By Laura Lippman
August 21, 1994
At any rate, this putative adult inevitably buttonholes Miss Nancy, as she forever will be known, and wails plaintively: "You never saw me in the Magic Mirror!"
Miss Nancy has a stock answer. "Well, then you had a rotten mother! She never wrote me to tell me to use your name."
Romper stomper bomper boo -- is Miss Nancy of "Romper Room" really saying those things to you?
At 79, Nancy Claster is still going strong, having long ago made peace with the fact that not-so-young fans may be carrying a few grudges, especially ones with unusual names. (Magic Mirror saw a lot of Sues and Janes, Tommys and Johns, not so many Madelines and Pernells.) Others merely felt oppressed by Do-Bee's constant perfection.
Meanwhile, the 41-year-old children's show, one of Baltimore's most successful and far-reaching exports, is still on the air in almost 30 markets. And, while those syndication deals are gradually winding down, Bertram H. Claster's brainchild may have a second life ahead, thanks to a second generation of Clasters. At Timonium-based Claster Television, "Romper Room" has always been the franchise, even as the company branched out into other syndication ventures.
But "Romper Room" in the 1990s? How does one retool this quintessentially 1950s show, with its Do-Bee and Don't-Bee, its non-sectarian blessing over milk and cookies, its low-tech production values? You might as well try to get today's pre-schoolers to watch some show with a goofy purple dinosaur, singing simple songs.
Hmmmmmmm. One begins to see their point.
In fact, the success of "Barney and Friends" -- along with the 1990 Children's Television Act -- has created the perfect business climate for a new "Romper Room," say Miss Nancy's children, John Claster and Sally Claster Bell, the company's president and executive vice president.
"The key is balance," says John Claster. "We need to do more with technology. The pace needs to be speeded up. The mobility of cameras will take us into new arenas."
"We're always getting calls from producers -- 'Why don't we do a new 'Romper Room'?' " says Ms. Bell, who's based in Los Angeles. "Our feeling is we always thought we could update 'Romper Room,' but the time is really right now."
The Clasters already have a producer: Mitchell Kriegman of New York, with 15 years' experience in children's television. Now 42, Mr. Kriegman vaguely remembers watching "Romper Room" as a child, but hopes his children will like the new show.
"I don't think we're going for the nostalgia," he says. "When you look at all the successful shows today -- 'Barney,' 'Sesame Street' -- they're just doing what 'Romper Room' did. It was one of the first shows to take kids seriously and learning seriously."
Of course it doesn't hurt, Mr. Kriegman concedes, that the show comes with a name that evokes in baby boomer parents the same sort of warm, fuzzy feelings inspired by Howdy Doody, Dick and Jane, and Bosco. "Romper Room" is an instantly recognizable brand name -- one protected zealously by Claster Television over the years.
If only Nancy Claster could remember who coined the alliterative title. But it was so long ago, and everyone was so unenthusiastic about Bert Claster's little idea for some dumb nursery school show.
An instant hit
In the early 1950s, the Clasters, working as a team, already had produced one local television show, "Candy Corner," a talent showcase for young people. But WBAL was cold to the idea of a show for kindergarten children, at home in the mornings because the post-war baby boom had swollen enrollments, forcing some 5-year-olds to attend afternoon sessions.
Bert Claster had a simple philosophy: "Kids like to watch kids." Almost a generation later, the producers of "Sesame Street" would conduct exhaustive studies to reach that same conclusion. In 1952, however, this was a radical concept.
"But Bert really could sell coals to Newcastle," Nancy Claster says of her husband, who died in 1984.
"He wouldn't give up on the idea," she recalls. "It took almost a year to convince them, and then they would give it only a trial run."
A native Baltimorean with deep roots here -- "Born, bred and buttered" is her description -- Mrs. Claster worked alongside her husband, writing scripts and talking to educators who helped them develop the on-air preschool. It was never part of the plan for her to star as well.
But in a twist worthy of a Ruby Keeler movie, the chosen teacher had to bow out days before the Feb. 9, 1953, debut, and Mrs. Claster suddenly became Miss Nancy.
Before the show aired, WBAL devised an unusual arrangement with its sponsor, Read's Drugstores, to test the show's appeal. Instead of mentioning the sponsor on air, the station told children to write in if they wanted to know where to buy a Howdy Doody toy.
Within three days, the station had 5,000 postcards. And Miss Nancy had a new job, one that would last 11 years, until she was succeeded by her daughter Sally. She suddenly was presiding over Baltimore's largest classroom.
"All over the city, children would pack their lunches and carry a glass of milk with them into the living room, so they could go to school with 'Romper Room,' " Miss Nancy recalls. "Teachers later told us that 'Romper Room' children came to school better prepared."
Miss Nancy hated her voice, hated the way she looked on television, but thousands of children loved the striking, gravelly voiced schoolmarm. CBS loved the show, too, and offered the Clasters the then-princely sum of $5,000 a week to put it on the network.
National television could put a show into a million homes overnight -- and cancel it overnight, too, Bert Claster realized. Instead, he syndicated the show to a Norfolk, Va., station, with Miss Nancy training its local "teacher." Other cities followed. By 1960, "Romper Room" was in 91 cities with an estimated 5 million viewers -- and still growing.
Adhering to format
Locally, the show moved from WBAL to WJZ to WMAR, from one camera to three, even as it was spreading to Puerto Rico, Canada, Japan, Brazil and Gibraltar. After she left the air in 1964, Miss Nancy continued to train the teachers. Producers fanned across the country from the home office, ensuring the local hostesses adhered to the "Romper Room" format.
