Looking back through the
Magic Mirror at Miss Barbara
Just one day before Valentines' Day in 1930 in Norwalk, Ohio a baby girl was born.
Her name was Barbara and she went on to attend Norwalk High School (Class of '48) and Wellesley College (Class of '52) where she was a Political Science Major.
Barbara fell in love and got married in her junior year of college. When the school found out she was married she had to leave the dorm. "They were concerned it might be a bad influence on the other girls. Can you believe how things have changed?"
Her husband, Gordon, was working in southern Massachusetts and they eventually moved to Wooster, Mass. until they returned to Cleveland in 1957.
Barbara had dreams of going to law school but instead had her children. She was taking part time Graduate School classes in law in Wooster and then changed to education. It was her intention to teach here in Cleveland. But instead, Barbara got another job. "It was pure serendipity - a most awesome event!"
It was April, 1958. "It was rainy and cold and my children where watching Captain Kangaroo. I was changing beds." She heard a voice asking you to call a certain number if you were interested in working with children on television.
She missed the number, but her daughter, who was 5 at the time, remembered it. "Henderson 2-1 five hundred." She called and made an appointment to talk to someone about a show called Romper Room. Her children had watched it in Massachusetts.
Barbara Plummer as a Weather Watcher
She remembers the call like it was yesterday. "At the time my brother was staying with us. His high school friend had come over for dinner. The phone rang and I remember saying 'Excuse me please. They want me to come for an audition.'"
But Barbara had no idea how true her little joke was. It was indeed Channel 5 calling and they really did want her to come for an audition!
So she went to the audition with her husband's last words fresh in her mind "Just don't come home with a job!"
Many women were there but they were finally narrowed down to 9 finalists. The producers told the women that they had made their choice and had a back-up person picked as well, but wanted them all to listen to all of the information before they made their announcement.
So they all listened and when the producers finished they asked for questions. Barbara raised her hand and said that if she was chosen she would not be able to give a final answer until she checked with her husband. The other women were amazed. There were several actresses trying for the job and they could not imagine checking with someone before taking on a role.
But the show had been clear that they did not want professional actresses. The producer said "If that's the case honey, you'd better make the call because you're the one we chose."
Barbara tried to reach her husband (who was working at TRW) but couldn't. So she called her mother instead. Her mother wondered if Barbara would be able to figure out how to keep everything straight and how to juggle a schedule like this. Barbara replied that she had no idea, but that she knew her mother would help her.
"My mother did come through. I would find a dress I really liked and my mother who was a wonderful seamstress would copy it for me. Of course I had to wear full skirts most of the time, it was just too difficult with all the things I had to do with the children to have tight fitting clothes on, and at all times one had to be a lady. Pants were not an option at the time."
Barbara's husband, Gordon, traveled quite a bit with his job and Barbara knew that her first and most important job was that of mother to her own children. Sometimes she would make three or four trips to the studio in one day to be sure she was home with the children at appropriate times.
Her son Steve was not thrilled with his mother being Romper Room's Miss Barbara, but only because of the teasing that came with it. Daughter Kathy, on the other hand, enjoyed it.
"My job never put the bread and butter on the table. That was Gordon's job that took care of those things. But because I was working we were able to have icing on our cake from time to time. The kids were able to go to camp and college and have some extras."
That's our Mom! Kathy and Stevie with Mom
- Miss Barabara - in 1958
Romper Room was a syndicated show created by Nancy and Bert Claster who wanted a kindergarten show on television. It started in Baltimore and did so well that it was quickly syndicated. At one time the show was in 105 markets throughout the world, including Japan and Australia.
Although each had their own version of Miss Barbara they all had some traits in common. Obviously they had to like children, but they also had to have a warm personality and be able to adapt to whatever a live show with children might bring.
Miss Barbara in 1958 starting Romper Room
The show began each day with "Pop goes the weasel, and the Jack-in-the-box jumps out of his house, and that means it's time for the Romper Room School."
The children who joined her in Romper Room each week were chosen out of the huge stacks of requests she received weekly. In most cases a child that was chosen would be on for two weeks. They would rotate so there was always some consistency.
A child had to be willing to commit for a minimum of one week, 5 days a week. They had to be there at 8:30 in the morning. Mothers were permitted to watch on a monitor from another room because the children always behaved better when the mother was not close by.
"Of course there were exceptions. One child was under the chair the entire time and just wouldn't come out. I had to tell the mother that it wasn't working out. Of course she was angry, but what could I do?"
"The first thing we did on the show was to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Saying the Pledge of Allegiance in 1962
One little boy was playing and wouldn't stop to join us. He told me that his mother had said he didn't have to say it if he didn't want to. I just told him I was very sorry and we moved on without him. After the show I told the mother too that I was very sorry, but that the Pledge of Allegiance was important to the whole tone of the show, so her son was not invited back."
Barbara did not feel that being on live TV in general was an issue. In most cases the kids were not even aware of the cameras because they were so far away.
