Central Ohio has been blessed with excellent children’s television programming over the years. National shows like “Captain Kangaroo,” “Mister Rogers” and “Sesame Street” have been supplemented by local programs such as “Romper Room” and “Luci’s Toyshop.” But before all of these there was “Aunt Fran.”
In July of 1944 DeWitt Norris purchased the Howland Hardware Store from Jess Howland and moved his family from Akron to Plain City, where they purchased a house at 179 E. Main St. His family consisted of his wife, Frances Wilking Norris and their son George, who had been born in 1937. A daughter, Marilyn, was born in December of 1944.
Frances Wilking and her twin sister Dorothy were born in Zanesville on Oct. 6, 1911. Frances graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1933 with a major in Speech and Dramatics.
M. DeWitt Norris was born Aug. 1, 1905 in Frazeysburg, Ohio, and attended Ohio State University. He was working at the First National Bank of Zanesville when he met Frances. They were married Feb. 6, 1936.
DeWitt worked for Goodyear Aircraft in Akron from 1942-1944 during World War II before coming to Plain City. The Norrises were active in community life, being members of the Plain City Methodist Church, the Masons and Eastern Star, the Lions Club, DAC and DAR.
After the war, as the new medium of television began to become part of every family’s life, Frances Norris noticed that there was little or no original programming for children. Her experience as a school teacher and librarian and her theater training gave her the perfect background to design a program that would engage children at home as well as those in the studio.
WBNS-TV, Channel 10, began broadcasting in October of 1949. A year later, “Aunt Fran and Her Playmates” debuted, beginning as a 15-minute program airing five days a week. Each program included a story, fingerplays and a craft, and mentioned children having birthdays and those who were ill. Later, viewer demand led to the program being lengthened to half an hour and then 45 minutes.
Aunt Fran became quite a local celebrity. In August of 1952 she made a personal appearance at Lazarus, drawing the largest crowd ever for a children’s event. The ushers stopped counting when the crowd reached 1,000.
Those of us who remember Aunt Fran can tell you all about “happy good-bye faces” (drawn on her hand at the end of every show) and the “Wishing Well.” Names of the children who were ill were read out and we all sang the get-well song — “We dip into the Wishing Well. We wish that you would all be well.”
At the Plain City Historical Society, we have several boxes full of “Aunt Fran” material, including her notes and plans for the early shows, copies of the Purpose and Summary which she prepared when presenting the idea to the Channel 10 management, letters from mothers, texts of fingerplays, etc. We also have the pale green apron she wore, with “WBNS-TV” and “10” all over it. She later had a dress with a similar design. And we have the original Wishing Well. If you have fallen victim to the flu, send us your name and we will sing the song for you.
“Aunt Fran” was on the air from 1950-1957. It garnered national attention and was featured in articles in several television magazines. There was some talk of the program being broadcast nationally, but that would have involved moving the Norris family to New York, which they were not prepared to do. Television producers in other cities took note of the success of the program and developed their own local versions.
After her retirement from television, Fran Norris taught in the Jonathan Alder Schools and went back to an early avocation, needlepoint. She won prizes for her canvas embroidery work at the Plain City Fair and the Ohio State Fair, and taught classes in her home for a number of years. The Historical Society has several samples of her work.
Fran Norris died in August of 1988, and her husband in July of 1994, but for her many fans, Aunt Fran is an indelible part of our childhood.
Rosemary Anderson is the vice president of the Plain City Historical Society.