Update of classic may get to educate a new generation RETURN TO 'ROMPER ROOM'

August 21, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

She's 30 years into retirement, and it's still happening.

Nancy Claster goes about her life -- at the grocery store, the dry cleaner or even the track -- and finds herself cornered by some grown-up, someone who should have put away childish things. And here it is, 30 years later, and this guy remembers her face, a nicely aged version of the one that smiled from thousands of Baltimore television sets in the 1950s. Or maybe it's her voice that tips him off, the husky rasp her late husband, Bert, once said sounds as if she gargles with Sani-Flush.

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.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.