Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Romper Room Remembered

I was surprised to see an American friend refer to Romper Room on Twitter, the social networking site, the other day. I had no idea the show I remembered from my youth in England was also shown elsewhere. A little detective work led me to find out about the show's history. It was, in fact, a very early example of an internationally franchised and syndicated TV show.

Originally the idea of Bert and Nancy Claster, various versions of the show aired from 1953 to 1994. In the US, it was available in two forms: A Nationally syndicated show, or locally produced. There were around 150 local versions in the US. It was also produced in Britain (By Anglia TV, UTV in Northern Ireland and by Grampian TV in Scotland), Australia, Canada, Japan and Puerto Rico.

Wherever you saw it, there were many of the same features: The opening theme featured a Jack-In-The Box, and a woman, always referred to as "Miss," hosted the show. The Nationally syndicated version in the US featured "Miss Nancy" (Nancy Claster) from 1953 to 1963, when her daughter "Miss Sally" (Sally Claster Gelbert) succeeded her, presenting the show until 1981. In England, I remember "Miss Rosalyn" (Rosalyn Thompson), who had worked as a Nursery Nurse at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital before presenting Romper Room from 1964-1976 (Esther Rantzen of "That's Life!" fame also auditioned!). When Miss Rosalyn left, the show only ran on for another year. Well loved Romper Room "Misses" included "Miss Leslie," "Miss Adrienne," "Miss Louise," "Miss Mary-Ann," "Miss Molly," "Miss Joan" and "Miss Claire"

There was always a group of toddlers, of course. Editing was minimal, since several shows were often filmed in a day. Sometimes the show was live. I remember always finding it amusing when kids would suddenly announce that they needed to go potty. My brother and I never tired of that. Troublemakers would suddenly disappear after a commercial break.

Another feature was Mr. Do-Bee, a slightly frightening giant bee character who used to encourage kids to do the right thing. A song was sung in Mr. Do-Bee's presence: I always do what's right, I never do anything wrong. I'm a Romper Room Do-Bee, a Do-Bee all day long. There was also "Mr. Don't-Bee."

Perhaps the most memorable feature was The Magic Mirror. The presenter would hold up a mirror, the camera would cut away for a moment (sometimes to display a swirling picture), then when we saw the presenter again she could see right through the mirror into our living rooms! The magic incantation she used excited and terrified kids in pretty much equal amounts:

Romper, bomper, stomper boo.
Tell me, tell me, tell me, do.
Magic mirror, tell me today.
Have all my friends had fun at play?

The presenter would then call out children's names: "I can see Danny, Alice, Mary-Ellen," and so on. Several people I spoke with about their Romper Room memories talked about feeling anxious that their names would be called out, and then upset when their name was left out. I also discovered a friend of mine had actually appeared on Romper Room in Australia when she was a child:

"I 'starred' in an episode of the Australian version in about 1980...I remember the nurse's costume I had to wear (!!) and the TV Studio, and being 'interviewed' about what I wanted to be when I grew up (which WASN'T a nurse by the way, so no idea about that...?!?) Not much else though....

Anyway, that was the start of my glamorous media career....!"

Some interesting, yet slightly scary news: According to this article, River West Brands has bought the rights to Romper Room, and they intend to re-launch it.

There are some great Romper Room pages on the TV Party Site. In addition, a search on YouTube will reveal many short clips.

I would love to hear your comments about your own Romper Room memories.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Monument vs. The World's Tallest Water Sphere

Somewhere I have a certificate, given to me years ago for ascending the 311 steps to the top of The Monument in London. This month sees the re-opening of The Monument, following renovations costing £4.5m (about $6.5m US) and taking eighteen months to complete. At 202 feet tall, (30 feet taller than the more well-known Nelson's Column) it is the tallest freestanding stone column in the World. It commemorates The Great Fire of London in 1666 and the height represents the exact distance from the base of the column to the origin of the fire in a bakery in Pudding Lane. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, it originally housed a telescope, and scientific experiments were conducted there.

Even though The Monument is surrounded by tall buildings, the view from the platform at the top is worth the exhausting climb up the narrow spiral staircase. For those who cannot (or do not want to) make it, part of the refurbishments include a 360 degree panoramic camera, that relays the view to a screen at ground level. The Monument also boasts its own website, which includes live views from the camera. At the top are new talking telescopes that explain what you are seeing. Although you might not notice, The Monument is London's own "Leaning Tower." It is actually slightly off-center, leans, and slightly sways in high winds, although it is apparently quite safe. The renovation retained the column's weathered look, including a gash in the iron railings around the base, made during air-raids in WWII. The work included cleaning the entire structure, repairing damage to steps, replacing the bars around the viewing platform with a lightweight mesh "birdcage" and re-gilding the "flaming orb" at the top. Some have described the newly renovated Monument as representing London's hope for the future following the recession, in much the same way as it represented hope for a newly rebuilt London after The Great Fire.

