Ruth Prins: the backstory

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Published in the Seattle Times online on Jan. 9, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Jan. 9, 2022

The backstory: Ruth Prins inspired
us to find our common humanity

By Clay Eals
Clay Eals, age 2-1/2, watches “Wunda Wunda” circa 1953-54 at his childhood home near Wedgwood Rock. (Virginia Eals)

In this slightly blurry snap from 1953-54, I sit before the combo TV/radio/record player at my early home near Wedgwood Rock, with eyeglasses I started wearing at 14 months. I’m clutching my “aby” (my word for a baby doll), but my attention angles sharply toward the small black-and-white screen in the console’s upper left corner, just out of frame.

My mom told me repeatedly that in this photo I am watching “Wunda Wunda.” That makes sense, because my memory of Ruth Prins’ show is vivid, and here I am clearly rapt.

As a boy, I glued myself to local TV, tastes conforming to my age. I eventually graduated from “Wunda Wunda” to “Brakeman Bill.” For my younger brothers, J.P. Patches was the man, but by the time he debuted in 1958, I deemed myself too old for him.

Fast-forward six-plus decades to last spring. Like many, I had assumed Ruth Prins was long gone. But a friend, Casey McNerthney, told me she was still living at age 100. I immediately sought her as an ideal focus for a “Now & Then” column, twice leaving letters at her Magnolia home. This connected me with her daughter, Debra, who told me Ruth wasn’t in a position to be interviewed or photographed.

After Ruth’s Nov. 6 death, I tried again. This time, Debra chose to spend hours reflecting on her mom and opened a vast trove of scrapbooks, original puppets and costumes and kinescopes of “Wunda Wunda” shows never seen since their original airing. (Transfers of the kinescopes are under way and can be found here.)

This 1958 plywood cutout of Wunda Wunda promoted Ruth Prins’ spoken-word 45 rpm disc of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Elephant Child.” (Clay Eals)

She even unearthed a life-size color plywood cutout that led Jean Sherrard (a 10-year-old guest on Ruth’s “Telaventure Tales” in 1967) and me to organize a “Now” group photo of fans in Ruth’s neighborhood. After posing, they all — including Debra — sang the “Wunda Wunda” theme with wistful joy. Without Debra’s generosity and trust, today’s cover story would not have been so rich.

Of course, all of this conjures thoughts of what our attraction to TV has wrought, given today’s online world and our penchant for screens instead of looking people in the eye. Big Brother, anyone?

Coming to mind, however, is the late screenwriting guru Syd Field, who wrote that the purpose of entertainment is to inspire audiences to find their common humanity. I think that applies to Ruth Prins. I never met her, yet I feel that I did. Among the best of teachers, she had a profoundly positive impact on countless thousands. And we all had a front-row seat.

(Click here to get back to the intro page on Ruth Prins.)

Now & then here and now…

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