When I was a little kid growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, many parents, including mine, didn’t limit television watching. I guess they figured that we ran around and played outside constantly, so having us inside quietly glued to the tube was a good way to have us stay out of mischief and finally sit still for a change.
I suppose that they also knew that there were limited kids’ shows on UHF and VHF, so as soon as they ended, we’d scamper outside to play again. We didn’t have 600 channels from which to choose like kids do now with cable TV. We also didn’t have Netflix, DVD players, personal iPads and smartphones, On Demand or the other options kids have these days.
But one thing we did have were TV idols, and that’s why local Baby Boomers still wax nostalgic whenever there’s a mention of Chief Halftown, Captain Kangaroo, Sally Starr, Bertie The Bunyip, Pixanne, Happy The Clown, Wee Willie Weber and Gene London. These Baby Boomer television icons were our surrogate parents who babysat and even taught us, for part of our days. We sat there mesmerized, watching them in awe, because these TV personalities were our superstars, supplying us with our weekly doses of cartoons. I truly think that the only kids who weren’t hooked on these shows were the kids whose families didn’t own televisions. The rest of us were fans. Pixanne and Sally Starr gave off warm, friendly vibes, reminding us of our favorite aunts so we grew to like them, welcoming them into our homes each day. Local children show TV personalities were a big thing in this area, from the 1940s all the way up to the 1980s with Captain Noah, who kind of capped off the era as technology took over our lives.
As Baby Boomers, sadly, we have watched many of our superstars pass away in recent years, putting a little unexpected damper on our fond childhood memories. Happy The Clown died in 1993, Chief Halftown in 2003, Captain Kangaroo in 2004, Wee Willie Weber in 2010, Sally Starr in 2013 and Captain Noah in 2016. On May 13, 2017, Jane Norman Beazley, known to us Boomers as “Pixanne,” passed away at age 83 in her Bala Cynwyd home.
Last week, I was fortunate to attend an event hosted by the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia at Bala Golf Club, where they paid tribute posthumously to “Pixanne,” AKA Jane Norman. The Broadcast Pioneers had inducted “Jannie,” as her colleagues often called her, into their Hall of Fame back in 2005. The Broadcast Pioneers are professionals in the communications field and the official historians of Philadelphia radio and television. With over 500 members, the group holds many events, including the annual Hall of Fame gala.
The Broadcast Pioneers held this special luncheon event last week to bring together some other well-known Philadelphians who worked closely with Jane Norman and could provide a glimpse of her personality and life through stories that they would tell and memories that they would share.
It’s always an eye-opener when you get to learn about your childhood infatuations as an adult. As I sat back and listened to story after story about Jane Norman, I pieced together a snapshot of her life, what she was really like when she wasn’t flying through the enchanted TV forest on a concealed aerial harness, dressed as a petite, elfin character, looking an awful lot like a female Peter Pan. Her life out of the forest sounded pretty amazing.
Sharing tales of Norman last week, and the impact she had on local television, were Ed Cunningham of WHYY-TV; “The Geator with the Heater” DJ Jerry Blavat; KYW news reporter David Madden; Jim Murray, co-founder of the Ronald McDonald House, former General Manager of the Philadelphia Eagles and co-host of “Remember When”; Steve Ross, co-host of “Remember When”; and Jim Craine, radio host “The Jim Craine Show” at WOND 1400 AM at the shore. The tribute was emceed by former WCAU-TV news personality Bill Baldini, who had just interviewed Norman in January, one of the last interviews that she did. Also taking the podium was veteran broadcaster Gerry Wilkinson, who was the historian and project consultant for the WHYY TV production of “Philly’s Favorite TV Kids Show Hosts.” During the luncheon, it was rumored that 86-year-old Gene London may appear as a surprise guest for the tribute, but, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to make it after all.
In a special ending to the afternoon tribute, a trio of musicians who performed on many of Jane’s recordings in her later years, Paul Jost, Dean Schneider and Kevin MacConnell, performed songs in her honor. As the icing on the Jane Norman tribute cake, Liz Stadler, her granddaughter, came to the microphone to present her grandmother’s original Pixanne costume, slippers and other memorabilia for the Pioneers’ archives. I have to admit, it was very cool to see Pixanne’s actual costume in person, that green tunic, feathered cap and satin booties that I laid my eyes on countless times as a young girl. If I had to guess, seeing the costume now in real time, I think it had to be about a size 2, if that, and her colleagues said that she fit in it to her dying day.
Actress and singer Jane Norman Beazley, 83, flew through her enchanted TV forest for 17 years as “Pixanne.” In 1960, while teaching kindergarten at the Shoemaker School in Elkins Park, she came to the manager of WCAU-TV and proposed a children’s show. Along with her show idea, she demonstrated her talents of singing and piano playing in front of the manager.
