Fran Norris (1911-1988) (maiden name Wilking) was an American children's television star, producer and pioneer. She was born in Zanesville, OH and graduated from Ohio-Wesleyan University in 1933 with a degree in education.
Norris married M. DeWitt Norris and settled in Plain City, Ohio. She had two children, George and Marilyn. When her daughter was 4 years old she noticed her daughter singing along to songs she heard on television. With that as her inspiration, Mrs. Norris began to wonder if children could learn other things via TV besides just jingles and the song hits of the day.
After formulating her idea for an educational children's TV program, Norris took her concept to various TV stations in the Ohio area before WBNS-TV in Columbus agreed to take a chance.
Though Norris had no TV experience, no money and the program no sponsor, she and her show would nevertheless premiere, live, in 1950.
Originally titled "TV Babysitter," Norris would later have the name changed to "Aunt Fran and Her Playmates" to better reflect the content and purpose of the program.
Each episode of "Aunt Fran" (originally fifteen minutes in length, running from 11 to 11:15 each morning) consisted of three regular segments: First, there was a "finger play": A short tale, often in verse, acted out with large, yet simple, hand gestures. It was designed to help children develop a sense of rhythm and manual dexterity. This was followed by a story told by Aunt Fran and often acted out with the help the cardboard cutouts "moving" against a painted or drawn backdrop. Off-camera sound effects for the stories were often incorporated and many of them were provided by a young Jonathan Winters, then a station employee. Finally, there was a craft segment where children used simple household items to fashion toys, greeting cards, and other knick-knacks.
Also in the program, there were daily trips to the "Birthday Bush" to honor all the boys and girls in the audience who were having birthdays that day, and to the "wishing well" to wish sick boys and girls who were watching at home to feel better soon. Later in its run, the series was lengthened to a half-hour and filmed cartoons were added to the mix.
Each episode concluded with Aunt Fran's signature "Happy Goodbye Face," a set of eyes, nose and mouth drawn on her palm, which waved ("winked") good-bye to all the children.
Almost immediately, "Aunt Fran" was a hit with a young and loyal audience. One young fan when asked who were his best friends were, replied, "God, Santa Claus and Aunt Fran." Soon local businesses were storming the station to sponsor the show. Furthermore, like latter day's "Romper Room," each episode of "Aunt Fran" featured a handful of children live on the set. Originally children were "booked" for the show just a few weeks in advance, but, soon, due to overwhelming demand, there became a 12-month waiting list.
For the show, what looked like little more than fun and games, were actually carefully constructed tools to help develop a child's social and cognitive skills. All of Aunt Fran's on-screen activities were formulated to encourage "creative response," an expression of creativity, motivation and action. In the words of one educator, "Aunt Fran and Her Playmates" acted as a "virtual school for children who attended neither preschool or kindergarten."
Though not aired nationally, like the Chicago-based "Ding Dong School" with Frances Horwich which would premiere a few years later, "Aunt Fran and Her Playmates" is recognized for its pioneering, innovative use of fusing the power of television with early childhood education. "Aunt Fran" was a predecessor not only to Dr. Horwich's on-air work, but also to "Sesame Street" and other later programs.
"Aunt Fran and Her Playmates" ran everyday for seven years with Fran Norris not only acting as host but also producer of the show, hunting down or dreaming up each day's finger plays and craft ideas. She also had the job of overseeing audience reservations for the show and making public appearances on behalf of the show.
The workload was intense and in 1957, in order for her to devote more time to her own children, "Aunt Fran" left the airwaves. Fran Norris died in 1988 at age 76.