Picture courtesy of World's Tallest Water Sphere BlogIn Union Township, near Newark in New Jersey, stands The World's Tallest Water Sphere, sometimes referred to as WTWS. Alternatively known as The Union Water Tower, it was built in 1964. Originally 212 feet tall, it is now about 6 feet taller, following the addition of a red beacon on the top. Its record is unlikely to be challenged, since the water sphere is of a design no longer used. Still in use, the tower provides water at a constant pressure to Union Township residents and sports five banks of cellular telephone antennae. A nearby sign, erected by the original local owners, Elizabethtown Water Company, once proudly announced that it was the biggest, but subsequent new ownership by a national company has resulted in the painting over of the sign. Painted about once every 10-20 years, WTWS was once a distinctive shade of blue, but is currently "ghost-gray."

Still, there are people around who remain proud of the WTWS. Dan Becker, a former local who moved to Austin Texas, created The World's Tallest Water Sphere web site, a blog that has since 2005, featured history, trivia, reminiscences, photos and art. He even hosts the World's Tallest Water Sphere Museum. Models of the water tower and other exhibits are displayed in the by-appointment-only museum.

By way of comparison, here are two films of our featured structures:

Ledger Live: The World’s Tallest Water Sphere

Have you seen either of these? Do you have any similar record-beating attractions on either side of the pond that we could compare? Please do post a comment and let us know. Incidentally, the superb night photograph of The Monument on this page is by Max Sang. Please click on the photo itself to see it on Flickr, together with more of Max's excellent photos. The photo of the Union Water Tower was by kind permission of Dan Becker of The World's Tallest Water Sphere web site.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Be Mine, Valentine!

On this St. Valentine's Day, I wanted to outline the main differences between Valentine's Day in Britain and in the US.

In Britain, the tradition is to send Valentine's cards anonymously to the person or people in whom you are interested. I have since found out that the probable origin of this is a Lancashire tradition, which actually may go back to Roman times. Apparently, eligible young men and women put cards with their names on into two separate piles, and each girl and boy took a card at random. Each person made their own subsequent arrangements, having a choice of two options.

When I moved to the US, I was surprised to find out that people sign their Valentine's cards. Not only that, but it is customary for children to bring tiny little cards (and sometimes candy) to school for every child in class. I clearly remember the difficulty of trying to sneak a card into the locker or bag of girls I "fancied" at school.

My Wife has indulged me in my preference for anonymous cards.

Talking of indulgence, I wanted to hijack this blog post for personal reasons. If it all proves too much, I recommend the Wikipedia article on Valentine's Day.

Firstly a cute story: My four year old daughter went to her dance class this week, and one of the little girls in her class had brought Valentine's cards and gifts for everyone. Not knowing who would be there, her Mother had written who they were from, but had not written the names of any of the intended recipients. She handed a bag of them to the teacher to hand out. Each time my daughter (who is an excellent reader) was given a Valentine, she tried to give it to the girl the card was from. She thought it had been given to her by mistake.

Last, but certainly not least, I have been sick for the last few days, and it has rather limited my plans as far as Valentine's cards or gifts are concerned. Therefore, I am taking advantage of this very public channel to wish my Wife B. a Happy Valentine's Day. I think it's legitimate that I share it here, since she is the reason I moved to the US in the first place, and she continues to be my inspiration.

With All My Love


Your Biggest Admirer

Friday, February 13, 2009

Raising Sand - The British Invasion of The Grammys

About 20 years ago, I almost bought a synthesizer that once belonged to British rocker Robert Plant. At the time, I don't think I could have told you the title of any Led Zeppelin songs, and I probably would not have recognized one on the radio. I was just in the market for a used synthesizer, and the fact that it had once belonged to Robert Plant (and had documentation to prove it) was irrelevant to me. I should point out that I would probably recognize Led Zeppelin's music today.

Fast forward to Christmas 2007, and my Sister-in-Law bought my Wife and me a CD called Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. I have to admit, I was more familiar with Krauss's work than Plant's, having been through a phase of listening to a lot of bluegrass music. I just knew from the first time I listened to the album, that it was very special. The songs, the arrangements and the blending of the voices were magical. Who would have thought that the collaboration of a British rock god and an American bluegrass fiddler and vocalist would yield such a potent brew?

Plant and Krauss first performed together at a concert to celebrate the music of Lead Belly. They thought the pairing sounded promising, so they brought in producer T-Bone Burnett, most well known for producing the soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Burnett's selection of songs, mostly classics and standards, and his production, "Built on a shared core of modal blues and country soul, filtered through alternating layers of unadorned tenderness and thick, shifting textures" provided the final pieces of the puzzle.

