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The cover story
Published in the Seattle Times online on Jan. 9, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Jan. 9, 2022
A ‘Wunda’-ful adventure
In local TV’s earliest years,
Ruth Prins touched the youngest of hearts
By Clay Eals
It teaches as it greets. It’s unassuming and disarming. And in today’s parlance, for countless thousands it remains an endearing earworm:
Wunda Wunda is my name
Oh, boys and girls, I’m glad you came
We’ll have fun as I explain
How we play our Wunda games
If this tune takes you back to early childhood, come along for a nostalgic ride. If not, hop aboard anyway to learn how a Northwest legend permeated our broadcast airwaves long before today’s video games and ubiquitous tablets, phones and screens.
We’re talking, of course, of Ruth Prins, aka “Wunda Wunda,” who — with a conical hat, harlequin costume, personified puppets, animal dolls, velvet voice and perpetually kind-eyed, animated expressions — captivated the souls of regional preschoolers over the first two decades of Seattle television.
Oh, we kids of the 1950s and 1960s had other colorful, weekday TV stars, from Stan Boreson and Captain Puget to J.P. Patches and Brakeman Bill. (Shorter-tenured personalities included Sheriff Tex, Miss Elaine, Carol Lee Smith, Miss Virginia, Penny and her Pals and even a local Bozo the Clown.)
But all of the long-timers emerged after Ruth. In contrast to her, they leavened their shtick with old cartoons, their shows aired in the late afternoon, their coveted audience was older kids, and — let’s face it — they were guys.
Ruth was the true pioneer, the earliest for the youngest. A noontime half hour’s setup for a nap. A persona of mother and playmate. A gentle beam of joy and acceptance, with an unyielding instructional core of words and manners, the brain and the heart.
And now she’s gone. She died last Nov. 6 at her longtime home in Magnolia, not two weeks after she turned, as one fan fondly notes, “Wun hundred and Wun.”
“She was a class act,” says Brakeman Bill McLain, 94, the sole survivor among the era’s prominent local children’s TV entertainers. “She did a lot of good things and set good examples. She was a real wonder.”
From the start, Ruth embraced drama. She was born Oct. 26, 1920, to soft-spoken attorney Pete Balkema and his wife, Oma, a firebrand homemaker, in Sioux City, Iowa. There, she joined in what she termed “many backyard plays.” When she was 8, her family, including an older brother, resettled in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood.
A downtown dance performance resulted in her first Seattle newspaper notice in 1931. A photo collage in the Feb. 4, 1934, Seattle Times displayed the white-wigged 13-year-old as The Lord Mayor in a production of “There Was an Old Woman.” Three years later, she earned college money by working for a speech teacher.
Splashy days awaited at the University of Washington’s famed Showboat Theatre. Roles snowballed, and in 1940 came the plum Eliza Doolittle part in a production of “Pygmalion.” The Seattle Times proclaimed: “Ruth Balkema New Showboat Favorite.”
The same year, 5-foot-2 Ruth played Elizabeth Barrett in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” opposite 6-foot-2 future husband Robert Prins as Robert Browning. Nuptials followed in 1942.
Ruth joined her husband for a four-year Army stint at bases in California, Texas and North Carolina. Her later, unpublished World War II memoir wittily called this stint “Over Here, Over Here.”
She gave birth to a son, Bob Prins, in 1943 and after the war directed UW children’s plays and radio shows. She also returned to the Showboat, taking the lead in 1948’s “Mrs. Carlyle,” a role initiated by visiting silent-film icon Lillian Gish, before motherhood struck again in 1950 with the arrival of a daughter, Debra Prins.
But headier time beckoned from a new rage. Arriving in the nation’s living rooms was a diminutive box with a screen.
In mid-20th-century Seattle, KING for a time was the only Northwest TV station. Passionate about youth programming, owner Dorothy Bullitt convinced New York children’s radio producer Gloria Chandler to move west and switch to TV. Chandler, in turn, snagged Ruth Prins.
The result was “Telaventure Tales,” which debuted Nov. 17, 1951. The 30-minute Saturday morning show, the first of its kind in the country, starred Ruth as “The Story Lady,” dramatizing the latest and best-regarded children’s books with local grade-schoolers on camera.
Instantly, it scored a national radio-TV award from Ohio State University. But in August the Prins family moved to Missoula, where Ruth’s husband Bob had landed a university teaching job.
Undaunted, Bullitt initially flew Ruth to Seattle each week to keep “Telaventure Tales” alive, then found a lasting solution by hiring Bob as KING’s public affairs director, and the family returned to Seattle.
For “Telaventure Tales,” against a giant book backdrop, Ruth wore a jeweled cap and elegant gown. “She would sit there so beautiful and regal,” says Sydnie Jones Sheets, of Covington.
