From 1966 to 1967, WFSU produced a children’s television program called Miss Nancy’s Store, starring educator Nancy Tribble Benda. Local Routes takes a look at the life led by Benda, who performed as a Weeki Wachi mermaid as a teenager, appeared on television in the 60s as Miss Nancy, and later in life worked for the Florida Department of Education as the Director of Equal Opportunity Programs.
It might be hard to believe, but there was once a time before classic television shows like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street. Children’s programming, like the content aired by
PBS KIDS today, was not always prevalent. Up until the late 1960s, there were only a handful of shows made for kids. But one day in 1966, children across the State of Florida turned on their TV sets and tuned into Miss Nancy’s Store, broadcast live from WFSU-TV in Tallahassee.
One of these children was Michael Martinez, now a writer and theorist. “My earliest memory of Miss Nancy is of one of my friends suddenly saying at about 4:30 or 5 in the afternoon, ‘I’ve gotta go home and watch Miss Nancy!’ Well I said, ‘What’s Miss Nancy?’” Martinez reminisces. A few days later, Martinez says he flipped to channel 2 from his home in Miami and soon started watching the show every day.
The banner from Michael Martinez’s blog post titled “Miss Nancy’s Story: In Search of History on the Internet” originally written in 2015 and last updated in 2019.
If you search for “
Miss Nancy’s Store” on the Internet in 2021, chances are you will come across a prolific blog post by Michael Martinez that is six years in the making. When Local Routes was approached to pursue the story of the program by WFSU Education Manager Tasha Weinstein, Martinez’s blog was one of a few strong Internet sources for information on the show. Up until the production of this segment, it was one of the only places to find an account of someone with lived memories of the program. Fortunately, Weinstein had been hot on the trail of Miss Nancy’s Store for years before production began, and her research guided Local Routes to a wealth of resources for this story.
Weinstein contacted the Zonta Club of Tallahassee, the local chapter of women’s rights organization Zonta International, which Nancy had been a member of until her passing in 2015. It was through Tasha that Local Routes contacted a couple of Nancy’s fellow Zontians as well as her younger sister for interviews.
Nancy Tribble (later Benda) as a child and teenager.
Nancy Benda (nee Tribble) was born in 1930 in DeLand, Florida. Nancy’s sister Carmean Johnson describes her sister as “very talented from the get-go.” She participated in swimming from a young age and was one of the very first Weeki Wachee Mermaids at Weeki Wachee Spring in Hernando County, Florida. Johnson recalls staying with Nancy while she worked at Weeki Wachee Springs in the summers. “She was always very good to us. We loved being at Weeki Wachee and being a little pesty,” Johnson chuckles. In Nancy’s senior year of high school, she performed as Ann Blyth’s swimming double in the film
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. To promote the film, she was paraded around Tampa in a moving aquarium, and presented with the key to the city.
Nancy Tribble (later Benda) during production and promotion for Mr. Peabody and The Mermaid.
Nancy enrolled at Florida State University after graduating from Leon High School in 1948 and began studying education a stone’s throw away from home. She grew up on Palm Court, which at the time was a residential neighborhood less than a block away from the east side of campus. In her undergraduate career, Nancy was a member of the swimming organization the Tarpon Club, a dream she had sought after for quite a while. According to her sister, she chose not to accept any payment for her work in
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid as it would have precluded her from joining the club. In her Sophomore year, she married Chuck Benda, a local architect.
After graduating from Florida State with her B.A. and M.A. in Education, Nancy spent several years teaching in the Gadsden County and Leon County School Districts. In 1960, she took a course on techniques in educational television, which quickly changed her trajectory. In that same year, WFSU-TV went live from Tallahassee from inside Dodd Hall on FSU’s campus.
WFSU-TV studio doors, photographed on August 22, 1960. Photo Courtesy State Archives of Florida.
While interviewing Nancy’s sister Carmean, she mentioned the name Rhett Bryson as it appeared on a letter addressed to Nancy in 1988. Local Routes found his name listed in the faculty directory for Furman University in South Carolina, gave him a ring, and soon discovered that Mr. Bryson, now a professor of scenic design and lighting, was the original puppet maker and puppeteer from Miss Nancy’s Store.
Rhett Bryson in the 1960s. Photo Courtesy Rhett Bryson.
In the early 60s, Bryson was a theater student at Florida State University and worked as a camera operator at WFSU. “It came upon me to apply for a new job that they established with Nancy Benda,” says Bryson. “They wanted to do puppets and Nancy teaching fifth grade social studies.” The program,
A Nation’s Story, aired in 1962, and was so successful that by 1965, the Florida Department of Education and WFSU-TV partnered to create Miss Nancy’s Store, to be broadcast across the state. Written in collaboration with producer/director Keith Carlson, Bryson, and Nancy herself, the show took place inside a fictional storefront with a variety of puppet characters designed, puppeteered, and voiced by Bryson.
A promotional photo from a WFSU-TV schedule in 1963, advertising the precursor to Miss Nancy’s Store, Our Nation’s Story. Photo Courtesy State Archives of Florida.
“There were three characters I did on the show,” Bryson explains. “Professor Alton was in a theater environment with a curtain that opened and closed. Then there was the dragon in the library. Nancy would pull books out and the dragon would come out of a hole in the wall. As I recall, there was a sign above the hole that said “QUIET!” His name was Dewey The Decimal Dragon because of the Dewey Decimal System,” recalls Bryson. “In the brick wall, a section came out and a character named Vince lived there. He was a hippopotamus washer. He always said to Nancy that he didn’t have much work.”
