As you will kindly recall from our last
installment, in 1968 "Miss Jane" Hooper had decided to leave the
time-consuming job of being WAPI's Romper Room teacher in order
to concentrate on her family. This left a position to be filled, and WAPI
did not have much time to fill it. The kids who had begun watching Channel
13's RR in April 1966 were probably about to begin elementary school when
the new teacher arrived, "Miss Carol" Aldy. She was barely out of
college herself, and explains how she heard about this unusual job opening:
the time I went on Romper Room I was with the University of Alabama
Medical Center Library. It was some sort of grant they had by which we
were doing revisions on the catalog system, and I was actually perfectly
happy with that job. Then I ran into a friend from Auburn at a meeting
one night, and she turned to me and said, 'Carol, there's the perfect job
for you, I saw it in the paper today.' And it was the Romper Room
teacher position that Miss Jane was leaving. So I called the next day,
and they had a representative of Claster Productions already in town at
WAPI conducting interviews. He said if I could come tomorrow they would
see me. The next thing I knew it was 'Can you come back the next day to
"I thought it was a great experience just
to get to audition for a real, live television production! I was just out
of college maybe two years, I was already married but didn't have a family
yet, so I was not all that familiar with the program. I didn't know Mr.
Do Bee and the whole routine, so I sort of went into that audition a little
bit at a disadvantage that I didn't know all the jargon and names and terminology."
There was more to winning an audition for
Room than just knowing how to look pretty (although goodness knows,
the RR teachers were all experts at that -- probably disappointing millions
of kids who found out their real-life teachers weren't going to be nearly
as cute and friendly). Miss Carol's unfamiliarity with the show could have
doomed her from the start, but she mustered her courage and went on with
"One thing we had to do was to sing a song,
and since I didn't know any of the Do Bee songs, I sang a Girl Scout song.
We had to give a Mr. Do Bee message, which was just ad-libbed. The other
thing we had to do involved ad-libbing a commercial with the hot chocolate
mug that the Britling cafeterias were giving away. That was the
most awesome part of it. I managed to get through the song, I managed to
fake my way through the Mr. Do Bee message, and then I got to the commercial.
I was in there just smiling at the camera, and had just about made it through,
and was actually still breathing and still alive, when I set the mug down
right on the edge of the desk. As I was smiling into the camera, the mug
crashed on the floor, and I thought, 'Well, that's the end of this job
opportunity for me.' But the funny thing about it later was that
they said, 'When you recovered from that mug, never flinched, lost control,
or missed a beat, we knew you could handle the kids!'
"It all happened so quickly. It was audition
one day, and then a phone call asking if I could go to Baltimore in one
week. I did hesitate because I didn't realize it was going to be so soon!
Next Friday! I don't know how far ahead of time Miss Jane had notified
them that she was leaving; there may have been a scheduling problem, because
they had to get one of the Claster people down while all of this was going
on. I also think I was one of the very last people to be interviewed, because
I was in on a Thursday afternoon very late, and the auditions were on Friday."
While Miss Carol had to watch Miss Jane
do her final broadcasts in order to get a feel for them, the two ladies
did not have as much interaction as one might suppose. One special event
occurred on the annual "anniversary show" in April 1970, when Miss Jane
came back to make a guest appearance, marking the only time the two teachers
appeared on the air together. Like Miss Jane, though, Miss Carol was expected
to make personal appearances for the show's sponsors; these tended to point
out one of the primary physical differences between the pair:
"One thing that was interesting is that
on TV, next to the little children, I appeared quite tall. I'm really barely
5'2". So sometimes when I would be out in public someone would come up
and say, 'Do you know you look just like Miss Carol?' Another thing that
contributed to that was my ever-changing hair. I don't know what was going
on in those days, I was either trying to find myself or find my hair, but
I was always changing my hair style. Sometimes I even wore a wig.
"The Romper Room teachers were expected
to show up for personal appearances for sponsors, and we were certainly
encouraged to appear wherever we could at different non-profit events.
What we could NOT do, though, which was probably different from other children's
TV personalities, was go to a child's birthday party and charge an appearance
fee. We couldn't do that sort of thing: it had to be community, charity,
or for a sponsor.
"I had a call from a little boy's mother
wanting to know if I could come to his birthday party, and I explained
to her that we were not allowed to do that. She said, 'Well, I was hoping
you could because he met you when you visited Children's Hospital.' She
went on to tell me that he had leukemia, and this was his fifth birthday,
and she thought it would just be really special. And at that point I said,
'WHEN is the party? WHERE is the party?' I stayed in touch with that
family for several years."
