© 2022 Iowa Public Radio
IPR20012_Website_Header_Option2_NewsNavy.png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Life

Betty Lou Varnum, Host Of Long-Running Iowa Children's TV Show Dies At 90

08062021-Betty-Lou-Varnum
Promotional shot from "The Magic Window" children's program on WOI-TV, Ames, Iowa
/
Wikimedia Commons
Betty Lou McVay Varnum hosted "The House with the Magic Window" for almost 40 years. She died at the age of 90 and will be laid to rest beside her husband in Ames.

From 1951 to 1994, there was a house in Iowa with a magical window.

At least there was on TV.

Betty Lou Varnum, who started out as Betty Lou McVay, joined WOI-TV's “The House with the Magic Window” in 1955 and hosted the show until 1994. She taught children how to be good friends along with making arts and crafts. Varnum has died at the age of 90.

"The House with the Magic Window," became the longest-running children’s show in the U.S. Fans of the show across the state shared their childhood memories filled with images of Varnum and her puppet friends Katrina Crocodile and Gregory Lion on social media.

Varnum’s furry co-hosts, her magic window and other pieces from the television set are housed at the State Historical Museum of Iowa. Leo Landis, the state curator, watched the show when he was younger. He still has a birthday postcard from Varnum from 1970, who was regularly referred to simply as "Betty Lou."

08062021-Betty-Lou-Varnum
State Historical Museum of Iowa
/
Catrina Crocodile and Noel the Christmas elf also visited Betty Lou. Their current home is the State Historical Museum of Iowa.

“Betty Lou Varnum really set the standard for educational children’s programming in central Iowa," he said. "[She] always treated children as real people, or at least in my memory of watching her."

He said collecting these pieces from "The House with the Magic Window" helps people connect nostalgia with the historical context of educational programming and local television.

Landis noted this was the era before Fred Rogers, host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." And at a time when women were not commonly on commercial television. Many times, women were known as the male hosts' assistants. Landis referred to Varnum as a "little bit of a groundbreaker" in the world of Iowa broadcasting and educational television.

08062021-Betty-Lou-Varnum
State Historical Museum of Iowa
/
Gregory Lion was voiced by Varnum's husband James "Red" Varnum. He also voiced Dusty the Unicorn. The two married in 1959.

Varnum not only became a role model for Iowan children, she also took on the role of activist for various human rights issues. One of her daughters has Down Syndrome, and Varnum was passionate about equal rights for people with disabilities.

“That was something that she was really an advocate for was treating people with disabilities equally and with dignity and with respect and so she was an advocate across the board for different causes," Landis said.

Varnum met her husband James “Red” Varnum when he voiced Varnum’s puppet friends Gregory Lion and Dusty the Unicorn.

She leaves behind three children and grandchildren. She will be laid to rest beside her husband at Ames Municipal Cemetery.