1st `Romper Room' teacher Nancy Claster dies at 82
By Fred Rasmussen
For a generation of children, a high point of their day was sitting in front of the television to watch "Romper Room," hoping Miss Nancy would see them in her "magic mirror."
"Romper bomper stomper boo, tell me, tell me, tell me do, magic mirror tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play?" she carefully intoned in her gravely voice.Nancy Claster, who will forever remain Miss Nancy in the hearts and minds of her loyal fans as television's original "Romper Room" teacher, died yesterday morning of cancer at her Harper House condominium in Cross Keys. She was 82.
"When Miss Nancy started saying, `Romper bomper stomper boo,' it seemed almost cult-like to me and, in fact, was the first cult thing that I ever remembered," John Waters, Hollywood director and producer, said yesterday.
When asked last year by Oprah Winfrey if he had any regrets, actor Kelsey Grammer, star of the NBC sitcom "Frasier," quickly answered: "Miss Nancy never saw me in her magic mirror."
Brent Gunts, 80, pioneering Baltimore broadcaster and retired WBAL-TV general manager, said, " `Romper Room' was an outstanding success in the industry because it went beyond entertaining kids -- it taught them. It was a unique kindergarten of the air that not only taught the ABC's but also math, English and manners."
In 1952, Mrs. Claster's husband, Bertram H. Claster, whom she married in 1938, realized that "kids like to watch kids," during a time when such an idea was considered somewhat radical in television.
But Mr. Claster, who died in 1984 and had been the former manager of Baltimore's Hippodrome Theater, became a pioneering TV producer in 1949 when he established Claster Television Productions. Working together, the couple created "The Candy Corner" for NBC in the late 1940s.
By the early 1950s, they had a new idea for a show for preschoolers and spent the better part of a year trying to convince WBAL-TV of its viability.
"They only had $5,000 in the bank and a hunch about the success of a potential market for such a show, which was, in essence, a televised kindergarten," said John H. Claster, a son, who lives in Roland Park and is president of Claster Television Inc.
Miss Nancy steps in
In a last-minute disaster just days before the show was to make its debut on Feb. 9, 1953, the teacher scheduled to be on the show bowed out, forcing Mrs. Claster to assume the role.
"My father gave her the stage name of Rodgers because he didn't want Claster repeated since he was the producer," her son said.
Beamed from the studios of WBAL-TV, then located on Charles and 26th streets, "Romper Room," which was sponsored by Read's Drugstores and featured "Miss Elaine" at the piano, became an instant hit.
"The show was so successful that the station's switchboard was jammed for hours with parents hoping to get their children on the show," her son said.
To test the show's appeal, the station asked children to drop the station a postcard if they wanted to know where to buy a Howdy Doody toy. Within three days, 5,000 pieces of mail flooded WBAL's mailroom.
In the era of black-and-white television, Miss Nancy became the quintessential 1950s television star and was known for her tailored Fit 'n' Flair dresses, choker-length pearls, knit-shell tops and carefully coiffed thick hair.
"She was popular and is very much a part of the Baltimore lexicon," said retired Evening Sun critic Lou Cedrone yesterday.
"I remember when if you got your kid on the show it was considered a real coup, the competition was so stiff," he said.
"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,' " Mrs. Claster told The Sun in a 1994 interview. "Teachers later told us that `Romper Room' children came to school better prepared."
Perils of live TV
The show, which taught health lessons, songs and games, featured exotic animals from the zoo and even showed Miss Nancy getting a polio shot live on the air, wasn't without its perils in the era of live television.
The first week the show was on the air, a child interrupted story time with a shrill cry:
"I have to go potty! And I'm doing it right now!"
Miss Nancy was forced to cope with a plethora of on-air problems, including stomach upsets and scene-stealing children.
One day while Miss Nancy was doing a commercial for a growth tonic, a youngster tapped her and said, "That stuff's no good."
While she continued, the child was equally persistent and shouted, "I tell you, Miss Nancy, my doctor and my mother said that stuff's no good!"
To the chagrin of an expectant mother who hadn't told anyone of her condition, her child did it for her right on live TV.
Another memorable feature of the show was the "Do-Bee" and "Don't-Bee" game.
"Do-Bee a milk drinker," "Do-Bee a room-straightener," "Do-Bee a bed-maker"; Don't-Bee a street-crosser" and "Don't-Bee a nasty tongue."
Era winds down
Miss Nancy remained host of the show until 1964, when she was succeeded by her daughter, Sally Bell, known as Miss Sally until she left the show in 1980.
Locally, the show moved from WBAL to WJZ to WMAR, and by 1960, the show was in 91 cities across the nation with an estimated 5 million viewers. The show eventually spread to Canada, Japan, Brazil and Puerto Rico.
Mrs. Claster continued training teachers while Baltimore producers ensured that the local stations adhered to the format.
In 1996, the show that was one of the last of the home-grown, make-it-up-as-you-go style of television show disappeared from the airwaves. New York production ended in 1987, while continuing in Canada with Miss Fran until production was suspended in 1992.
According to her son, the show can still be seen on weekends in San Francisco.
In a 25th anniversary editorial, The Sun said, "This particular show deals with ordinariness, to a degree with reality, and makes basically a happy thing of them."
The former Nancy Goldman, who was born and raised in Northwest Baltimore, graduated from Park School in 1933. She earned her bachelor's degree from Goucher College in 1937 and married Mr. Claster two years later.
A memorial service will be at 3: 30 p.m. tomorrow in the Goucher College Chapel, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson.
In addition to her son, she is survived by two daughters, Sally C. Bell of Los Angeles and Candy Claster of Ruxton; a brother, Robert Goldman of Lutherville; a sister, Sue Baker of Baltimore; and four grandchildren.
Sun staff writer Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.