Romper Room's Miss Sherri & Thalidomide
Loyal listeners, it’s all about the women in and of TV, right? If you could see my list of topics not yet explored and genres…. Oh my goodness the genres, you’ll know that my pursuit of the untold or undertold story is relentless. Take the genre of children’s television for instance. You’re not alone if you only remember Mister Rogers and the male lead characters of Sesame Street and Captain Kangaroo. Oh and Steve from Blues Clues. Suiting up for the women were Nanette Fabray of Kukla Fran and Ollie, Shari Lewis – the puppeteer and voice behind LambChop (a girl), Hush Puppy and Charlie Horse and all the teachers of Romper Room.
Today’s we’re talking about the original teacher from Romper Room, Miss Sherri. Listeners of the Gen X and Millennial generations, Romper Room was like slow moving televised kindergarten, usually featuring 6 kids. Well-mannered kids who helped Baby Boom kids get ready for classroom learning.
By 1962, Miss Sherri Finkbine (actually Mrs. Finkbine, but she was known as Miss) had been the teacher on Romper Room, filmed and syndicated out of Arizona, for nearly four years. Within a matter of weeks, she became more famous for a personal situation which played out in a public fashion, than her career on the children’s show. In fact, that career ended quite prematurely.
In 1962, studies coming out of Europe were documenting the widespread birth defects of babies born to mothers who had taken the drug Thalidomide during their pregnancies. Thalidomide had been prescribed in the U.S. and abroad for sleeplessness and morning sickness.
Happily married to a high school teacher, Miss Sherri took Thalidomide in the early stages of her pregnancy with her fifth child. What transpired in the ensuing months helps us better understand American attitudes toward abortion, a woman’s right to make a decision about a pregnancy and the medical community at the time.
It’s true 1962 was 55 years ago. Video preservation really didn't exist, so we are left with little audio to tell this story. But in 1992, 30 years after the major headlines about Thalidomide were made around the world and factor Miss Sherri’s story played in people’s attitudes toward choice, a made-for-TV movie – A Private Matter – starring Sissy Spacek and Aiden Quinn, told the story.
So a woman OF TV, Miss Sherri was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s journalism program, raised American awareness of the dangers of Thalidomide and 30 years later, women in TV – namely Lindsay Doran and Joan Micklin Silver, produced and directed the story.
The lines you’ll hear from the movie reveal the often overlooked perspective of what Miss Sherri’s situation must have been. Don’t be surprised if any given clip first leaves you thinking “times have changed,” but then reflecting a moment later, “maybe not so much.” And of course the movie clips in particular are told in the voice of 1992 – a different time than today for women’s rights, progress and question for equality.
There have been many iterations of Romper Room over the years. In fact, during the 50s and 60s, regional TV stations had the option to access the show as a franchise, not as a syndicated show that went national. IMDB chronicles the show’s premiere in 1953 and details various teachers and versions all the way to 1994.
But like the curly top of ice cream of a Dairy Queen cone, teachers in all the shows looked through the handheld magnifying glass into the camera and rattled off a list of names. Hmmm, when you think of it, it fits quite nicely into the highly competitive profile of the Baby Boom generation. Six year olds armed with a stack of postcards mailed daily to the local TV station in hopes their names would be read over the air. We’ve done this to ourselves, you guys.
Now later in this installment, you’ll hear some televised news coverage of Mr. Finkbine making a statement on his wife’s behalf. In 1962, that would have been common place. Also in 1962, Miss Sherri, though employed, most likely didn’t have a credit card in her name. The movie depicts her as being able to drive a car . Surely a college graduate should have been part of the initial conversation between her doctor and husband when the doctor confirmed through testing that the fetus was already showing signs of deformed limbs.
When old feminists get charged up about the incremental progress in women’s rights that has slowly been made of the last 50 years or so, having the autonomy over one’s own health care decisions ranks right up there. We take it for granted today, but in 1962, men discussed the options and in this instance, presented her with their recommendation. If you need more proof, wallow your way through 1970’s Baby Boom smash hit, Love Story, starring Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal. I’ll just throw out the spoiler that McGraw’s character, intended to be in her mid-20s, learns she has – well we never really know because her husband played by Ryan O’Neal has a conversation in whispers with the father he hates – played by Ray Milland, in the hallway outside her hospital room. Same deal, they come in with their story straight and a recommendation, well, that basically she’s looking at death.
Okay, back to Miss Sherri. Now the movie tells the story that she’s the one to tell one of her local news station friends that she knows of a woman who took Thalidomide. The conversation evolves and she reveals it to be her own situation. From there, it’s not long before her identity is revealed.
Why was telling the story of the situation important? Sherri answers in her own words in an interview that appears in a short video Choice at Risk, which you can find on You Tube.
Sherri’s actions – attempting to prevent other women who might be pregnant from reaching into their medicine cabinets and taking Thalidomide or obediently accepting a prescription for it from their 65 year old white male family physician… were laudable. The movie does a good job of revealing how her news and name became public. As a woman of TV, was she higher profile than if she had just been a – housewife? I have to believe, yes.
A Private Matter’s other moral track is the soft ground held by the medical community. The Finkbines were told that her pregnancy could be terminated as long as it was determined that her life was somehow in danger. The movie shows a visit she had with a psychiatrist where he basically fills in her unfinished sentences in order for his to render a conclusion that she is suicidal from the stress of carrying a deformed fetus.