Growing up in Renton, Sheets was thrilled to appear on the show in 1963. Her bit was to read Crosby Bonsall’s “Petey Parakeet,” but not all of it. “I couldn’t tell the ending. Ruth would emphasize, ‘Oh, that’s so exciting. Kids, you’ll have to find this book in your library to find out what happens to Petey!’ ”
“Telaventure Tales” ran 16 years on KING. But soon after it began, Louise Perkins, owner of a University District kindergarten where Ruth worked weekdays as a teacher, didn’t think the series aimed young enough. “Television for preschoolers is terrible,” she told Ruth. “You must do something more.”
The encouragement sparked a second series, for kids not yet in school. “The kindergarten children were told of our idea,” Ruth recalled in a 1963 Queen Anne News story, “and they named the show. It was their way of saying ‘Wonder Wonder.’ ”
From the first “Wunda Wunda” on Nov. 9, 1953, and for the next nearly 20 years, Ruth was one of KING-TV’s brightest celebs at parades and supermarkets and a prominent endorser of everything from Hostess cupcakes to Old Yankee and Sunny Jim peanut butter.
Of the sticky stuff, Kay Larson, a Seattle mother at the time, affectionately wrote Ruth: “We have all come to the conclusion that an awful lot of peanut butter must be sold these days, for our small fry who would never eat it before will eat it now just because of you-know-who.”
Aided by knitted and carved animal companions and an off-screen Music Man (first Elliott Brown, later Dean Buchanan, Edward Hansen and Tom Colwell) who supplied ongoing organ riffs and sound effects, Ruth quickly charmed children and their grateful parents.
In the show’s first two months, she received 2,217 letters from children, according to KING, which answered (with parental help) such queries as what to call a stuffed “no name” dog or what the Music Man looked like. KING reported that of its 19 locally produced shows, Ruth drew the highest local-audience share for her slot, a whopping 68%.
She soon became an emotional touchstone, especially for kids such as Sheri Van Veldhouse, an abuse victim who was adopted at age 3-1/2 in 1964. Decades later, upon her mother’s death, the Puyallup resident found a manila envelope containing instructions for her adoptive parents: “She loves ‘Wunda Wunda,’ and it keeps her happy.”
Jim Cull, active in a 1,200-member Facebook “Wunda Wunda” fan club, has encountered many such examples: “For those from broken homes, that was the only normal aspect of their life, their lifeline.”
The show was a collaboration, notably with the unseen Music Man, who, in what Brown labeled a “telepathic relationship” with Ruth, composed hundreds of songs and inserted impromptu flourishes.
But to young eyes, “Wunda Wunda” was all Ruth. No cartoons. No onstage co-stars. Even the puppets — especially Henry Goose and Albert Owl — were operated and voiced by her.
Her set was a flat edifice that in the 1960s gave way to a rotating hut. Episodes opened with her welcome, which Ruth sang, early on, via a tiny puppet. Then she opened the front door and, while dragging a microphone cord that ran from the house up her left pantleg, unspooled a fetching thread of memorized songs, skits and stories. It was, as she often defined it in interviews, “education through entertainment.”
Best-remembered is her oft-repeated rendition of the interactive 1939 ditty “I’m a Little Teapot,” in which Ruth prompted tots to transform their arms into handles and spouts to “tip me over and pour me out.”
In another recurring bit, Ruth watered a pot holding a bent-over flower while she sang “Will he, won’t he, will he, won’t he, stand up today?” Sometimes he did, sometimes not. The result determined the blossom’s rather innocent name for the day, “Wilting Willie” or “Stand-up Willie.”
First live and later videotaped, “Wunda Wunda” bore a show-must-go-on motif at KING’s lower Queen Anne headquarters. This led to chilling surprises.
She was no stranger to large animals on the set, but one 1954 day when she presented Rudyard Kipling’s ode to curiosity, “The Elephant Child,” a borrowed and supposedly tame lion lay next to her, clamped on her arm and chewed away her costume sleeve, fortunately breaking no flesh. She issued the Kipling tale in 1958 on a 45rpm disc promoted with a plywood cutout of her costumed self.
On Jan. 28, 1960, a burglar attempting to steal from a next-door business walked, under police arrest, through the set mid-show. The footage aired on that night’s news.
Minor disruptions also summoned Ruth’s in-the-moment savvy. In 1957, while she was teaching letter sounds with a wooden Daphne Duck, the gizmo’s beak grabbed a letter “U” card that Ruth thought was a “G.” The Music Man signaled her mistake by intensifying his duck calls, and she invoked a lesson in manners: “I’m glad I have Daphne there. Everybody makes mistakes, and it’s nice to have a friend to correct you so nicely.”
