As a former host of the television show ‘Romper Room,’ Jean A. Dobis finds herself dealing with a bit of a collective consciousness.
People ask the Oakmont resident for songs, dances, stories and other routines from the series that dates back not only to their own childhood but also to the early days of television.
And if ‘Miss Jean’ gets a complaint, it usually revolves around The Magic Mirror.
‘I still get people asking me, ‘How come you never saw me in The Magic Mirror?” said Dobis, referring to the mirror that was brought out at the end of each show, when the host would use it to gaze out into the TV audience.
That audience was vast, and the show was franchised on a regional basis, with Dobis, at the time Jean Federici, starring in more than 500 shows between 1958 and 1961 in the Johnstown viewing area, which was broadcast over parts of four states, including Pittsburgh’s eastern suburbs.
Miss Jean also came back for several weeks at a time on the Pittsburgh ‘Romper Room’ in the early 1960s, filling in for Miss Janey when the Pittsburgh hostess got married and went on family leave.
|The Federici-Dobis file|
‘Some of the ‘Romper Room’ kids now have grandchildren of their own,’ Dobis said of the baby boomers she worked with on a daily basis, getting to the studio at 7 a.m., then going on the air live for an hour at 8 a.m., even doing the commercials herself.
‘We had to get there early to start to warm the cameras up, and the only thing we rehearsed was the commercials,’ she noted. ‘We improvised a lot, including the music.’
At the time she was persuaded to audition to host the show, Dobis wasn’t sure if she was qualified for the part.
A standout in Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School’s plays and musicals when she attended nearby Sacred Heart High School, Federici went on to sing lead for the dance band known as The Mellowmen and performed in the summer productions of the Civic Light Opera at Pitt Stadium.
Her family moved to Oakmont from the East Liberty-Homewood area in 1950. Her father, George Federici, was a Pennsylvania Railroad detective who patrolled from the Strip District to the Point. He was also a well-known referee and umpire.
‘One of the treasures in our family was a PT-109 tie bar that John F. Kennedy gave to my father on one of his stops in Pittsburgh,’ she recalled.
She graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1955 with a degree in musical education. And that’s what she was doing when she saw the advertisement looking for a host of a new ‘Romper Room’ show.
‘I was teaching vocal music in Indiana,’ Dobis said. ‘At first I said ‘I’m not really a preschool teacher.”
The audition was in the studio, a converted welding shop in nearby Cambria City.
‘They had me sit at the desk and say, ‘Good morning boys and girls,’ and then I sang a song, something like ‘The Noble Duke of York,” she recalled.
And the rest is history. Dobis had been making $3,200 year as a teacher, and ‘Romper Room’ was offering a going rate of $125 a week, which more than doubled her salary.
With most of the day still ahead of her after the show, Federici spent a lot of time playing golf at the local public course.
‘I would play with steelworkers, who thought it was fun to play with ‘Miss Jean,” she said. ‘Some of them wanted pictures so they could show their wives.’
She got hundreds of letters every week. Aside from kids’ mail, she got her share of letters from ‘guys in pool rooms and bars’ – as well as her future husband, Joseph Dobis.
‘He wrote to tell me that he remembered me from the college yearbook, that he was coaching and teaching in Johnstown and that we should get together,’ she said.
The two were married in 1960, and essentially the honeymoon was over at ‘Romper Room,’ where incidentally she had also fixed up a cameraman with her best friend. Those two wound up getting married.
But with the arrival of the Dobis’ first child, she was phased out of the show, although she did come back for several weeks in 1962 and 1963 for the Pittsburgh broadcast.
‘This was all before the Fair Employment Act, and some women weren’t even allowed to be married on their jobs,’ Dobis noted. ‘I never got to say goodbye to the kids. But I think I probably would have quit anyway to raise my own family.’
As her three children were growing up, she worked as a substitute teacher in Johnstown.
But she missed Pittsburgh quite a bit.
‘I always had intentions of coming back home to Pittsburgh,’ Dobis said. ‘I missed the spontaneity of doing things in the city, where you don’t have to plan everything in advance.’
Today, she is the organist for First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sharpsburg and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Natrona Heights, Harrison. She also serves as the president of the Confraternity of Christian Mothers and Guild at St. Irenaeus Church in Oakmont.
As for her stint on ‘Romper Room,’ she wishes she would have kept more mementos.
‘All I have is one old script, but I have kept letters from parents,’ Dobis said. ‘It was a wonderful experience. And I had the opportunity to touch a lot of people’s lives. At that time, there just wasn’t much on television for children.’
Tom Jewell can be reached at [email protected] or (412) 380-8516.