From 1953 to 1994, Romper Room, a television series for children five and under, aired in the United States. If you’re old enough, you may remember watching the show as a young child. But for Ann Marie Lee of Topeka, Romper Room was a way of life from her earliest childhood.
“This was my life every day,” Ann Marie said. “I was used to going to the studio every day. I would sit on the camera and watch my mom do her magic.”
Romper Room was franchised and syndicated so local stations could produce the program using the same script with local children. Ann Marie’s mother, Fran Lee, now of Topeka, was Miss Fran on Romper Room for 13 years on KAKE-TV in Wichita.
Each morning the Romper Room hostesses throughout the nation opened the program with a greeting and the Pledge of Allegiance for the stateside broadcasts. (The program was also aired internationally.) The greeting and the pledge were followed by 30 or 60 minutes of children’s programming consisting of lessons and songs about a variety of useful social skills (such as saying “Thank you”).
Before each lesson, the hostess or the teacher would say, “Mr. Music, please,” to start the background music. Prayer was offered on the program “until it was outlawed,” Miss Fran said.
The programs featured a Mr. Do Bee and a Mr. Don’t Bee to teach children safe and appropriate behavior. Here is part of a song aired in one of Miss Fran’s broadcasts from 1977:
“Do be a sidewalk player; don’t be a street player. Do be a car-sitter; don’t be a car-stander.”
During Miss Fran’s tenure, the show used a Mattel jack-in-the-box for its opening and closing theme, accompanied by the “Pop Goes the Weasel” song. She also used the “Magic Mirror” at the end of the program.
“Romper, stomper, bomper boo. Tell me, tell me, tell me, do. Magic Mirror, tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play?” Then she named the children in the television audience that she could “see.”
“I can see…Claude,” she said.
“Claude’s my dad’s name,” Ann Marie said.
Miss Fran would pick the names from all the letters she received.
“I got lots of mail,” she said.
Originally from Tulsa, Okla., Fran Snow graduated from Will Rogers High School in 1954. She was offered but turned down a scholarship for speech and drama at the University of Tulsa, deciding instead to attend Graceland College in Lamoni, Ia.
She was a cheerleader at Graceland College and later at the University of Tulsa where she earned a bachelor’s degree with majors in psychology and education, qualifying her to teach kindergarten through 12th grade. Romper Room hostesses were required to be teachers, she said.
While at Graceland College she met and “fell madly in love” with her husband of 58 years, Claude Lee.
Fran taught at Randolph Elementary School in Topeka while Claude attended law school at Washburn University. After he graduated in 1962, the couple moved back to Wichita, where Fran taught once more.
Miss Fran was selected from 800 applicants for the position of Romper Room hostess at KAKE. She had already signed a contract to teach third grade in the fall, and had no intention of applying for the Romper Room position, but did so at her husband’s urging, she said. The process involved four rounds of interviews, which included doing commercials and teaching lessons to imaginary children.
From a young age, Fran had the combined qualifications of love for young children and performing. Her late sister, Barbara Snow Givens, was born when Fran was 10, so she began by caring for her while still a child herself. In high school, she performed in plays and was active in Thespians.
“I was always the character part,” she said. This may have helped prepare her for the role of Romper Room hostess as well as Mrs. Santa for various children’s events in Wichita for children of employees of Beech, Cessna and Boeing aircraft companies.
After training for a week in Baltimore, Md., Miss Fran’s first day at Romper Room was in 1965.
“I was so nervous,” she said. “I was nervous for five months.”
Each group of children appeared on the show for two weeks. Sometimes, Ann Marie substituted for an absent child.
“I was not allowed to call her ‘Mom,’ she said.
Initially, the programs aired live, but after 13 years, the producers wanted to tape them. They wanted to tape two or three shows in one day, she said. Fran was opposed to this change.
“I thought it would lose its spontaneity,” she said. So Miss Fran left Romper Room after 13 years. She returned to teaching and earned a master’s degree at Wichita State University with emphases in the areas of learning disabilities, mental retardation and child psychology. Then she went to work for the Sedgwick County Special Education Co-op, developing individual education programs for middle and high school students in nine counties.
Part of this job was getting jobs for young people with special needs.
“Since I’d been on television it was pretty easy for me to get them jobs,” she said.
In late 1982, Claude was appointed by Governor John Carlin to serve as chief of appeals of state unemployment compensation for the Kansas Department of Labor. Six months later, Fran, Ann Marie and brother Mike followed him when her teaching contract was completed in July of 1983.
“We lived in a little apartment behind Topeka West,” Ann Marie said. Before that they came back and forth to visit, she said.
Fran has a long list of civic activities including serving as Chairman of the Board of Community Action, Inc. in Topeka for 10 years, and currently serves as district representative for that agency. She ran for Kansas secretary of state in 1997 and served on the Topeka City Council from 1997 to 2001.
She worked for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services with “special purpose schools” or special education programs for institutionalized children, and later worked with school districts as program specialist, training special education para-educators for the Department of Education with Dr. Phyllis Kelly. She volunteered for the Jayhawk Area Agency on Aging and TARC, and volunteered for and served on the board of Sheltered Living and Lulac.
In one 1977 Romper Room program, Miss Fran teaches about Christmas, spelling the word out on a little whiteboard held in front of the camera. She teaches about saying “Thank you” and sings about sitting, not standing in the car, before the invention of car seats for kids. Since the days of Romper Room, practices such as mentioning Christmas and even saying the Pledge of Allegiance have become controversial.
“I’ve had people say, ‘If it weren’t for you, I’d have never learned the Pledge of Allegiance,’” Fran said.
My, how times have changed.
Thank you, Miss Fran.
For a sample of Miss Fran on Romper Room go to “Romper Room Miss Fran 1977 (Part1)” on youtube.com.
- Carolyn Cogswell | Metro Voice