Put on your thinking caps, boys and girls: “Romper Room” debuted 65 years ago in Pittsburgh on May 19, 1958.
The half-hour show was must-see early morning television for preschoolers from 1953 to 1994, particularly in the years when programming choices were limited to a handful of channels. Created 70 years ago in Baltimore, Maryland, for WBAL-TV by Bert and Nancy Claster, the show became a cultural touchstone uniting television-watching Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, and early Millennials.
For decades, hundreds of “Romper Room” teachers across the country taught local children each weekday in studio classroom sessions that were watched at home by the nation’s preschool viewers. Most markets carried some iteration of this “instructional TV School” that was both nationally syndicated and locally franchised.
Pittsburgh’s version first aired on WIIC (now WPXI) for 18 months in 1958-1959, then moved to WTAE until local production ended in 1973. Thousands of local children were chosen, from personal connections to studio personnel or from audition queries submitted by eager parents. New children were introduced each week so that class composition rotated on a staggered basis, with each child appearing for one or two weeks at a time. Anecdotal reports indicate that some children came back for repeated appearances if they were at ease surrounded by hot lights, television monitors, and enormous cameras.
Indelibly burned into generations of collective childhood memories are the “Romper Room” songs, games, “Do Bee” behavioral admonishments, and fondly remembered teachers. While no exhaustive teacher database exists, many “Romper Room” teachers had Western Pennsylvania connections.
Jan Bohna (1935-2005) was 23 when she debuted as the first host on WIIC (WPXI) in 1958. She regularly substituted on WTAE’s version and returned to full-time hosting from 1969-1973. The Arkansas native is also remembered for community involvement, runway and print fashion modeling, and as tour manager for her family’s University Travel Service agency in Oakland.
Jane Vance Braham (1937-1969) was a recent college graduate from Ohio when she became Pittsburgh’s second “Romper Room” teacher at age 22. As host of WTAE’s version from 1959 until her untimely passing in 1969, she was one of this region’s first beloved television personalities.
Donna Drew Kane (1941-2008) was a regular substitute from 1968-1972 and appeared on many local commercials. This New Kensington native and Forest Hills resident studied at Edinboro University and was a local pageant winner. During her 28-year career as an automotive industry executive she lectured nationally about the “Power of the Purse” to educate prospective female car buyers, retiring as Hyundai National Manager of Public Relations.
Molly McCloskey Barber connected with a new generation of viewers on revamped, nationally syndicated versions of “Romper Room and Friends” from 1981-1987. The new show was filmed in Baltimore and New York and aired in syndication until 1994. A Ross Township native and Carnegie Mellon University graduate, her career has since encompassed entertainment production and education, parenting training, and even Pampered Chef consulting. She recently reflected on her “Romper Room” days on a 2019 podcast series, Mirrored.
Ricki Wertz occasionally filled in for Miss Janey on WTAE since “Romper Room” preceded her own, much-loved “Ricki and Copper” show. Jean Federici Dobis also substituted for Miss Janey in 1962-1963 but was better known as “Romper Room’s” Miss Jean on WJAC-TV Johnstown from 1958-1961, where she made $125 per week. A native of East Liberty and Oakmont in the 1940-50s and an Indiana University of Pennsylvania graduate with a music education degree, the 89-year-old is active as a church organist in Oakmont.
You might have detected a Western Pa. accent if you tuned into “Romper Room” elsewhere. Jane Fisher from Jeannette was Miss Jane in New York City for a few months in 1956; she was previously one of the first on-air personalities at Pittsburgh’s WDTV, predecessor to KDKA. Elizabeth Anne Trench from Oakland was Chicago’s Miss Elizabeth at WGN from 1968-73. Jo Ann Walko from Emsworth was Miss Jo at WTRF in Wheeling in 1959.
Were you a Pittsburgh “Romper Room” student? A new Instagram account, @Pittsburgh_Romper_Room, has been created to preserve show images that Pittsburghers have tucked away. Check out the new account if you would like to add your photos to this crowd-sourced collection, or to see if you were included in someone else’s memories!
Read more about Pittsburgh’s “Romper Room” and its beloved teachers in the Fall 2023 “Western Pennsylvania History Magazine.”
About the Author
Sue Morris is a regional public historian who has been writing and lecturing as The Historical Dilettante for the last decade about unexplored 19th and 20th century Pittsburgh. When not doing deep dives into topics like “Romper Room”, she is hard at work researching the lives of Pittsburgh’s earliest aviation pioneers for a book about Bettis Airport with the History Center’s Brian Butko, and about the many guests at Pittsburgh’s famed Monongahela House Hotel.
Thank you to Molly McCloskey Barber, Lin Hellwig, and Whit Braham for images included in this blog.