"The girls would go way off whack," explains Thom House of Hoboken, N.J., who visited "Romper Room" sets from Newfoundland to San Francisco in the early 1960s. "We had to monitor them a lot their first year."
But "the girls" were often the most predictable element on the show. Six children, occasional animal guests, live television -- anything could happen, and it usually did.
John Ziemann, still a WMAR floor manager who started his career on "Romper Room," remembers the day no children showed up. "Sally went on and she did the live show without any kids. She did one heckuva job, ad-libbed an entire show. She said: ' "Romper Room" is closed for the day. You're home for the day. Let's play.' She got the greatest television reviews we ever had."
Through most of its run, "Romper Room" enjoyed good reviews, primarily because of its emphasis on interactivity, education and values. "This particular show deals with ordinariness, to a degree with reality, and makes a basically happy thing of them," The Sun editorialized on the 25th anniversary, "Long live 'Romper Room.' "
End of an era?
But there were changes behind the scenes. In 1969, Claster Television was acquired by Hasbro Inc. Bert Claster stepped down in 1973 and John, then 27, took over. On air, Miss Sally gave way to Miss Molly. Candy Claster, the youngest Claster and sometimes Do-Bee, hung up her wings and went into real estate.
By the 1980s, some carped that "Romper Room" was irrelevant to modern lives. A taped version of the show was distributed to most markets. It went off the air in its own hometown in 1983, a year before Bert Claster died. The last live version signed off in Oakland, Calif., in December 1990. An era appeared to be coming to an end.
Last month, "Romper Room" puppeteer Bruce Edward Hall, in the New York Times, wrote of the show's imminent demise in syndication. A lovely article, the Clasters agree, full of terrific anecdotes about the show. But the reports of "Romper Room's" death were greatly exaggerated. In fact, the article brought a flurry of calls from producers eager to reinvent the show.
The Clasters were ahead of them. If everything goes as planned, the new "Romper Room" could be on the air within two years. Recently, Claster Television, which syndicates several children's shows, came close to making a deal with Fox Children's Network. The deal didn't happen, but it convinced the Clasters they were headed in the right direction.
The new show will be updated with computer-generated graphics and new puppets. Other changes include a younger hostess, possibly in blue jeans, more like a day-care worker or baby sitter than a teacher. Do-Bee will be high-spirited and mischievous, a little less unctuous.
Once again, as their parents did 40-plus years ago, this generation of Clasters has sat down with educators, trying to pinpoint what today's children need most. The buzzword they keep hearing is "group entry skills" -- problem-solving, sharing, following directions.
"What we used to call 'getting along with others,' " Sally Bell explains, ever the teacher.
But why "Romper Room"? Why now, after we've gone to Sesame Street, hugged Barney and exchanged karate chops with the Mighty Morphins? If you can't go home again, how can you go to "Romper Room" again?
"Parents think there's another childhood their kids are supposed to be having," says Dr. Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American and media studies at the University of Maryland College Park. "The 1950s and '60s are the ideal. It makes for not guilt-free, but less guilty television."
But the final irony is that parents basking in the warm glow of their "Romper Room" memories may have missed that Miss Nancy was a working mom. So was Miss Sally. Where do you think their children were when they were on air? Sometimes in the studio, sometimes at home.
A good example
"I think it was good for us," says John Claster, who can't remember a time his mother didn't work. "It set a very good example for us, to always have a working mom." Certainly, the Claster clan today comes across as a remarkably happy, close-knit family.
Of course, there were unique tensions in the household. Miss Nancy remembers coming home from a long day, only to be greeted by the shouts of daughter Candy, who had stayed home from school sick. That morning, the little girl's drawers had been in disarray, inspiration for the day's "Don't-Bee" segment.
So Miss Nancy, beloved by children throughout the city, came home drained and tired, only to hear Candy shouting: "You're the meanest, rottenest mother in the world! I'm always the Don't-Bee! John and Sally are never the Don't-Bee! Candy is always the Don't-Bee!"
Ultimately, Candy grew up to be Do-Bee, and Don't-Bee was laid to rest. One of the original Do-Bee costumes is now in the Museum of Television Treasures in California.
And Miss Nancy remains a 1950s icon, going about her life in Baltimore, knowing it's only a matter of time before someone else accosts her: "Hey, Miss Nancy! You never saw me in the Magic Mirror."
'ROMPER ROOM' MOMENTS
One live television show, six lively children, an audience of millions. The results ranged from hilarious to heart-warming. Some favorite "Romper Room" memories include:
• The do-it-yourself "Romper Room" toys. There were "posture baskets" -- 79-cent cookie baskets -- and Romper-Stompers, miniature stilts that could be fashioned from orange juice cans and string. The latter were inspired by Nancy Claster's father, who would never allow his own children to walk on stilts.
• Once Miss Nancy was trying to do a commercial for a "growth tonic," when she felt a small elbow in her ribs. The child next to her whispered: "That stuff's no good." When Miss Nancy persisted, the child bellowed: "I tell you, Miss Nancy, my doctor and my mother said that stuff's no good!"
• One child announced her mother's pregnancy on the air -- before her mother had mentioned it to anyone.
• In Flint, Mich., the local "Romper Room" teacher suggested children at home ask their mothers to take them to the local airport to see a plane. More than 5,000 families showed up, causing a substantial traffic jam.
• Through its segments on mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, "Romper Room" was credited with saving lives throughout the country. Miss Nancy also got a polio shot on air.
• Perhaps the most famous story involves a little girl, Becky, who happened to be coming out of the tub when Miss Nancy announced she could see Becky through the Magic Mirror. The little girl burst into tears and then crawled under the bed, refusing to come out.
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