According to the stories, Jane had inborn talents that surfaced when she was very young. She was playing Bach and Beethoven on the piano by the age of 3, before her feet even reached the pedals. As a child, she was also already composing original songs. When she was only 8 years old, the Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of Eugene Ormandy, played one of her compositions, “A Sad Story,” as part of a concert. She graduated from Olney High School and earned a degree in music from Temple University with minors in broadcasting and drama and then began teaching.
The WCAU-TV manager and Norman developed the show together. She learned to “fly” with the help of Peter Foy, who flew Mary Martin in her original black and white television version of “Peter Pan.” It took Norman almost nine hours to nail the art of flying. The speakers last week said that Norman sought to give each young viewer a sense that she was talking or singing directly to him or her, and “that made them feel special.” Norman would fly in and fly out, with a signature farewell of “See you in the forest,” and would often be joined by a cast of puppet characters on the show, most created by her. She was also an accomplished singer with a wide range and clear voice, according to the Broadcast Pioneers, and she wrote many of the songs and storylines for the show. Lassie and dozens of other animal and human stars and celebrities visited the Magic Forest as special guests throughout the years.
During the tribute, I learned other things, too, about the Pixanne show. It was taped for its first five years in black and white, but in 1965, it was among the first shows of its kind in the region to go to color. At times the show attained an audience share of 62 percent, according to interviews she gave later, but in 1969, the station discontinued it, although it ran in syndicated reruns until 1976. Unfortunately, only a few clips of the shows survive because a huge chunk of the archived tapes were destroyed in a warehouse fire.
Pixanne’s Philadelphia fan base was always enormous. As her peers shared stories and anecdotes about Norman, the Broadcast Pioneers’ special guests used the same words over and over, like “humble,” “kind,” “professional,” “talented,” “smart” and “caring.” Here are some nostalgic interesting things I found out:
“One drawing contest held by Pixanne in Philadelphia elicited 20,000 responses. When repeated in New York, 500,000 entries were received.”
“One of the most amazing responses in Philadelphia television history occurred when Pixanne invited her viewers to call her if they wanted to hear a special Valentine message. Over the Valentine’s Day weekend, 472,145 telephone calls were placed to Pixanne — a daytime average of more than 8,000 calls per hour. Circuits were jammed all over the city in one of the most dramatic displays of affection ever shown for a children’s television personality.”
“Jane perfected the art of ‘personal appearances’ and brought much joy to kids and adults in hospitals, schools, parades, theme parks, libraries, zoos, stores, police and firemen’s benefits and, of course, supermarkets. At one such appearance, thousands of fans leaned against the giant window of a Food Fair, causing it to cave in. The incident caused quite a commotion, but no one got hurt.”
There were many other stories told to demonstrate Norman’s impact on her fans and on the local television industry. Norman later performed, wrote and produced two popular children’s albums and created a series of 117 90-second features called Maintenance Ms. aimed at women who wanted to learn how to do home repairs. Norman also worked as a career consultant for women, hosted several radio shows, including a gourmet cooking show, authored books, wrote plays for Broadway, sang cabaret, acted in the theatre, cut a Christmas album and several other CDs, produced several television shows and so much more.
In the last few years of her life, Norman had her own cabaret show, performing in the 54 Club, formerly Club 54, in New York City. Although she may have given up flying in the forest, Jane flew around the tennis court. She was an accomplished competitive player. In fact, at the tribute luncheon, I happened to sit next to fellow Archbishop Prendergast High School alum and former Havertown resident Barbara Brown, who told me that she played tennis with Jane Norman up until last year. Barbara told me that, even as an octogenarian, Norman was an amazing competitive player.
For the few days, following the Jane Norman Beazley tribute, I thought a lot about “Pixanne.” All of those hours that I had lain on the floor in front of our big Zenith console, fantasizing that I was watching a flying pixie with handsful of pixie dust, I was actually watching an accomplished woman, who was way ahead of her time in much that she had achieved. According to those on stage, who paid her tribute, Norman was one of the few early show hosts who was, luckily, also an astute, smart businesswoman who owned the rights to her programs. It was just nice to find out after all these years from the mouths of her peers, that not only did “Pixanne” have a good head on her shoulders while she was gliding through the trees, but she also was an accomplished singer, actress, teacher, pianist, producer and writer.
When Jim Murray spoke about Norman, he said, “She was a million percent ‘Philly.’ When it comes to talent and personality, some people just have it, and Jane had it.”
Veteran KYW reporter Dave Madden also explained it well at the event: “Because she could fly, as a 6 or 7 year old kid, she made me think that I could do anything. As a young person, you need something or someone to drive your dreams. Pixanne gave us the ability to look beyond ourselves and dream that we could be anything that we wanted to be.”
The whole idea of Pixanne would probably seem hokey and cheesy to the high-tech kids of today. To us baby boomers, she was magical, and so were those innocent wonder years of growing up in the ’50s and ’60s. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything in the world. I was proud to be present at Pixanne’s beautiful tribute by the Pioneers because “I truly got it,” and felt grateful for her TV role in my childhood.
RIP, Jane Norman Beazley.