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Romper Room: Real children doing real things (1978)

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Children Romper Room teacher Jo Ann Federspiel
Children learning from Romper Room teacher Jo Ann Federspiel (Photo courtesy of WRAL-TV/Capitol Broadcasting)

Romper Room: “Real children doing real things”

By Anna Quindlen, N Y Times

Perhaps no one in America publicly exhibits such unalloyed pep, good humor, and energy in the early hours of the morning as Sally Gelbard, known to those of her friends who are between the ages of four and six as Miss Sally.

Unless, of course, you count Miss Marti in Wichita, Miss Soco in Los Angeles, or Miss Marianne in New York, who have all taken tutelage in good temper from Miss Sally herself.

romper room magic mirrorWhile many people are still grumbling over their morning coffee, these ladies are preparing to fall on the floor, fondle fish or fowls, bang spiritedly on pots and pans, and sit on small seats, surrounded by small children, with big smiles on their faces.

They are Romper Room teachers, and this month, the show they host celebrates its 25th anniversary as the oldest children’s show on television, most fittingly led by the daughter of the original smiling Miss Nancy, the present Miss Sally herself.

“Romper Room has really seen the metamorphosis of this business,” said Miss Sally recently, after doing one live and one taped segment of the quasi-classroom show for preschoolers from her home base in Baltimore. ” When we first syndicated, it was all local, with our representatives going around checking for quality control; there wasn’t much for children on television — or at least not much that was good. Now there are pre-taped shows in a lot of cities and, of course, there are excellent children’s shows. But I still think ‘Romper Room’ is good because it’s real. Real children doing real things.”

This day Miss Sally, handsom ely dressed in a silk blouse and buck skirt, had showed a half-dozen real children chosen for a two-week stint on the show a variety of “yuk” items — poisons found in and around the home — demonstrated an experiment anyone could do consisting of chasing pepper across the surface of a pie plate with a bar of soap, and brought in as guests some exotic fish and the man who raises them.

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Romper Room 1970
Romper Room ad from 1970 (courtesy of the The TV Guide Historian)

The children seemed oblivious to the cameras, the lights, and the fact that they had to change clothes to simulate two days of shooting, but the fish man was quite starstruck. “How’d I do?” he asked when he left his little chair.

It’s all in a play day’s work for a Romper Room teacher — as are those moments when one of the children gets sick, says something embarassing, or lifts up a shirt or a dress on camera — but for none so much as Sally Claster Gelbard, whose parents founded the show when she was ten.

Although in 16 cities, including New York, the show is produced locally; and in 35 others, Chicago and Washington among them, Miss Sally comes in a film can. The family has maintained close control over scripts, props, operations, and the all-important Romper Room teachers. Sally’s brother, John, is president of the syndicating company, which also produces “Bowling for Dollars,” and her husband Bert is vice president.

And, to the amazement of some farsighted children, Sally’s sister Candy is the Do-Bee (as in “Do be a helpful boy or girl”), one of the features of the original show fondly remembered and still retained.

Candy, the mother of two children herself, wears a gold and black fake fur bee costume and causes a great deal of commotion among the children who visit the studio, occasionally, however, one savvy child will blurt out, “Hey, there’s a lady in there.” This didn’t happen in the old days, when the Do-Bee was merely a placard drawing; then, too, there was a Don’t-Bee, which has since been discarded in favor of positive thinking.

Sally has never been a Bee, but her career as a Romper Room teacher has been long and satisfying. A graduate of Connecticut College, she planned to do graduate work in history. But her mother, Miss Nancy, developed cancer, and Sally replaced her 15 years ago.

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romper-room-signNancy Claster now comes out of healthy semi-retirement for very special on-the-air occasions; she and Sally estimate that between them, they have over the years trained more than 500 Romper Room teachers.

Although a Romper Room teacher often finds herself, early in the day, wearing a fire hat or peering into the Magic Mirror (“I see Donnie and Leslie and Peter and Rhonda…” ), Sally says she does not think of the job as silly. ” Oh, occasionally you feel silly doing certain things, but most of the time, no. Children aren’t silly; they’re fun.”

More than two million children watch “Romper Room” each week in the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, and millions more recall it as much a part of their ’50s and ’60s childhoods as crayons and Tinkertoys. “Whenever I meet someone of a certain age, they immediately remember the Do-Bee, or the Magic Mirror,” said Miss Sally, whose format still includes the pledge of allegiance and frequent references to good manners.

“It’s a very rewarding job,” said Miss Sally, “but there is responsibility. No swearing in public. I don’t smoke, although that’s not why I stopped. And no matter how naughty they are in the market. I can’t spank my kids. And they know it.”

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