useful because it “gives many children benefit of a nursery school who otherwise couldn’t go.” She also believed the show was beneficial to parents because it could “help them understand their children.”