One story that seems to run through all
Room productions in all the cities where the show was seen involves
the unique relationship between the jaded and cynical floor crew and the
ever-perky and cute teachers. The crew delighted in trying to throw Miss
Carol off balance during the show, while at the same time they would have
brained the first outside jerk who tried to bother her:
"They would tease me and give me a hard
time sometimes. We would have these cue cards that would just say PUNCH-A-BALL,
or ROMPER STOMPERS, or PLEDGE. Or they might have the names for the kids
I was to see in the Magic Mirror that day because they had sent mail in.
But every now and then this crew would hold up one that said YOUR SLIP
IS SHOWING, and I'm here trying to explain National Dental Health Week,
and why we want everyone to brush their teeth, and the floor manager is
back there with a sign saying my slip is showing! Once, during National
Fire Prevention Week, the story for the day was THE FIRE HOUSE CAT, about
a cat who lived at the fire station with the firemen. It was a cute little
story. Well, they thought it would be funny to change the cue card to THE
CAT HOUSE FIRE ... so I was getting ready, and the children were having
their cookies and milk, and I glanced out of the corner of my eye to see
my card: 'And now, our story for today is THE CAT HOUSE FIRE.' I didn't
even know I'd said it! I just kind of glanced at that cue card and
went on. That was one of my real blunders.
"Sometimes you wonder if anyone is watching,
but then when you do something really stupid you find out lots of people
ARE watching. I said on the air one day that turkeys have four legs. I
couldn't believe I had said that, because I certainly knew better than
that. We were making this turkey for Thanksgiving out of an apple, toothpicks,
a marshmallow, raisin eyes, and to get that turkey to stand with that apple
body being so heavy and using toothpicks for legs, we had to put four legs
on it! But I was also making this a lesson as I went along, and mentioning
the big spread of the turkey's tail and talking about the red wattles...
it was an animal lesson but also a craft lesson, and then I got to the
part about the four legs. We got a lot of mail on that!"
Miss Jane had started doing the show live
each day, but toward the end of her tenure WAPI had begun taping each program
ahead of time. Miss Carol inherited this format, although due to the crude
nature of early videotape, editing was discouraged:
"The message was very clear that if things
were bad enough, they would stop me. I remember one day I was quite under
the weather, cold and flu symptoms, and I felt like I just couldn't do
it, but I thought it was only 30 minutes and surely I could pull myself
together and try to look and sound good for that. I managed to get into
the studio, but as I was standing in front of the big Hasbro toy board
about halfway through the show, apparently I started really swaying and
my eyes were rolling back and I was just about to faint, and they literally
rushed up and said, 'YOU sit down!' But most of the time, they expected
us to make it through a 30-minute show. It had to be pretty bad to stop
the tape; there were times people spilled milk, or an animal from the zoo
would decide to hear the call of nature, but we just kept going."
Another thing Miss Jane and Miss Carol
had in common, as evidenced by their publicity photos, was the unmistakable
fashion appearance of the late 1960s. Miss Carol has some thoughts on that,
"Everyone had the big hair in those days.
Of course, those were the days of the miniskirt, and I look back at the
pictures now and can't believe what I was wearing. Bert Claster had a sister
who lived here in Birmingham at the time and worked over at the Adorable
Dress Shop in Mountain Brook. I would hear from her periodically, and
she would call me saying, 'I have some cute clothes in now, Carol, you
might want to have a look at them.' But I also felt that little added pressure:
when I would meet the Romper Room teachers from other cities, I
would always astound them with, 'Bert Claster's sister lives in Birmingham!'
I knew if I was smart I would nurture that relationship and be nice to
her. We got along fine."
In 1970, Romper Room put on its
Romper Stompers and staggered over to WBMG, Channel 42. It made
its WBMG debut on June 1, 1970, the same day the station became a CBS affiliate.
Despite this new prestige for Channel 42, the physical conditions were
a bit primitive, as well as demanding:
"At WAPI we only taped one show per day,
and there would be occasional times when we had to do two in a day to cover
for the Christmas program or whatever. Now, when we moved to WBMG, we did
-- and I still look back on this and don't know how we pulled it off --
three shows one day and two the next day! We did the taping for an entire
week in two days!! And, at least at the time I was there, WBMG's studio
was new and not air-conditioned yet, and that summer was terrible. We would
be perspiring because the studio lights were so hot anyway, and you add
the Alabama summer heat and no air conditioning ... once they looked at
the thermometer, and it was 104 degrees in the studio! They felt
that it was just easier to put up the set for two days and get it over
with, then that freed up the studio for other things."
