Ruth Prins was an actor and University of Washington drama teacher in 1949 when she was recruited by KING-TV owner Dorothy Bullitt (1892-1986) as talent in the fledgling station's developing educational children's fare. Prins was first the Story Lady for the award-winning Televenture Tales, reading books to a camera and a clutch of lucky Seattle grade schoolers. She is best known for her portrayal of Wunda Wunda, the beloved character of the eponymous two-hour electronic pre-school that aired from 1952-1972. Dressed as a harlequin and wearing clown make-up and a big bow-tie, Wunda read stories, sang songs, and taught manners and attitudes to generations of kids. The enduring midday show also played on Bullitt-owned KGW in Portland, and won many accolades including two Peabody Awards, broadcasting's highest honor. Prins did Wunda and Televenture for many years, and hosted another KING series produced for PBS national distribution called Compass Rose, which took children around the world to examine exotic cultures. She was also Mrs. Alphabet, in a show developed and produced for KNBC in Los Angeles.
Growing Up In Seattle
Ruth Balkema was born in Sioux City Iowa, on October 20, 1920, of Peter and Oma Foster Balkema. When she was 8, her father, a corporate attorney, moved the family to Seattle where he eventually went into private practice. Oma was a traditional housewife, and Ruth and an older brother were raised in the Roosevelt neighborhood. After graduating Roosevelt High School in 1938, she enrolled as a drama major at University of Washington where she met a good-looking young actor from Tacoma named Robert Prins.
The two hit it off, studied together, and acted in plays. Bob was screen-tested by Warner Brothers, appeared in two movies in 1940, but decided against a Hollywood career in favor of an academic one. The couple played Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett in an extended run of The Barretts of Wimpole Street at Seattle’s Showboat Theatre. “That did it,” Ruth said. They were married in 1942, and graduated the same year. He got a Ph.D and they both taught drama at UW. A son, Robert, was born in 1943, and daughter, Debra, in 1950. (Hood interview)
Dorothy Bullitt and Children's TV
After Dorothy Bullitt’s husband, Scott Bullitt (1897-1932), died, she took the reins of the family’s successful real-estate business with its extensive downtown holdings, and in 1947 began expanding it into what was become a media empire. She bought and revived a couple of failing radio stations and, in 1949, foreseeing television’s promise, and bought KRSC, Seattle’s only TV station. It was a great gamble -- with only 6,000 sets in all of Seattle, TV’s future was uncertain.
Bullitt changed the call letters to KING, and set out to build local programming. Bullitt's passion was for programming that went beyond merely entertaining diversions with cartoons, although she would deviate with such afternoon kiddie shows as KING’s Klubhouse with Stan Boreson (1925-2017) and Sheriff Tex's Safety Junction with “Texas” Jim Lewis (1909-1990). High-brow educational children’s fare was to help make KING a prestige broadcaster.
In 1949, Bullitt’s close friend and children’s broadcasting producer Gloria Chandler approached Prins to do a show about books and reading that would become Televenture Tales. Prins was teaching acting and children’s theater at UW; and doing a radio program called Children’s Theater of the Air. She had appeared on Charades, an early game show on KRSC, and was skeptical of television’s artistic merit.
Tom Dargan, a friend and fellow actor (to become a major director/producer for KING) had been hired. He convinced Prins that the future (and the money) were promising in the new medium.
Televenture Tales began in 1950. The format was simple: The Story Lady (Prins) read an episode from a book in front of eight Fourth to Sixth Grade kids chosen from a different local school each week. She was assisted by an eager beaver helper, Penjamin Scribble, who was actually a two-and-a-half-inch cardboard cut-out projected on a screen.
The show was shot with one huge camera from behind the backs of the children. Scenes were sometimes acted out by members of the UW Children’s Theater. Televenture ran during the school year, and drew wide praise from educators, parents, and, not surprisingly, the publishers of juvenile books. Librarians and booksellers reported that books mentioned on the show flew off the shelves.
But mostly the show was Prins. Televenture won a national award after only six weeks on the air. An educator wrote: “Ruth Prins is an inspired story teller. Her gift for pantomime and mimicry enable her to handle any type of story material from Shakespearean to Freddy and his gang of animal friends” (Faulkner).