Corrections also came from police while she drove to work, often in costume, in her XKE Jaguar convertible, notes her son Bob. “She was the original distracted driver,” he says. “She was always going over songs, memorizing her shows, and drove way too fast.” One morning in Laurelhurst, an officer pulled her over for speeding. The same day in Magnolia, a second officer stopped her on the same count, saying, “Now, Wunda, have you had any recent run-ins …”
Her heyday — coinciding with movie comedies that cynically depicted kids in the thrall of TV cowboy-and-indian chases and shoot-’em-ups — was bountiful. “Wunda Wunda” garnered national recognition from Ohio State University in 1954 and 1956, and a coveted Peabody award arrived in 1957, the same year the KING affiliate in Portland, KGW-TV, added her show.
She also created a series of a 15-minute programs, “Compass Rose,” that examined Native American cultures and aired in Seattle and nationally in 1959-60. Technical advances allowed her to appear on screen in remote locations via a magic carpet. And she appeared in color, for those with color TV sets, at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, where “Wunda Wunda” broadcast live from the Coliseum (today’s Climate Pledge Arena).
But the 1960s also spelled big change.
Close to 90% of American households in 1960 had a television. As the hub of the home, it begged scrutiny, and a catchphrase soon took hold: TV was “rotting children’s minds.”
It was no accident that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” began broadcasting nationally, sans commercials, in 1968. Similarly, PBS debuted “Sesame Street” in 1969. Years of lobbying produced a 1973 rule by the National Association of Broadcasters banning commercials and endorsements by children’s TV hosts.
Without such ad revenue, kid shows’ viability vanished. “That was my death toll,” says Brakeman Bill McLain, speaking, really, for all of Seattle’s children’s TV. For better or worse, an era was evaporating.
Ruth Prins could see it coming. She had opened her own preschool in 1964 in her home neighborhood of Magnolia, later expanding to other locations. She also immersed herself in study for an education doctorate at the UW that took 10 years to complete.
By June 1968, the weekday airings of “Wunda Wunda” had shrunk to once every weekend, with Ruth switching to a “Mystery Island” format and intending to make changes to appeal to 7- to 12-year-olds. In September 1972, KING canceled it.
A new gig launching “Mrs. Alphabet,” a children’s show for a Los Angeles TV station trying to retain its license, had Ruth flying south for tapings once a month for three years.
But Ruth’s post-Wunda life focused mainly on preschool, putting into practice all she had learned — no camera, just face to face. Lesson plans and memos from her preschool stint, which ended in 1980, disclose uncommon professionalism. Memories of her students and their parents reveal heart and humor.
Typical are Teruko and Mitsuo Yamada, whose son Kentaro attended in 1978-80. They say Ruth possessed a welcoming charisma that succeeded through encouragement instead of orders. The occasional joke also held clout. They recall Ruth, on a walking trip to Discovery Park, reaching a stop sign and announcing, “Hey, everyone, let’s stop here. Otherwise, you will be pancakes!”
Shirley Wright, who worked for Ruth as a teacher, today wears one of Ruth’s necklaces, made of bells. “She jingled,” Wright says. “That was her personality. Ruth’s spirit was that of an Auntie Mame. Life was an adventure. She wanted kids to have an adventure.”
In contrast to some of her TV peers, Ruth’s final four decades were largely private. Though outgoing as an entertainer and educator, she did not crave later attention, says daughter Debra, who lived with her mom starting with her dad’s decline and 1987 death.
Travel to Europe and a Lopez Island summer home were key. So were grandchildren, by her son, Bob. Ruth delved into computers and real estate, took economics and art classes and taught herself Greek. She devoured the New Yorker and The Economist and gardened in her backyard, enjoying its sweeping Puget Sound view.
Alert to the end, she was long past “ready to go,” Debra says. “She had a fun run, and she was ready to get off the stage.”
But her impact will linger. Just ask Carol Anderson, who grew up in West Seattle.
In 1953, her mom had written Ruth a secret message that was unveiled for her seventh birthday via the family’s tiny black-and-white TV. Wunda Wunda told Carol she could find a present behind the couch. “I was jumping up and screaming,” she says. The present was a doll on which to draw faces.
But the true gift was Ruth herself. “I became a teacher because of her,” says Anderson, a retired kindergarten/grade-school educator and Friday Harbor resident who still writes children’s curricula.
“Her mannerisms and the way she connected with kids — I told myself, ‘I want to be that person.’ She could make a child feel like they’re the most important one. It’s that richness of interaction with a child’s psyche. It was infectious. I loved her so much. Everything about her evoked teaching. It wasn’t preachy. She just threw that delight in there: ‘We can do that, too.’ ”
So, all of you at home, in that spirit let’s sing the closing stanza:
Wunda Wunda is my name
Oh, boys and girls, I’m glad you came
We had fun and played our games
Won’t you come again? Bye!