|Romper Room and "Miss Jane" - 1966
The franchised children’s show ROMPER ROOM had first come to Birmingham on WBRC-TV in October 1955, with “Miss Jean” Pierce as the teacher. That version had lasted for two and a half years, and by the time the series was revived on WAPI-TV fifty years ago this month (April 18, 1966), its original audience was in high school! “Miss Jane” Hooper was the first exposure to school that many of us kindergarten-age youngsters would have, and as a salute to this anniversary, BIRMINGHAM REWOUND presents the following interview that was conducted with her back in February 1997:
TIM: What had you been doing before you started on ROMPER ROOM?
MISS JANE: I had graduated from Auburn University with a degree in education, so I had been teaching school for five years by that time ... primarily first grade. I stopped teaching when we decided to raise a family. I was feeding the baby in the high chair, with the television on, one day when I heard the announcement that if you had had teaching experience with young children, or television experience, Channel 13 would like to talk to you. That's how I heard about it, and what made me call, I'm not sure!
So there were others who responded to the same announcement?
There were over 200; some of them were teachers, but not all of them. I remember Charlotte Lane Dominick was in the group; she had done a lot of television commercials. There were already two women at Channel 13 before I got there, Bette Lee Hansen and Rosemary Lucas. They were the two women "on television" at Channel 13, so to speak.
So you were picked, and then what happened?
Well, I was selected on April 3, 1966, and we were to go on the air April 18! When I was selected it was either a Wednesday or a Thursday, and they told me that on Sunday I had to fly to Baltimore, Maryland. Romper Room was owned by the Claster family, and they wanted me to fly at their expense to Baltimore and go through a week of watching the show being done live. At that time, it was being done by the Clasters' daughter Sally. So, Miss Sally would do the show and I would watch, then I would either go home with Sally or go to her mother's house, or to Miss Music's, the pianist, and would learn the different routines, or they would teach me some of the songs. They would tell me how to present the children, and we would just run through the whole thing. The Clasters were just lovely; they were so gracious, and I had a terrific time in Baltimore visiting with them and getting to know the family. It was all an ad-lib show, not scripted, but they wanted to ensure I knew all the different segments and how to present them.
So there were certain things that had to be incorporated into anyone's version of the show?
They would send scripts that just listed the names of the things, the names of the games they wanted you to play that day, or the story time ... You could select your own book to read, but a certain number of minutes had to be allotted for story time, refreshment time, and commercials, depending on how many sponsors you had.
Was everything planned out for you, or did you have to come up with different things to do each day?
It was very creative, which was one of the things I loved. For example, one of the segments was to take an imaginary trip. Well, I could decide where we were going to ride our horses, what we were going to see, what we were going to do ... so there was a lot of creativity involved in it. Any time you have to ad-lib for 30 minutes you HAVE to be creative! But there were certain standard things the Clasters provided
Did the Clasters provide prerecorded music, or did you have to perform the songs live?
The nice thing about that is that when I was at Channel 13, Henry Kimbrell was a member of the staff and he became my Mr. Music. That was just fabulous; who else had anyone as talented as Henry Kimbrell coming in for 30 minutes every day and playing for me? He played the piano and was a wonderful musician; he later became quite an artist and was well-known for his paintings. Henry was one of my favorite people. He would come in each morning while we were setting up and getting ready, and he would sit down at the piano and just play all these lovely things while I was setting up. Then, when I did the program of course, he would accompany me ... and I DID have to sing! The Clasters taught us all the songs; I spent a whole day with their Miss Music in Baltimore, who gave me all the words and the songs, and she would have me sing them, so that was a little bit of training. Before that, I had only sung when I was teaching school with the first graders! These were four and five year olds, so they were just a little younger than first grade.
What was the criteria for picking the kids who appeared on the show?
When the show started we didn't have much time after I got back from Baltimore to find children for the first show; I had to hustle around and find six children to start that day. Someone from the television station had a daughter, I remember, and he said his little girl would be on it ... so that was one, then I needed five more. We had a friend who had a daughter that age, and we talked them into letting Melanie be on the program with me. For the rest, it was word of mouth. The station was scurrying trying to find four-and-five-year-olds, and so was I! But we finally came up with six, and that's how we started. Immediately after we started programming, we told the children at home that if they would like to come and be in Romper Room School, just send in a letter. We had just hundreds and hundreds of letters, and of course there was still a huge waiting list when I left. So, that was very nice to know that they wanted to come!
How did you manage to choose from all the letters that were sent in?
It was first come, first served. I took the letters as they came in, and put them in my book. We started off by saying that there would be three children that had already spent one week, so every Monday morning there would be three seasoned veterans and three who were new. So, what we would do would be to go through my book, and I would call and ask the parents to bring the child in to talk to me, and we would get to know one another so they wouldn't be afraid, and so forth. We tried to interview them, but mainly just to make them feel comfortable and get them excited about the prospect, rather than scared.
