(May 3, 1931 — August 5, 2021 )
Pioneer Iowa female television broadcaster most noted for “The Magic Window”.
Betty Lou Varnum born in Chicago to parents Glen and Louise McVay, but her family moved to Platteville, Wisconsin that same year. She graduated from high school in Platteville; received a BA in English and Psychology in 1953 from the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and then a BS in Education in 1954 from Wisconsin State College in Platteville. She began teaching English and Speech in Port Washington, Wis., in 1954, but then was hired by Iowa State’s WOI-TV that same year as a producer and host of their children’s television show “The Magic Window.” She produced and hosted “The Magic Window”—later called “The House with the Magic Window” for the next 40 years. By the 1960s, she also took on the role of public affairs program director at WOI-TV, and produced a number of programs including “Dimension 5.” She married James (Red) Varnum, who also worked at WOI-TV, in 1959. They had three children, twins Kari and Kent, and Holly.
WOI-TV was central Iowa’s first TV station and also the first for-profit TV station to be owned by a major college. It began operations in 1950, and continued until March 1, 1994, when the station was sold to Capital Communication Company and moved to Des Moines. In 1951, WOI-TV launched its first children’s program, “The Magic Window,” with host Joy (Ringham) Munn. Three years later, Betty Lou McVay was hired to continue the program, which targeted pre-school children. The program went on to become the longest-running local children’s program on American television.
“The Magic Window” was broadcast weekdays at various times over the years, and sometimes on weekends as well. In a 1991 interview in Des Moines Skywalker, Varnum said, “We do a sweet, gentle, positive, accepting kind of program for children. It’s not a lot of dazzle or excitement or violence, and hey, I’m proud of it.” The program featured puppets such as Katrina Crocodile (a witch who had changed herself into a beautiful crocodile), Gregory Lion (a four-year-old boy who is capable of doing wonderful deeds as well as being beguilingly mischievous), and Dusty the Unicorn (who was 3,000 years old – young for a unicorn). The puppets often introduced cartoons such as Felix the Cat or syndicated material from “Tales of the Riverbank.” Another key to the show was getting children directly involved by helping them create craft projects using easily obtainable materials such as paper, glue, and aluminum foil. Varnum emphasized creativity, showing children how to make things, but never showing them her own finished products. Rather, she encouraged them to create their own unique finished designs. She was careful not to use materials that would be expensive so that children of all income groups could participate. Her parenting philosophy was that “providing at least one success every day for every child is the most important thing a parent can do.”
Although “The Magic Window” was the first regular local children’s program on Iowa TV, other programs soon followed including WMT-TV’s (Cedar Rapids) “Dr. Max” and Mason City’s KGLO-TV “Bart’s Clubhouse.” She noted that the types of families she reached changed over the 40 years, from two-parent households with two children in which the father worked and the mother stayed home to many single-parent households as well as two-parent households with both parents working. Varnum continued producing and hosting “The Magic Window” until WOI-TV was sold in 1994. At that time, the program was ended and she retired. As director of children’s programming for WOI-TV, she also introduced “See and Do Time” and “TV Schooltime” for school-age children, a dance program “Seventeen” for teenagers and a public affairs program “Young People Speak Out.” For her work with children, she received the Public Media Award of the American Psychological Association. In a 1976 interview, Varnum said she was proud of the fact that she never missed a program. Her babies, she noted, were conveniently born on the weekends, enabling her to host her show the following Monday.
Although programs such as “The Magic Window” were designed as a public service for entertaining and educating children, WOI-TV also marketed the program to advertisers. For example, station promotional materials noted that the sales of Glaser meat products (from Fort Dodge) increased substantially after the company began regularly advertising during “The Magic Window.”
Varnum broke a stereotype in the television business that said if you were seen as a children’s TV personality, you would not be accepted as a news person. By the 1960s, she had become WOI-TV’s public affairs programming director as well as running her children’s shows. She became one of Iowa’s first newswomen, producing and hosting a number of programs, including “Prime Time for Women” (1967) that explored topics such as divorce, returning to school, careers and homemaking. “Stringers” was created after her husband Red discovered how to broadcast Super-8 home movies on television, and the program allowed Iowans to send in their own Super-8 movies to be shared on the program. The program won the Governor’s Media in Arts Award in 1976. Eastman Kodak wrote articles about the program, as did “Super-8” magazine. A third program, “Dimension 5,” began after the news on Tuesday evenings at 10:30. One unique feature about this program was that it continued each night until all the speakers and callers had their turn, often well past midnight. The program tackled a number of sensitive topics for that time, including homosexuality, aggressive personalities, child care, world food supply, drug abuse prevention, consumer credit problems, the American Indian movement and ethical issues surrounding lobbying activities at the Iowa State Legislature. She also produced “Status 6,” which focused on the struggles of the handicapped in Iowa, for which she received the McCall’s Golden Mike Award for Women in Radio and Television. She was a member of American Women in Radio and Television, Hawkeye-Iowa chapter.
Because she was very well known for both her children’s programming and news, she was frequently asked to moderate civic events, fund-raisers and other state activities. For many years, she was one of the hosts for the annual Iowa State fair and VEISHEA, a campus wide celebration, televised parade on the Iowa State campus.
Varnum passed away in August 2021 at the age of 90. She is interred in the Ames Municipal Cemetery.
Betty Lou Varnum Papers, RS 5/6/53, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.
For secondary sources, see interview with Julie Rutz Cota, Des Moines Skywalker, March 27-April 2, 1991
Jeff Stein, www.iowahistoryjournal.com