Perhaps these new get-it-over-with methods
were an indication of how television was changing, and local children's
programs were no longer high on the priority list. Romper Room was
also reeling because public school kindergarten was on the rise during
the late 1960s and early 1970s, and this sapped what was supposed to be
its target audience of stay-at-home preschoolers:
"That was starting to impact the show even
before I left, because we were having more and more kids going to nursery
school or kindergarten on a regular basis. We would have these people on
the waiting list, but when we called to tell them they were scheduled for
April 1 through 14, they would say, 'Oh, Amy and Rick are in kindergarten
and we really don't want them to miss for two weeks, so can you put them
on in the summer?' We were starting to hear that more and more."
It was actually family commitments that
caused Miss Carol to resign her teaching post, just as in Miss Jane's situation:
"My husband had been transferred to Lexington,
Kentucky, by his job and had actually moved on ahead; I stayed here to
sell the house and keep working, and I guess we had about two and half
months to prepare for my leaving. I had time to get really sad about it.
I finally left sometime in December 1970. The crew surprised me that last
day. My last program ended with me crying, because I was about to do the
wrapup with the final Magic Mirror thing, and my voice was already cracking,
and they suddenly started walking forward and they had a little Romper
Room charm bracelet for me and a cake for the final show, and I was
just crying! I wasn't expecting that."
this washed-in-tears event, the show still had nine months to go on its Channel
42 contract. For years, we knew that the TV listings indicated that a “Miss
Rita” succeeded Carol as the final Romper Room teacher in Birmingham, but we
were unable to find out who she was. Finally, in the summer of 2013, we
received an email from Miss Rita herself, who had stumbled across this series
of articles and finally found out we were looking for her!
not surprising that Rita Sparling was so difficult to locate, as she has lived
in Wisconsin for years. In fact, she was a native of New York City and not
Birmingham, so she had few connections here to keep up with her whereabouts.
She tells us that she specifically remembers auditioning for the Claster
representatives at WBMG on her birthday in September 1970. Here is how she
describes the experience:
“I had a case of laryngitis.
I could not believe they included me in the auditions, and the following
week I volunteered to be the first one to audition out of the 20 women present
at the 42 studios and was selected. Training with Sally Claster in Towson,
Maryland began shortly thereafter and taping the shows began immediately when I
returned. My previous experience in
teaching and performing leads in musicals in High School and College prepared
me for this role as Miss Rita.”
kept up the same pace that WBMG had established for Carol, but handled it like
a trouper. “The only thing I didn't enjoy,” she says, “was doing commercials for
Golden Eagle Table Syrup. I just could
not get the pronunciation of the word ‘syrup’ correct. Instead of saying sir-rup I would say
see-rup--my handicap for being raised in NYC metropolitan area.”
one-year contract for Romper Room was coming to a close in early June 1971, and
Rita realized that even if it had not been for that, she could not have
continued with the show. This mainly because she was pregnant with her second
child and had already had to curtail her lurching about the set on a pair of
Romper Stompers. Even though her time as a Romper Room teacher was brief, she
still has fond memories:
“In my short time in Birmingham I met and made some wonderful
friends who showered me with that special ‘southern hospitality.’ I knew I had
been accepted when the neighbors wanted to take me ‘frog gigging’ and to the
University of Alabama football games. I
skipped the frogs but loved the football games! Although my TV career ended, I
continued teaching preschool while my children were very young and then entered
the corporate world working in the communications field and in my spare time
was involved in community theater productions.”
Rita is now in Wisconsin, Miss Carol remains in Lexington, where she is a
highly regarded motivational speaker for various corporations. Like most of the
hosts from our childhoods, Jean, Jane, Carol and Rita all look back on their TV
experience with great fondness, and we likewise remember the lovely and
talented Romper Room ladies as helping us with our first steps on the
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CAROL ALDY & RITA SPARLING
TEXT AND CAPTIONS BY TIM HOLLIS
Created 05/29/2005 - 702 PM EDT
Revised 08/30/2013 - 1128 PM EDT ... Tim tracked down "Miss Rita"!!
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