How did you handle the discipline situation on the show?
The Clasters really had their heart in the show, and insisted that it be educational as well as entertaining, so if correction was necessary it was done right there on the air. We did have some children who would misbehave, and we would just handle that as if it were a classroom situation. Sometimes they were so overly excited that they would get a little mischievous, or would not want to sit down in their chair for a long period of time. So that did happen, but we felt that handling it was just as important as teaching everyone how to do right. And the Clasters were there the first day we went on the air; they flew to Birmingham, and of course that helped me; I was a nervous wreck!
I remember once, in the middle of the show, I turned around and one of the little girls was standing on top of her desk rather than sitting in her chair. I had to gently correct her and explain that the desk surfaces were where we would have to eat, and so on, just as a teacher would do. Generally speaking, I didn't have the problems that some of the other shows did. On shows like Cousin Cliff's, or Bozo, or Benny Carle, the children were so hyped up that anything could happen; but when they came to Romper Room, they actually felt like they were in a real school situation, and behaved accordingly for the most part.
What can you remember about making personal appearances?
Well, of course Jack's Hamburgers was one of my big sponsors, as they were for Cousin Cliff and Sergeant Jack and everyone else ... and when they would open a new store, like in Gadsden or Sylacauga, we would go there and make personal appearances. They would say, "Kids, come by between the hours of so and so, and meet Miss Jane and get an autographed picture." So I had these pictures made, and I would sign them, meet the children, talk to them ... I didn't take any sort of act with me, but I would talk to them and tell them about the Magic Mirror, and tell them to write to me and send me pictures, because from time to time I would show things like artwork they had sent me. Mainly it was just getting to know them and shaking hands with them.
It appears that in most of the publicity photos that were made, you are wearing what looks to be the same dress. Was that done on purpose?
The story behind that dress is this: that is the dress I wore when I was selected. The Baltimore representative was down here choosing the Miss Whatever for Romper Room, and in my final interview with him and my screen test, when I really went on camera live and they narrowed it down to three of us, that was the dress I wore. It was brand new and I thought it was just a really super dress; it was an off-white knit dress with a red and blue stripe around the neck. So that sort of became my lucky dress to myself, and I wore it for my standard picture that was made to pass around. I wore it once again when we did the presentation to meet Miss Jane and have Romper Room at the Alabama Theatre.
Can you remember anything specific about that event?
Oh, it was a wonderful idea that Baltimore came up with; have a gathering someplace, usually in a theatre house, where they could show cartoons later, but the local Romper Room person would do a live program; maybe choose children to come up on stage and play some of the games, sing some of the songs. Refreshments would be served, and it would be a really big Romper Room party. I was very nervous about that, very apprehensive, because we would talk about it on television and invite children to get their free tickets ... I kept thinking, "What if nobody shows up, or if there are only ten children in that whole Alabama Theatre? What if there are only 25?!" So the closer we got to the time, the more nervous I became, so I decided to wear my lucky dress ... since also it was the one in my picture, so the children could easily identify me with that.
Well, the morning of it I think we got up and went to the theatre early, and they were already lined up; we couldn't figure out why the traffic was so heavy on a Saturday morning, and what was going on downtown that we were in such a conflict with. It was bumper-to-bumper. But it turned out they were there to see me! I have never been so shocked, because there were people and mothers and children lined up for blocks. Then they came to us and said, “We can't get them all into the Alabama Theatre! What are we going to do?” So they called the Ritz Theatre, which agreed to let the overflow in there. So I did the show at the Alabama, then ran over to the Ritz while the cartoons were on and did the show all again; they brought in more Barber's milk and Kim & Jim Snack Cakes, and we had a great day, but I was just really shocked.
Can you talk about some of the sponsors you had on the show?
We started with Dortch snack cakes, an old established Birmingham firm that was a bakery. They make snack cakes like the Little Debbies you see today; later they added a little boy and girl's picture to the packages so children would recognize them as Kim & Jim Snack Cakes. We tried to come up with names that were easy to say, and it so happened that Rosemary Lucas's children were Kim and Jim, so that helped us come up with those names. Dortch was a hard word for children to recognize, but when they saw the little pictures on the packages they could find Kim & Jim quickly. They were very, very popular ... and good! We always served those during our refreshment time, along with Barber's milk. That was another commercial I did, but V. J. Elmore stores started off with us too because we needed someone to handle the Romper Room toys that the children could go buy. We tried to get my daughter Karen into doing some of the commercials, but I don't know if it even aired once. She was supposed to walk up to the table and eat a snack cake and drink some milk, but she just was not a performer!
Can you remember anything in particular about when the show went from black & white to color?