Last weekend, Brits won big at the Grammys, with awards going to Coldplay, Adele, Duffy and Radiohead. Performances at the show included one by Paul McCartney. However, Robert Plant headed what much of the British press described as a British Invasion. Raising Sand won 5 Grammys: Album of the Year; Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album; Record of the Year (for "Please Read the Letter"); Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals (for "Rich Woman"); and Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (for "Killing the Blues").

The British press also speculated that the organizers had been desperate for big wins by American artists to help reverse years of declining domestic TV audiences. However, the 12,000 voting members of the Recording Academy apparently did not play ball, and American wins were largely restricted to relatively minor awards.

What did you think of the Grammys? What do you think of "Raising Sand?" Please let us know by sharing your comments.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Trouble with Religion and Buses

A storm has been brewing in Britain, and it is starting to spread. Last month, in response to a newspaper article by comedy writer Ariane Sherine, the British Humanist Association raised £140,000 (a little over $200,000 US) and launched a poster campaign on the sides of buses. The posters read, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." This slogan cleverly used the same "probably" device Carlsberg beer used years ago in its "Probably the best beer in the world" campaign, avoiding litigation. The Advertising Standards Authority immediately received complaints from Christians, and a story about a Christian bus driver refusing to drive an "atheist bus" made the headlines. The driver eventually agreed to drive the bus if there was no other available, and complaints about the campaign were recently overruled.

Just a few days ago, the campaign ended, and several religious groups have stepped up with their own campaigns. The Christian Party (who are planning to run in June's European Parliamentary elections) have "There definitely is a God; so join the Christian Party and enjoy your life." They also aim to raise money by encouraging people, for a $2 fee, to text "Amen." The Trinitarian Bible Society has "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." (from Psalm 53.2), and the Russian Orthodox Church plans ads that read, "There IS a God, BELIEVE. Don't worry and enjoy your life." In addition, several weeks ago, the British press featured a story about a nurse in North Somerset who had offered to pray for a patient during a home visit. The patient had complained, and the nurse was suspended from duty pending a review. Atheist organization The National Secular Society supported the decision to suspend her. The nurse, who was previously asked to go on a diversity and equality course after a similar incident, was just reinstated.

Three out of four people in the world consider themselves religious. Nevertheless, atheism and agnosticism has gained ground in richer countries, especially in Europe. Some say this is a reaction to the increase in religious fanaticism and faith-inspired terrorism.

Now I see that Humanist organizations want to try the bus campaign in other countries, most notably Canada. Vancouver nixed the idea.

As I noted in my blog article about his inauguration speech, President Barack Obama mentioned non-believers together with Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus. Now, religious groups are angry that President Obama has been reaching out to atheists.

The issue of atheism and religion is not going away. In the USA, where the First amendment to The Constitution supports a separation of Church and State, it is notable that non-religious Presidential candidates stand little chance of being elected. Contrast this with Britain, where Tony Blair very publicly embraced Catholicism only after his term as Prime Minister had ended.

Where do you stand on this issue? Please do post your comments.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Graham Norton Headache Cure

A week or so ago, I had a rather painful tension headache. I asked on Twitter and Facebook for some ideas to get rid of it. An old school friend of mine from England first suggested (in true English fashion) that I should try poking my finger in my eye, because that would distract me from the pain in my head. Then he came up with a fantastic suggestion: laughter and some gentle exercise.

For the exercise, I walked up and down a step while watching TV. To make me laugh, I chose Graham Norton. My headache soon cleared.

The Graham Norton Show is the most recent and, in my opinion, most consistently funny of Graham's TV series. I have seen most of his series, and I have to say that it seems to have taken a while for him to hit his stride. It loosely follows the chat-show format - more on that later. It's shown on BBC America. That means that I can watch it legitimately on DirecTV, as opposed to watching 8-minute snippets on YouTube, as some people (a-hem!) apparently do with other British shows that they cannot watch otherwise in the States.

The flamboyantly gay host starts, as is customary in the chat show format, with an opening monologue. This is usually a comedic look at some of the week's news, gossip, TV and movie happenings. Then he brings on two guests. Finally, he brings on a musical act. Because of the show's American audience, Norton ensures that American stars appear alongside popular British stars. Having the two guests appear together is a stroke of genius, because not only do you get the conversation between the host and guest, but also between the two guests. It's funny watching American stars trying to get a handle on what the show is about. It sometimes takes a little while for them to understand the laid-back style, being allowed to swear (On BBC America, the swearing is bleeped out) and drink alcohol. Some never quite get it, but it is very entertaining to see a show where a guest relaxes very quickly, and some seem to love it.