"Once a cameraman came in really close to see over the shoulder of a child to see what she was drawing. The child pointed to the camera and asked "What is that thing?" We had a quick impromptu lesson in TV Cameras 101 that day."
They even watched chicken eggs every day until finally one day they hatched - right on the air!
Barbara often had either Show and Tell or a time for the children to share something important to them. "One darling little boy said he had something to share. He said 'Did you know my mother's going to have a baby?' Well, I told him Yes, I did know. I was a little concerned about where this conversation was headed.
The next thing he said was "My father said I think it's going to be a baby elephant because it's taking so long." Even the cameramen broke up - it was delightful."
Pop goes the weasel
Unlike Art Linkletter, Miss Barbara never tried to set children up to make a funny remark or comment. "I just didn't believe in that approach. Whatever happened happened and it was almost always enjoyable."
Anyone who watched Romper Room remembers the Magic Mirror. What a thrill it was to have Miss Barbara see you through the mirror and mention your name. She would acknowledge children with special days (instead of saying birthday so it could include more children) or illnesses.
""Romper, bomper, stomper, boo. Tell me, tell me, tell me do. Magic Mirror, tell me today. Did all my friends have fun today? Did all my friends have fun with me today?"
News Herald photo of Miss Barbara with
the Magic Mirror from 1988
And then while the television screen showed a spiraling circle the switch was made from a solid mirror to an empty one. "With all of the hundreds of children who watched the switch being made, none ever said one word. For the most part they were watching the monitor, not me."
There was nothing quite as exciting for a young child as to hear his or her name on television. When Miss Barbara said "I see Tom or Sue or Joey" no child ever thought it must be a different Tom or Sue or Joey. They knew in their hearts she was talking to them.
Switching the Magic Mirror in 1964
Another popular segment on the show was known as Mr. Do-Bee. Mr. Do-Bee taught good manners. "Do-Bee a plate cleaner" "Don't Bee a food waster". In this way Mr. Do-Bee taught a weekly message to the children.
Do Bee and Don't Bee in 1962
There was also a lot of physical activity ranging from playtime to exercise. Most of us remember "Bend and stretch, reach for the stars. There goes Jupiter, there goes Mars!" And there were punch balls to play with (large rubber balls on an elastic string that made the ball return each time it was "punched").
Staying active marching on Romper Room
In addition to the Pledge of Allegiance and a weekly message on manners the children said grace before they had their snack. "Can you imagine trying to do that today?" It was an important element to the show.
Although the outline of each daily show was scripted, it was necessary to adlib to accommodate live television and, of course, children. Miss Barbara tried to keep the show very Cleveland oriented. She would teach the children about our "animal friends" at take them to the Zoo.
She had Lieutenant James Sweeney (the author's grandfather!) from the Cleveland Fire Department come out and teach the children about the fire trucks and fire prevention.
Fireman James "Bud" Sweeney
with Miss Barbara
The children loved these segments, but eventually corporate Romper Room cracked down and insisted that every show in every city be the same.
Women across the country were doing things that the founder did not approve of. In fact they all had to fly back to Baltimore for "remedial training" in which Nancy Claster made in clear that this was her program and her syndication.
In the beginning Barbara worked on the shows for 3-4 hours each morning. Then about one full afternoon a week she did personal appearances for the sponsors.
Cleveland's Romper Room ran from 1958-1971 when it went off the air in the Cleveland market. After a few months it came back on the air, but it was no longer live. The original show length was 30 minutes, but sometimes it ran forty-five minutes or even an hour.
"Jim Breslin was the director and he was a funny, wonderful man, who could just roll with the punches".
Romper Room Directors meeting with Jim Breslin and Earl "Mr Jingaling' Keyes
Once we were on tape we often did three in a row. "We would use the same group of children and by the third show they weren't always ready to drink more milk and cookies."
Only one of the tapes was saved and that was sent to the John Carroll Archive. Jim Breslin also gave Miss Barbara a copy which is on permanent display at the Western Reserve Historical Society.
Barbara's husband Gordon is retired from TRW where he had been the Director of International Computer Services. He had been hired in 1957 because he had a working knowledge of IBM computers and how to write programs.
Before that he had worked for American Optical at a time when IBM offered to train one or two workers about industry programs. Gordon jumped at the chance and excelled in the program. Barbara says she can "send email, but that's about it" and "Gordon spent so much time with computers he just isn't as interested in it as he once was."
Their youngest child, Steve, married and lives in Florida where he is a Fire Chief in Volusia County. Before that he had worked for Dow Chemical and was in charge of fire and safety prevention. Their daughter, Kathy is married to Scott and has two children (Katie and Gordon). Kathy and her family live very close to Barbara and Gordon and are very much a part of their lives.
Education was very important to Barbara and Gordon. "We wanted our children to develop in their own way. Lord knows we didn't spoil them. We gave them opportunities, but we never spoiled them. Our kids were good, straight-arrow kids and they grew up in a time of a lot of drugs and such so it says a lot for them. We are very proud of our children."