It was interesting to see the changes that occurred in the entire television station when color came in. They had to paint my background a different color; it had been just regular wood paneling, but when we switched to color they painted it a beautiful blue, and all of a sudden everyone was very conscious of colors. Even what I wore, the patterns; they wanted me to wear colorful things, and that was sort of fun. Of course, Cousin Cliff's father was the station art director, and he was the one who had to paint my sets. Ed Jameson was my director and Ronnie Long was my stage manager. I had a great crew, even though they really gave me a hard time sometimes! At one of the Christmas parties they did a tape or film of one of the fellows imitating Miss Jane as a takeoff; it was hilarious! Of course, the set was not permanent; it had to be taken down and put up each day, and Bear Bryant even used my backdrop for his program.
What prompted you to eventually leave the show?
Well, there were lots of things, but we just decided it was time for me to leave. It wasn't Channel 13's fault; in fact, it was a very sad decision that my husband and I finally had to make ourselves. My housekeeper Estelle, who had been taking care of my own children all this time, had become ill and couldn't continue doing that. And of course, when you have two children at home, and carpools and so forth, you are very dependent upon that help. She was a part of our family, so that certainly left a tremendous void for us with the children, and with my son being so young, we tried a couple of other solutions but it never seemed to work. I worried about the care of my children while I was gone, to tell you the truth. Also, by becoming a “personality,” I was spending a lot of my weekends in personal appearances, so my time had become very restricted. But the straw that broke the camel's back was when Estelle became ill and we didn't have her to count on. I cried; I really didn't want to leave, but yet I knew what my responsibilities were and I worried about my children. So I was torn between two wonderful things: being a mother and being with my Romper Room children, so it was a very hard decision.
What did you do after you left the show?
I stayed home with the children for a while, and shortly after that we left Birmingham and moved to Clayton, Alabama. We lived there for 4 ½ years; during that time my son started first grade, and I started teaching down there. This time I actually DID go into kindergarten work, and became the head of the preschool program for a private school in Eufaula. When I finally came back to Birmingham, that's what I was doing. As far as Romper Room was concerned, when we knew I was going to leave we interviewed for a new teacher, and Carol Aldy had to come to the station to watch me do the show.
Was there any sort of transition between the two teachers on the show itself?
I remember saying goodbye, and that I just about cried while I was trying to look upbeat... but I was really very sad.
So after you got through raising your kids, what did you do to get back out into the world again?
After we got back after those 4 ½ years in Clayton, I started substitute teaching a few times, but I finally decided I didn't really want to do that. I had always been really interested in fashion, and thought I would like to do something in the fashion world. So I just walked one day into a shop that was looking for help in Brookwood Mall and started working the floor in retail as a salesperson. The shop was owned by a young girl, and one day she told me, "You know, I want to attract the same kind of customers as you; would you be willing to go to New York with me and look at lines, and tell me what you would buy or what you would wear if you saw it in a store?" That's how I started going to New York, and learned to be a buyer. I stayed with that shop for a few years until my daughter Karen started going into junior high, and I was a little concerned about that transition, so I again stopped working to carpool and make sure that went well. Of course, it went much easier than I had anticipated, so when I heard or read about a job with Gus Meyer as a buyer, I applied for that and was hired. I was a buyer for Gus Mayer for eight years. By the time I had been in retail for some 15 years, I heard about another opening as merchandise manager for UAB stores, and since I was tired of traveling ... I had been robbed in New York and had gone through the whole New York scene ... I felt this job had come up at a very good time of my life. After I interviewed for it, a couple of months passed before they actually hired me. I did that for a year, then the director of the stores left to go to Auburn University, and asked me to take his job, so I became director of University bookstores.
Do you find yourself still being connected with the show in people's minds after all these years?
Yes, just the other day, one of Birmingham's assistant District Attorneys came up to me and said, "Are you Miss Jane?" And I said, "Romper Bomper Stomper Boo, tell me mirror, tell me do; magic mirror, tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play?" She yelled, "I KNEW IT!" There was another fellow who worked with me at the Gus Mayer store who had a really odd, uncommon name ... I can't remember what it was ... but every so often I would be on the escalator there and I would hear this voice from above or below me whispering, "You never saw me in your magic mirror!" It would be this fellow, kidding me because I never called his name, whatever it was! But I believe if someone put me in a room today with six preschoolers, I could still run through the whole routine very easily.
In anticipation of this 50th anniversary Birmingham Rewound special feature, we checked in with Miss Jane on March 5, 2016, to see if she had any messages for her many fans. She reports that in February she celebrated her 80th birthday, but has had a bout with cancer (fortunately, she won) and is currently being treated for Parkinson’s Disease. Jane lives in Hoover and is looking forward to being released by the Parkinson’s doctor so she can get out and do active things once again. She said to give all of her now-middle-aged former Do Bees her love, and her appreciation for being remembered fifty years after her tenure in television’s most famous kindergarten.
For more pictures and tidbits about Miss Jane's Romper Room program, let us refer you to her page on Tim's 2005 feature "Magic City Kids' Shows"