So here we are, about halfway through the movie and Sissy Spacek is delivering an outstanding performance of a woman who is now being judged for every move she makes. Her therapeutic abortion, as local doctors had called it, is on hold until a court can make a decision. She’s got four kids at home already. Her mother can’t understand her need to own the decision and her husband, lo and behold, at some point this needs to be about him.
According to the law, abortion of any sort was illegal. Doctors were able to benevolently assign loop holes – handle things privately. It was all hush-hush.
This movie has the mood of the early 60s down to a T, including the table of physicians meeting in what could have been the hospital’s doctors’ lounge, dragging on cigarettes. Ashtrays the size of small hubcaps appear on the table. There’s no shortage of irony.
So this is how decisions were made back then? Had Sherri not felt strongly about warning other women about Thalidomide, she would have been quietly admitted to the hospital by her doctor, had the procedure, recuperated and returned to Romper Room hardly any worse for the wear. Did her actions – outing the medical community’s disregard for the law - permanently change hospital procedures? Did these conversations go on in doctors’ lounges around the country?
These are just the questions that go through my head. In a short period of time, while carrying this fetus, Miss Sherri had left her own doctor powerless, had the local courts refuse to act on her case in light of federal law and ultimately, was turned down for service by her local hospital.
What options are left? Well that was the conversation between her doctor and her husband. Someone cue the theme from Love Story, I hear Ali McGraw coughing…
There are only a few interviews and news items on the Finkbine case on the internet. Miss Sherri was interviewed in 1992 when the movie A Private Matter aired. In an interview with the New York Times, Miss Sherri explains that she had long turned down offers to bring her story to the large or small screen. As she put it, “I wasn’t interested in turning myself into a sideshow.” A Private Matter was brought forward by the producers of A League of Their Own. She must have found some assurance that they’d tell the story truly from a woman’s point of view, that caused her to change her mind.
According to the New York Times article of June 16, 1992, Miss Sherri was pleased with Sissy Spacek’s performance. She thought there was a misstep, however, in the one important scene – QUOTE – During the scene in which the Scottsdale hospital administrator gives her the news that she cannot have the abortion performed at that hospital, Ms. Chessen (no longer with Mr. Finkbine) sounding like a proper Do Bee (Romper Room reference) notes, ‘Sissy was snippy to the hospital supervisor, and I think she should have said, ‘thank you for trying.’” – END QUOTE.
Hamstrung by the American legal and medical communities, the Finkbines worked with their doctor to explore the possibility of an abortion in another country. Japan was their first inquiry. Japan denied the request due to media exposure.
The Finkbines ultimately went to Sweden. This clip is a news item from the day and can be found on YouTube.
Throughout the movie A Private Matter, the viewer really gets the feel for the media frenzy that surrounded this family during these terrible weeks of medical limbo. It cannot compare to today, but in 1962, TV reporting was becoming mobile, local news often made it onto national radio and newspapers were the backbone of American culture. The reporters (all men) were tenacious. People on the whole, were cruel. It’s hard to imagine.
Sherri Finkbine has largely been out of the spotlight since 1962. Here is a bit more of a short video of her story produced by Choice at Risk and directed by Dorothy Fadiman.
Thalidomide made for a big question of medical ethics and reproductive rights in a day when the women’s movement was only starting to really form. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the book which many credit as the launch of the public face of the movement was published in 1963. Roe Vs. Wade, the legal challenge to the federal law which ultimately gave women the right to choose whether to carry a fetus or not, for whatever reason, was decided in 1973. In the 50s, 60s and through the mid-70s, pregnancy was not a condition that merited many warnings to change behavior.
Do we have Sherri Finkbine to thank for being one of many voices to advocate for women’s health at a time when it was basically untended? It sure seems so. And that progress fed into the women’s movement and the rights, freedoms and knowledge we have today.
Please, if you have an hour and a half, view A Private Matter. It’s available on YouTube though it can also be found on DVD. It’s as close to a documentary of Miss Sherri’s situation as you’ll find and really, really worth viewing. Because when you get to the end and understand all she endured to be able to act on her own decision, the complexity of her situation is the question of her own self-determination. There is no sugar-coating and every step of the way, Miss Sherri’s conviction that women should know the effects of Thalidomide, even at her own expense, never wavered.
Thank you for listening to this important, albeit heavy, topic. Audio from A Private Matter was pulled from the DVD. The two excerpts ofaudio from the Finkbines come from YouTube – a clip posted by Huntley Film Archives. Huntley one of the largest independent film libraries in the UK, with a collection of more than 80,000 titles. Also, interview excerpts of Sherri herself were taken from the short biographical sketch Choice at Risk directed by Dorothy Fadiman.
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Advanced TV Herstory wants to know if there are untold or undertold women in TV stories you think should be covered in this podcast? Send ‘em right away to me at email@example.com. Find scripts and access to the entire vault of this podcast at www.tvherstory.com. Follow us on Twitter – our handle is TVHerstory. Girls and women – all of us learn from the women we see on TV. And more often than not, the best ones are brought to us by the women in the TV industry – writers, producers, directors…. We must learn from the past to support a stronger future & that’s why you’re listening to Advanced TV Herstory. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.