Dewey the Decimal Dragon Vince the Hippopotamus Washer and Nancy. Nancy performing alongside Dewey the Decimal Dragon, Professor Alton in his theater, Rhett Bryson puppeteering Professor Alton from behind the set.
The set of Miss Nancy’s Store. Photos Courtesy Rhett Bryson.
According to the Florida Memory article titled “Miss Nancy’s Story,” in its first year alone, Miss Nancy’s Store ranked number one on WFSU-TV’s Channel 11 and brought in 11,000 pieces of fan mail. Michael Martinez recalls how novel the show was to his young mind. “It was groundbreaking in a way that it stayed with me.”
Despite the high ratings and fanbase, production costs were high, and the State of Florida cut the funding to the program in August 1967. Many fans wrote to WFSU-TV begging to keep the show on the air. “I’ve read some of the tribute letters that have been published on the archive site,” says Martinez. “I know how disappointed I felt when I knew I could no longer see the show. They must have felt equal, if not stronger, disappointment.”
Postcard begging WFSU to keep Miss Nancy’s Store on the air. Reads “Please don’t take Miss Nancy’s Store off the air. It is my favorite. I am 7” Signed David MacLeod. Letter asking WFSU to keep Miss Nancy’s Store on the air. Reads “Dear Sirs: ‘Miss Nancy’s Store’ is the answer to this article [newspaper clipping attached]. For once couldn’t the viewer be considered and some other program be dropped and put the money into this feature that holds so many children’s attention? Sincerely, Mr. George Brant” Letter asking WFSU to keep Miss Nancy’s Store on the air. Reads “Dear Channel 2, I watch Miss Nancy’s Store every day. I like her program. Would you please keep her on the air, so children of my age and younger can continue to be educated and intertained [sic]? Thank you very much. Sincerely, Wanda Coles Age 8 1/2”
Collection of fan mail begging WFSU to keep Miss Nancy’s Store on the air. All letters courtesy State Archives of Florida.
However, the story of Miss Nancy did not end in 1967. Nancy Benda went on to continue a career in education and notably worked for the Florida Department of Education as the Director of Equal Opportunity Programs, where she retired from in 2003. A fellow member of the Zonta Club of Tallahassee and coworker at FDOE, Judy White, recalls the impact Nancy made in this position. “She was instrumental in her role at [F]DOE with equality in sports and getting legislation passed in 1993 here in Florida,” White says. “She worked at making that legislation actually work in practice.” White describes Nancy as a “fierce friend.” Fellow Zontian Pam Ridley honors the work Nancy did as a member of Zonta. “She was very firm in her beliefs with regards to how things must be done to improve the lives of women and girls.”
Nancy Benda with her two dogs. Nancy Benda later in life.
Photos of Nancy Benda later in life. Courtesy Carmean Johnson.
Although Nancy Benda passed away after a short battle with pancreatic cancer in 2015, her legacy as a children’s television host had just begun. That same year, Michael Martinez wrote his blog post about the show, and his tribute garnered attention from former viewers. “As time goes by, I tend to develop what I call mindworms: memories that keep cropping up,” Martinez explains. “Over the last 20 or so years that I’ve been on the Internet, I have occasionally gone back and tried to find out what happened to the people who did these shows that had such a profound impact on me as a child and a teenager. Miss Nancy was one of those people, and for several years I found virtually nothing about her. Sometime in 2015… I started to find her picture and her name on archives.”
Ironically, Martinez’s sudden luck in finding materials on Nancy Benda likely coincided with her passing. Nancy’s sister Carmean donated several photos and papers from her estate to the State Archives of Florida for historic preservation efforts. Nancy never saw the tribute Martinez wrote for her, or the support from fellow viewers that came after the fact. “People started writing to me and providing more details about her life and telling me things. I never expected it to touch so many hearts.”
The full collection of color photographs from the set of Miss Nancy’s Store, taken by Rhett Bryson.
For this segment, Local Routes was lucky enough to reference the photos and papers held by the State Archives of Florida on their Florida Memory website, as well as accounts from a devoted viewer, friends of Nancy, and a crew member of the show. Unfortunately, all video footage of Miss Nancy’s Store was destroyed sometime in the 1980s. Rhett Bryson made an effort to preserve some for his records but was too late. “I said ‘I think I’ll contact WFSU and see if I can get them to transcribe those videos for me.’ And I found out that they had had them but they destroyed them, about two weeks before,” Bryson laments. However, Bryson was able to provide Local Routes with the next best thing – color photographs he had taken of the set. Every color photograph in this segment was taken by Rhett Bryson in the 60s and has never been published on the Internet until now.
Martinez believes that Miss Nancy’s Store laid a foundation for educational television in the years to come. “I view what Nancy Benda did as a pioneering effort. I believe she does deserve credit for laying the groundwork for shows like
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I wish Miss Nancy’s Store had survived and become something like that.”
Miss Nancy. Photo Courtesy State Archives of Florida.
While the show may have been short-lived, Nancy Benda’s legacy lives on in the work she accomplished as an educator and in the memories of the children who tuned into Miss Nancy’s Store.