Of course, with Norton's background as a comedian, the humor is always front and center. However, he evidently has some very good researchers, as his guests are frequently surprised with some of the information Graham has about them. Not only that, but he often uses the computer by his side to show funny stories from the Internet, gossip about a guest, and so on. Very often, audience members and guests will be invited to play some kind of game (often role-playing) related to one of the guests.

Next time you have a headache, or just fancy a laugh, try a dose of Graham Norton.

Are you a Graham Norton fan? Are you into any other current British shows? What British shows would you recommend for the American viewer? Please post a comment.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Let it snow!

Yesterday I had to cancel a board meeting of the Friends of the Edison, NJ Public Library (of which I am president) because of the snow. The snow was not particularly bad but we were expecting more in the late afternoon and early evening, and it was going to be very cold. Some of the members are seniors, and some have mobility issues. In addition, we did not have a whole lot to talk about, so to drag everyone out seemed a little foolish. Some schools in Edison closed or were opening a little later than usual. My daughter's preschool was operating as normal, however, so I took a push broom to my van, while warming it up, so I could pick her up (my Wife takes her in).

I admit it, I hate snow intensely and always have. I seem to recall telling other kids at school that I was allergic to snow, in an attempt to put them off pelting me with snowballs. Here in New Jersey, the summers are warmer than England (and more humid), and the winters are colder, so I have to live with it. At least I work from home, so I rarely have to go out in the snow. My Wife, brought up in Michigan, does not have any problem with the snow, or driving in it. On a recent trip to my Mother-in-Law's in Grand Rapids, Michigan for Christmas, I drove the non-snowy parts. My Wife drove the parts of the journey where the snow was worse - with me sitting white-knuckled in the passenger seat. I remember on my first trip to visit my in-laws that my Wife took the car up a very steep snow-covered hill a few blocks away from the family home, just for a lark, with me panicking all the way. My four-year old daughter has inherited my Wife's snow-genes, as she regularly demonstrates when we arrive home in the snow, and she takes off into the back yard to frolic. I am usually standing on the back step yelling for her to come back in.

Britain, especially England, is not used to much snow. However, it has had some the last few days. As is usual when Britain gets snow, the country pretty much stopped. Airports and other transportation closed down and so did the schools. Snow shut down London. The media was full of it. There were stories about how to cope with the snow (complete with ridicule from colder, snowier countries). Website Londonist had the headline Snow Bonkersness. The Daily Mail, in typical Daily Mail fashion, focused on business leaders' anger at school closures with their story entitled Frozen out by health and safety: Third day off lessons as schools close 'because children might get ice in their eyes'. There were sad stories, and there were plenty of wonderful photos.

The reason why Britain is never prepared for the snow is purely down to economics. It is because it hardly ever happens. Those same Daily Mail readers would have thrown a hissy-fit if a few weeks ago, Boris Johnson (The Mayor of London) had been spending money on snowploughs or if the railway services had increased fares in order to buy equipment for de-icing the rails.

Are you a snow-fan or snow-wimp? Are you going to be out in it, or inside drinking hot-chocolate? Please let me know by posting a comment.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Adding locations to The Great Fish & Chip Map

Here are some detailed instructions on how to add a location to The Great Fish & Chip Map:

  1. Here is a direct link to the map
  2. If you are not already logged into your Google account (or you don't have one), click on the Sign In link at the top right and sign in using your Google user name and password. (If you do not have a Google account, click on the Create an account now link and follow the instructions).
  3. To the left of the map, a check mark should have appeared next to The Great Fish & Chips Map. Click on the Edit button and you will be able to add to the map.
  4. You can enter an address in the search box and click the Search Maps button. When you find the location, you may click the Save to My Maps link and add it to The Great Fish & Chips Map. Once you have done this, you may type the details into the area that appears and click OK.
  5. You can zoom into or out of the map using the slider control. Using the "hand" cursor, you can click and drag the map wherever you like. A double click will zoom into the area where you click. (NOTE: you may have to wait a few moments until you see all the detail in a map)
  6. Another way to add a location is to use the "Add a placemark" (Pushpin) icon, one of the four icons near the top left of the map. It is the second one along. Click on it, then click where you want the placemark to appear. You will then be able to type a description. You may also format your description, or add photos or links, etc., using the tools near the description box. When you have finished, click OK.
  7. When you have finished editing, click the Save button, then click Done. Remember to Save what you added before clicking on the Done button, or else what you added will not be saved.
  8. Your favorite fish & chip shop should now appear on the map.
  9. If you experience any problems, please contact me using one of the methods shown in the right-hand column of this page, or post a comment to this entry.