By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register
Jan. 29, 2019
You know that train platform in the Harry Potter books and movies — the one only those truly gifted with magic can see?
That’s what it felt like to spend a half hour with Betty Lou Varnum in “The House With the Magic Window.”
Oh, the adults would tell you that was just a TV set at WOI-TV, then in Ames and a part of Iowa State University, and that the gentle lion cub Gregory and chatty crocodile Catrina were just puppets.
But what do those muggles know?
“The House With the Magic Window” was set in an enchanted forest. Catrina started life as a witch, but when she scared too many children, she cast a spell and turned herself into a friendly croc.
Varnum was a tour guide for preschool age children who could always see the magic. She chatted with her puppet friends, who introduced “Felix the Cat” cartoons and the adventures of Hammy Hamster and his animal friends in the “Tales from the Riverbank.”
Betty Lou — no child called her Mrs. Varnum — didn’t perform magic tricks, but instead taught children arts and crafts. They were simple projects: a placemat made of woven strips of cut construction paper or decorating a tin can to turn it into a pencil and brush holder.
The mind boggles attempting to calculate how many bottles of paste and reams of colored construction paper precocious children begged parents to buy in an effort to replicate the projects she demonstrated onscreen.
The show aired on WOI from late December 1951 until March 1994, when ISU sold the station to a private company and Varnum’s contract was not renewed. Sounds like the work of Lord Voldemort.
But in those 43 years, Betty Lou greeted children cheerfully and calmly for a quiet half hour that was more relaxed than the frenetic pace of the popular “Duane and Floppy Show” on WHO-TV.
“The House With the Magic Window” debut on Christmas week 1955 and the real surprise gift was Betty Lou.
Betty Lou McVay was born in Chicago but raised in Platteville, Wisconsin. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in psychology and a minor in English. She attended a year of law school and taught in Wisconsin.
A friend knew Betty Lou dabbled in theater in college and suggested her for a TV-hosting gig at WOI. She observed the first few days of “The House With a Magic Window,” was on air by the third day and hosting by herself for the majority of the next 43 years.
Betty Lou married James “Red” Varnum, an Iowa broadcasting pioneer. The couple had three children, twins Kent and Kari and another daughter, Holly.
“I got to know a lot of people because people would come up and say, ‘Your mom is Betty Lou!’ or ‘Your dad is Red Varnum,’” said Kent Varnum, now an engineer in greater Boston.
Betty Lou is retired and living in Ames.
The shutters on the Magic Window have been pulled for almost 25 years, but for those of us lucky enough to spend time with Betty Lou, every crisp scissor cut into a piece of construction paper or the sound of cellophane tape snapping off a roller reminds us of the magic.
Daniel P. Finney, who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines, is the Register’s storyteller. Suggest ideas at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org.