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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

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.

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