Bert Claster, Sally's father and a onetime vaudeville producer, got the idea of combining entertainment and education at a time when similar programming was virtually nonexistent. His wife, Nancy, a kindergarten teacher, was Romper Room's first hostess. Turning down an early invitation to join CBS-TV, Claster chose instead to grow by syndication. At its height in 1969, Romper Room was seen in 106 cities. Today Miss Sally appears on tape (from Baltimore) in 33 cities and personally trains the teachers who run the program in 16 other cities. Romper Room has a total estimated audience of 850,000 viewers a day. The show is also produced in Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
In 1969 Claster, whose original investment was $5,000, sold Romper Room Enterprises to Hasbro Industries, the toy company, for $1,750,000. His family remains in charge. Son John, 32, is president, and Sally's husband, Ken Gelbard, is vice-president. Her sister Candy, 30, appears on the show as the dancing "Do Bee," advising kids, "Do be a jacket wearer," "a milk drinker" and "a plate cleaner." Candy's husband, lawyer Ben Rosenberg, 33, is legal adviser to the family.
Even the third generation is part of the act. Joey, the Gelbards' 4-year-old son, is often one of the preschoolers on the show—where he tries to remember to say "Miss Sally" and not "Mommy." Caroline Rosenberg, 4, also attends, and her brother John-John, now 2, made his debut at six months as the "sample baby" on a series of programs about infants. Sally's daughter Jenny, 10, a Romper Room graduate, wants to follow in her mother's and grandmother's footsteps—presumably as Miss Jenny.
In spite of its success, the show has not been without critics. In 1970 Action for Children's Television accused it of being too commercial. "We were concerned that the teacher on the program was spending too much time selling toys with the Romper Room label," explains ACT's chairman, Peggy Charren. Now no toys at all are recommended. "We encourage children to make whatever they can at home," says Sally.
Home for the Gelbards is a one-story contemporary with tennis court on three acres in the rolling countryside of Towson, Md. Sally tapes two or three shows at a time and in the afternoons works on scripts. To keep herself trim on camera, she eats sparingly (little meat) and runs two miles every morning. "A lot of my friends enjoy their psychiatrists and TM," she says. "I think that's what jogging and gardening are for."
The story of Romper Room is really the story of our family," says Sally Gelbard, 35, who for the last 15 years has been the show's cheerful Miss Sally. The longest-running children's program on TV, Romper Room will celebrate its 25th anniversary on Feb. 10.