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Iowa History Daily: May 3 - Betty Lou & "The Magic Window"

Iowa History Daily: On May 3, 1931, Betty Lou Varnum, host of WOI-TV’s iconic “The House With the Magic Window” for forty years, was born. She hosted for 40 of the program’s 43 years, a run which makes the program the longest running children’s television program in American history.

After graduating from the University Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, a former college classmate suggested Varnum as a potential host to managers at WOI-TV Ames. The station, owned and operated by Iowa State University at the time, represented the only commercial television station in the country owned by a major university. Only two days at the job, Varnum took over as the host of “The Magic Window.”

Already in its third year when Varnum took the helm, the show aimed at kindergarten age children took off. As Varnum brought the audience to the Magic Forest to visit special friends like “Gregory Lion,” “Catrina Crocodile,” and “Dusty the Unicorn,” the show became a three time a week staple for Iowa children from 1951 to 1994.

Originally conceptualized by Producer Dick Hartzell and WOI-TV artist Joy (Ringham) Munn, the 30-minute educational program featured handicrafts, children’s news, birthday recognition for viewers, a segment called “Let’s Be Friends” featuring children from other cities or countries, as well as popular cartoons like “Felix the Cat” and “Tales of the Riverbank.”

In addition to “The Magic Window,” Varnum also worked on a variety of other projects at WOI over her lengthy career. The host of local talk show “Dimension 5,” as well as a show focused on the struggles of Iowa’s handicapped and disabled populations called “Status 6,” Varnum often highlighted issues important to many Iowans. Also a yearly host of the annual Iowa State Fair and VEISHEA parades, Varnum accrued many honors, accolades, and awards over a long and illustrious career. Betty Lou Varnum passed away in August of 2021. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaHistoryCalendar #IowaHistoryOTD


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