Thursday, October 16, 2008

Romper Room

If you grew up in Genesee County in the 60s, do you remember Romper Room? I had forgotten all about it until I saw "Former Flint resident Lois Whitmeyer reflects on 'Romper Room'" in yesterday's Flint Journal.

I've pasted the article here in case the link disappears.

Former Flint resident Lois Whitmeyer reflects on 'Romper Room'
by Chick Jacobs | The Associated Press
Wednesday October 15, 2008, 7:36 AM

FAYETTEVILLE, North Carolina -- By today's computer-generated, HD-animated standards, "Romper Room" seems pretty tame stuff for kids. Just a show with a cute hostess, puppets and parades, and a "magic mirror" that didn't fool anyone.

But 50 years ago, Lois Whitmeyer notes, that flickering, black-and-white TV show was cutting edge. And in a time when a Do-Bee meant something altogether different from today, Whitmeyer was one of a lucky few starring in children's TV.

"Everybody and his uncle wanted to be on the show," the former Flint resident and host of the locally produced "Romper Room" show said. "It was new, it was exciting."

Whitmeyer's mementos of the early days of kid's TV are tucked in photo albums. She's not sure where the mirror is -- probably somewhere in a box in her Gates Four home.

And no, the magic mirror still doesn't fool kids.

"Really it was two mirrors," she said. "I'd hold up the first one, with a real mirror, and say the magic words.

"Then the camera would blur while I put down that mirror and pulled up the other one. Then I was able to 'see' the kids at home, or that little Johnny hadn't been doing his homework or whatever the parents had written to me.

"We laugh now, but back then it was a big deal to have Miss Lois say hello to you on Romper Room."

Unless you're a transplant from Michigan, you probably don't remember Miss Lois. Each town had a different "Romper Room" hostess. New York had Miss Louise. Baltimore had Miss Nancy. Every show across seven countries was unique.

The message, however, was consistent: Be polite. Viewers were pleasantly reminded to eat their vegetables, not to put rocks in their mouths, say please and thank you and generally do all the things that a purple dinosaur suggested two generations later.

Whitmeyer stumbled into celebrity through a combination of accident and desperation. The wife of TV programming pioneer Ernie Whitmeyer, she was a stay-at-home mom as her husband helped get Flint TV station WJRT (Channel 12) up and running.

One of the first shows on the station was "Romper Room." Lois would watch each morning with her son, Art, as the hostess led children in songs and activities.
"It got to where I knew the show by heart," she said.

One day, Ernie Whitmeyer received a panicked call from the studio. The "Romper Room" lady had been in a car accident and was hospitalized.

"I mentioned offhand that it couldn't be that hard," Lois Whitmeyer recalls. "I said I could do it."

The next morning, she was. She clomped around the cramped studio with six children every day while the regular hostess recovered.

Studio officials were so impressed that when the original "Romper Room" hostess moved to a bigger market, Lois was asked to be a permanent replacement.

"Remember at the time, TV was still evolving," she said. "'Romper Room' was a franchised show owned by Bert Claster. Each hostess was required to attend training school in Baltimore, to learn how to work with cameras and lights.

"Since I was with Ernie, I knew all of that from the beginning. Those poor girls were having to learn it. I was living it."

In Flint, she was a local celebrity. Kids would squeal when they spotted her shopping, and the TV station often sent her to events for publicity.

There were some close calls on the air. Since the show was live, there was no way to re-shoot gaffes.

"One time I was leading the children around in a parade, and the button holding up my skirt popped off," she said. "Luckily, the camera guy was quick and just moved the camera up above my waist, and we kept marching."

Whitmeyer proved so skilled that she was retained as a hostess. A few years later, she became one of the few "traveling hostesses" who flew around the country to fill in for others who were sick or often pregnant.

"You couldn't be pregnant and work on TV, even if you were married," she said. Often Art would accompany her, becoming an unofficial child of another city.

"I threatened him to never ever call me mom during the show," she said with a laugh. "God bless him, he never did. Some other kids would call me mom by accident, but he was real good about it."

Ernie's career took him to bigger stations in the mid-1960s, with milestones like the first televised basketball games at Madison Square Garden and the inaugural Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. Lois retired, returning to the other side of the magic mirror. Eventually the couple retired to Fayetteville.

Ernie Whitmeyer passed away a couple of years ago, and Lois has been battling a variety of illnesses. She doesn't brag about her past celebrity, but with a little coaxing, she can still sing the Do-Bee song.

"It was so much fun, and I feel I've been blessed with a wonderful life," she said. "I guess the only downside is I don't watch TV like most people. I'll sit there and talk to the screen."

Even without the magic mirror.

Chick Jacobs writes for The Fayetteville Observer.

Frankly, I don't remember much about Romper Room and I don't specifically remember Miss Lois. I do remember how excited I was the time she "saw" me in her magic mirror. (Back then I didn't realize I had one of the most common names for girls my age. I was only about 5 at the time and believed everything I saw on TV.) I'm sure kids today would be bored to death by Romper Room but I loved it and I'm glad this article made me remember it.

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