Miss Barbara on Romper Room in 1966
Looking back at the children in her class at Romper Room compared to today's children Barbara reflects "Children have not changed. Children are basically children. I don't want to sound pious or scolding. I know how busy parents are, but I don't think parents are as involved in their children's lives as parents in our day. A parent's role is to be more than a provider or a pal. They must also be a teacher and a role model."
She is appalled at the amount of "awful stuff" on television and video games. "Even very little children are exposed at such an early age. Children are born innocent and after that it seems to be stolen from them so quickly."
She does not see a resurgence of the 1950's era families. "There's no going back, I don't know what it's going to take. But I do have tremendous hope for the future. There are so many wonderful, beautiful and brilliant things going on in today's world."
Barbara knows of what she speaks. In 1978 she had a breast removed as a result of cancer and underwent one year of chemotherapy. In 1996 she was diagnosed with lung cancer and lost part of her right lung. In 2002 they found a breast cancer tumor in her lung and she is currently on medication.
"I don't want to dwell on it, but it is simply wonderful what they know and what they are accomplishing. Again, I don't want to dwell on it, but it is a very dominant part of my life and I am just so amazed at the knowledge and the medical advancements being made every day."
Since leaving Romper Room Barbara has not just been sitting back and relaxing. She is a member of the Western Reserve Historical Society's Advisory Council and is a founding mother of the Women's Advisory Group of the Cleveland Playhouse.
Barbara Plummer at the
Western Reserve Historical Society
She is deeply committed to the Children's Guild, a group of women (60 or so) who work in small factions and make Bazaar items. Then in mid-October their Bazaar is held and money is raised for an assortment of established Children's associations. Usually $20-30,000 is given away throughout the year.
Doing charity work in 1967
with fellow alumna of Wellesley College
One year they were able to buy a horse to be donated to a therapy center for children. "The handiwork is just magnificent and ranges from jewelry to knitted items to wooden things and so much more. I am always so proud of the work the group puts out."
Because of her husbands work in the international community they have traveled quite a bit but the last few years they were not able. She is hoping they will be going to Alaska next year.
Aside from scheduling appointments and such, Barbara does not think about the future. She looks back and sees a wonderful life. She looks at the present and feels upbeat and confident. "The future is a mystery, but so far everything has just been fabulous for me."
To this day, she is often recognized and people are always excited to see her. When they tell her she hasn't changed a bit since they were children she will usually respond "I'm sorry but you've defiantly grown up!" They all have their stories of a special day that was made possible by her or her magic mirror.
The Romper Room set in 1963
Barbara has a unique hobby. She collects and draws paper dolls. "I just love paper dolls." In the 70's she went to Chicago with her husband and saw a book on collecting paper dolls. The following winter Barbara had pneumonia and used her "down time" to read the book. She wrote to the various collectors listed in the back of the book and they wrote back.
Then Barbara said "Let's have a paper doll party!" About a dozen women came. The following year they moved it to the Church and about thirty came. There are now two held every year, one in the fall in Dayton and one in the spring in Streetsboro. Barbara co-hosts the Streetsboro show. A major collector always comes and gives talks.
Barbara and Gordon live in South Euclid, Ohio with their two cats (a Siamese and an old red Persian.) She used to have Norwegian Elkhounds but her last one died two years ago.
When we think of the "good old days" quite often we view them with rose colored glasses as if everything then was good and everything now is terrible. Obviously, this is just not the case.
But when we look back and see Miss Barbara and remember the impact she had on our lives we cannot help but dream of the time and values she represents. It was a time of prayer and pledges and manners and laughter. It was a time more simple and yet more profound.
"Miss" Barabra Plummer today
Barbara Plummer brought all of those virtues to life for us. To this day she epitomizes the values she instilled in children "back in the day."
Even now when we make the unconscious choice to be a Do-Bee and not a Don't Bee we can thank her for her input. When we look proudly at the American Flag we can thank her for teaching us respect. The influence Miss Barbara had on us is reflected on how we deal with our children.
If generations to come grow up with the ideals Miss Barbara instilled in us there is indeed hope for the future.
Click to see more pictures of "Miss" Barbara Plummer and Romper Room
Profiled by Debbie Hanson
Update: Sadly, Miss Barbara, (Barbara Plummer) died March 20, 2010. She had been sick for quite awhile with a combination of pneumonia and its complications. She died peacefully. Barbara, 80, was married to Gordon and they lived together in South Euclid. They had two children Kathyrn and Stephen and two grandchildren.
With the passing of Miss Barbara another flame in our memories of "the good old days" goes out. She represented everything good about growing up at that time. Even though she had not actually been Romper Room's Miss Barbara for many, many years, she still carried herself with the same class, dignity and poise she had then.
One might even say Barbara Plummer was a "Good Bee".
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