In less than a year, Prins’s husband, Bob, took a job teaching graduate-level literature at the University of Montana. Ruth told Dorothy Bullitt she was leaving KING. Bullitt didn’t want to change the highly lauded program so early on, and, according to Prins, Bullitt always “got her way one way or another” (Haley). She offered to pay Prins’s train fare and childcare if she’d return each each week from Missoula to do the show. With her daughter, a babe-in-arms, she commuted for about a year, living in Seattle at Bullitt’s Galer Street house (on Capitol Hill near St. Mark's Cathedral). Finally, Bullitt bought the Prins family back to Seattle by hiring Bob as KING’s Director of Public Affairs for triple his Montana pay.
Edifying and Exciting
In 1953, Wunda Wunda was launched in a studio at the foot of Queen Anne Hill. Sponsored by Bosco and Hostess cupcakes, Wunda was a sweet character who lived in a cottage, told (or read) stories, sang songs or otherwise related with pleasant puppet friends like Henry Happy Goose, Albert Owl, Friendly Tiger, Benjie Bear, Suzabella and Taggedy Andy. She was accompanied by the unseen organist, Mr. Music Man, played by Eliot Brown, and Ed Hansen who wrote much original music over the years. The show, which aired at noon, never got great ratings, but it was the centerpiece of the edifying children’s programming that made KING a national model for commercial, educational TV. It was also formative in the lives of generations of Northwest kids.
Compass Rose premiered in 1958. Prins was the eponymous traveler to such exotic places as the South Pacific and New Mexico to tell stories based on the cultures of indigenous peoples living there. KING produced it for the Educational Television and Radio Center, now National Educational Television (NET) for PBS distribution.
Prins tells of a Wunda director bringing in a young, allegedly tame lion to sit beside her as a prop as she told Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child.” He clamped on her arm with his jaws and as she intrepidly read on with cameras rolling, he tightened his grip. “I was not harmed," she said, “though my sleeve was gummed off, and my husband didn’t kill the director, so [it] all worked out” (Hood interview).
In another recollection,Prins recalls that one night while taping, the yellow curtains at the back of the set began to shake, and in ran a man who’d been interrupted burgling the discount furniture store next door. On his heels were Seattle cops who made the collar right in front of the set. Director Chris “Kit” Spier stopped and caught the action on camera for the evening news.
After a time, times changed in television. Expensive local programming succumbed to cheaper syndicated shows. Boreson was canceled in 1967. PBS’s syndicated Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers became big hits with the kindergarten demographic. In 1972, Wunda Wunda was canceled, the last KING TV children’s show to go.
No Sterling Tea Service...
Soon thereafter Ruth Prins sent a handwritten card decorated with a drawing of a rhinoceros to Dorothy Bullitt. The ensuing exchange gives a rare glimpse into the relationship and personalities of the women.
“Now, I really didn’t really expect the complete sterling tea service for twenty odd years of industrious, honest, and joyous service. When Bob Guy called to say he was revamping all programming and was going to take Wunda off the air, I suffered no trauma. I have never considered a television program or position a sinecure. Bob Guy was most cordial. I have not received from you so much as a “well done.” or a grunt or a nod.
[signed] Ruth Bewildered Prins”
Bullitt was known to keep herself above the fray of employee matters, especially the unpleasant ones. Pleading an ignorance it’s unlikely the canny businesswoman had, she responded:
“Your letter to me came quite as a shock as I did not know that Wunda had been taken off the air. I would have done [something] as you suggest, to recognize” (Prins to Bullitt).
Life Beyond Wunda Wunda
For nearly 20 years Prins worked -- always freelance -- for KING, but television was only one part of her life. Besides her family responsibilities, in 1964 she started a preschool in the Magnolia neighborhood. A second was to follow in View Ridge.
Robert Prins died in 1967. In the 1970s, Ruth Prins earned a Master’s in Drama, then a Ph.D. in education at University of Washington. Asked about her retirement, she said, “An actress never retires. I’m between engagements” (Hood interview). She lives in her Magnolia home with daughter, Debra.