So long, `Captain Chesapeake'

Host for 19 years of TV show for children dies at 74

George Lewis: 1926-2000

December 20, 2000|By Frederick Rasmussen | Frederick Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Wearing a white steamship captain's hat with shiny black visor, a turtleneck and tailored red blazer, George A. Lewis was the natty nautical personification of "Captain Chesapeake."

As the imaginary bay mariner, the avuncular Mr. Lewis was a fixture on local children's television in Baltimore for nearly 20 years.

Mr. Lewis, who retired in 1990, died Monday of bone cancer at his Timonium home. He was 74.

"Captain Chesapeake" first went on the air at WBFF-TV (Channel 45) in 1971.

During the station's cartoon programming from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., "Captain Chesapeake" would appear in one- or two-minute inserts. Joining him were his life-size puppet sidekick, Mondy the Sea Monster - a Chesapeake Bay version of the Loch Ness Monster - and Bruce the Bird, an imaginary character.

Between cartoons, the Captain, Mondy and Bruce would engage in activities that would amuse and impart a lesson to the young viewers.

"George loved what he did and was a real performer," said Duncan Smith, vice president of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, owners of Fox 45. "He filled a great niche and was able to lock in to kids, and what he brought to each show was a value-type lesson."

Near the end of each show, Mr. Lewis looked into the camera and admonished his youthful audience to "Be somebody important; be yourself." Then he followed with his trademark sign-off, "So, long crew members."

"He had a wonderful imagination, was very creative and created all of the show's episodes and story lines. He took the name for Mondy from our daughter, who is named Remonda," said his wife of 47 years, the former Dorothy Doudiken.

Mr. Lewis also presided over a club of "crew members" who carried membership cards. By 1973, he had registered his 50,000th card-carrying crew member.

The station received about 3,000 letters a week. Some correspondents were by no means under 12.

A Baltimore physician wrote to say that he ignored his patients each afternoon to tune in the captain. And a real-life Navy captain swore "eternal allegiance."

Mr. Lewis told of being pulled over by a traffic policeman because the officer wanted to meet the real "Captain Chesapeake" in the flesh.

"I wasn't doing anything wrong," Mr. Lewis told The Evening Sun in a 1990 interview. "When he walked to the window, he pulled out his crew member's card."

"He was consummate broadcaster, and working with him was a constant learning experience," said Dwight Weems, who directed the show and is now creative director at Channels 45 and 54. "He was multifaceted, talented and had an unmatched ability in knowing how to reach kids."

With his theme song, "Stumblin'," playing softly in the background, Mr. Lewis would comfortably settle into a captain's chair on a set that resembled the main deck of a tugboat. He would open a treasure chest and read letters from his youthful viewers.

Mr. Weems praised his "soft and sincere way with children" and ability to connect with viewers.

Mr. Lewis was born in Atlanta, and his family moved to Baltimore a year later. He graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

His first public performance occurred when he was a precocious 5-year-old traveling with his parents on a steamship cruise and decided to entertain passengers with his own version of "It's Only a Shanty in Old Shanty Town."

He first appearance on television came one day when he was walking along Lexington Street and Baltimorean Garrison Morfit - later known as popular television quiz show host Garry Moore - interviewed him for his "Man in the Street" program.

Invited back to the show, Mr. Lewis wowed listeners with a virtuoso harmonica performance. Later, he was a regular on WBAL Radio's "Woman of the Week Show."

He served briefly in the Army Air Forces during the final days of World War II and, after he was discharged, enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University.

One day, on impulse, he drove past Hopkins and by the time he stopped his car found himself in Lenoir, N.C., looking for a job as a radio announcer.

Green and not knowing how to operate the radio station's console, Mr. Lewis remembered, he stood in the studio yelling until he found a microphone that worked.

In 1950, he joined WCBM Radio in Baltimore as host of the morning show and later worked at a station in Atlantic City, N.J. After working at a television station in Lexington, Ky., he became a news anchor at WSAZ-TV in Huntington, W.Va., in 1957.

There, his wife said, he "had to fill in one day when the man who was host of the children's show became ill."

"He left anchoring and went on to hosting `Steamboat Bill' full time. He loved it because he loved children."

As "Steamboat Bill," Mr. Lewis created the character that he brought to Baltimore in 1970 and became "Captain Chesapeake."

Reflecting on his career at his retirement, he told The Sun, " I hope I have done some good when I talked to kids about futures, goals and self-image. Maybe that was the main thrust of what we did. ... I told them: Be somebody important; be yourself."

In retirement, he enjoyed reading and traveling.

He was an active member and lay reader at St. Stephen's Traditional Episcopal Church in Timonium.

Services are private.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by five daughters, Melanie Gorney and Angela Howell, both of Absecon, N.J., Tara Heintz of Hobe Sound, Fla., Tracy Sealover of Chase and Remonda Bert of Bel Air; 13 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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