Bay Area baby boomers lost one of their earliest touchstones last month when Nancy Besst, the original host of the San Francisco version of “Romper Room,” passed away in San Rafael at the age of 77. Known to her young viewers as “Miss Nancy,” Besst graced the set of “Romper Room” from 1958 to 1969, stepping down at the age of 35. To remember Nancy Besst is also recall a bygone era when much of children’s television was locally produced, and kid show hosts were among the most recognizable figures in the community.
Children’s programming goes back to the beginning of network TV when NBC began running “Howdy Doody” in 1947. Television executives found out quickly that the young boomers not only comprised a sizable audience, but were also becoming eager consumers, begging their parents to buy Hostess Cupcakes, Welches Grape Juice, or any other product being pitched by Howdy and Buffalo Bob Smith. By the 1950’s, while “The Mickey Mouse Club,” “Andy’s Gang,” and “Captain Kangaroo” were all making their marks on the national scene, local TV stations began to develop programs that would be geared toward their own particular regional markets. Among the original shows that attempted to tap into the growing Bay Area youth market were “Fireman Frank” hosted by George Lamont on KRON, and “Captain Fortune,” which ran on KPIX, featuring Pete Abenheim.
It was in 1953 that a Baltimore television began running “Romper Room,” a kid’s program aimed towards preschoolers. “Romper Room” was a concept put together by Burt Claster and his wife Nancy, who appeared on the program as the first “Miss Nancy.” When the show proved a success, CBS offered to buy “Romper Room” and include it on its network schedule. Rather than relinquish control of their creation, the Clasters took the unique approach of turning “Romper Room” into a franchise, giving stations around the country the option of buying ready made tapes of the show, or the right to produce a homegrown version of the program.
In 1956, Nancy Besst was hired by the Clasters as a “Romper Room” staff teacher, responsible for assisting various television stations in setting up their own versions of the program, and training other women to be hosts. After serving two years as trainer, Besst accepted the opportunity to step in front of the camera when “Romper Room” debuted on KGO in 1958. Serving as “Miss Nancy” for 11 years, Besst not only faithfully followed the “Romper Room” formula, which included a recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, lessons on being a “Do Bee” and the appearance of the magic mirror, but also added a signature touch of her own when she introduced “Willie the Weather Man,” a segment where the children participating in that day’s show would pick out the proper clothing for “Willie” based on the current weather. Although “Romper Room” worked within a tight format, the cast was comprised mostly of young children, forcing Miss Nancy to constantly improvise during the live broadcasts. Unruly kids, unpredictable pets and malfunctioning products were just a few of the difficulties that Nancy Besst had to contend with, which she usually did with relative ease.
After a few years on KGO Channel 7, “Romper Room” moved to its familiar weekday morning slot on KTVU, becoming one of the key components in the golden age of locally produced children’s programming in the San Francisco Bay Area. While “Captain Satellite” (Bob March) and “Mayor Art” (Art Finley) handled the afternoon shifts during the 1960’s, Miss Nancy was definitely the queen of the morning for any child under the age of six. The remarkable aspect of Besst’s longevity is the fact that since “Romper Room’s” target audience was largely kids 3 to 5, Besst had to win the loyalty of new viewers every year. Although most of us would proudly proclaim that we’d outgrown “Romper Room” by age six or seven, we still couldn’t help catching glimpses of the show from time to time. Even if we no longer watched it, it was always good to know that “Romper Room” and Miss Nancy were still there.