TV's Captain Kangaroo, Bob Keeshan, dies at 76

January 24, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Bob Keeshan, who for 30 years played television's Captain Kangaroo, trading knock-knock jokes with a moose puppet while introducing morals and civility to countless children, died yesterday at 76.

Mr. Keeshan's death in Hartford, Vt., followed a long illness, according to a statement released by his son, Michael.

Although Fred Rogers, who died last year, is often considered the father of children's television, Mr. Keeshan preceded him on U.S. national TV by 13 years, debuting on CBS in 1955 as an avuncular character with a walrus mustache, Buster Brown wig, baggy jacket and beloved gaggle of Treasure House friends. The show, which aired five days a week for 29 years (much of that time on America's most popular network), was seen by more American children than any other in TV history, including Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood or Romper Room.

The gentle tone, meandering pace and understated mix of fun and lessons embodied by Captain Kangaroo set a standard that Mr. Rogers openly acknowledged as an influence. Also, many of the original Sesame Street staff members began their careers on the set of Captain Kangaroo.

"His show was the first - the first children's show on network TV to educate and entertain. That's what I think Bob Keeshan and Captain Kangaroo will be remembered for," said Jimmy Hirschfeld, the show's executive producer for 16 years.

"The show was targeted at preschoolers, and he was very big about certain things: First and foremost, it always had to be gentle and nonthreatening to children. Then it must be somewhat educational, especially in terms of teaching a moral lesson. But, always, it also had to be entertaining," Mr. Hirschfeld added.

Mr. Keeshan's success in accomplishing his goals is suggested by the awards the show won over the years: six Emmys, three Peabodys and three Gabriel Awards.

Gentle, respectful

The Captain Kangaroo format contrasts sharply with most contemporary children's programs, with their slick packaging, fast pace and product tie-ins. Designed not to startle preschoolers in any way, Captain Kangaroo's world was the Treasure House, a storybook locale to which he held the jangling ring of keys.

A warm and fuzzy fantasy land, it was populated by his good friend, Mr. Green Jeans (played by Hugh "Lumpy" Brannum), moose and rabbit puppets and typically inanimate objects that could talk, such as Grandfather Clock.

All were treated with respect - the puppet, Mr. Moose, in spite of his thickheadedness; Bunny Rabbit, despite his relentless and self-absorbed pursuit of carrots; and Mr. Whispers, who spoke so softly he could hardly be heard. Always, Captain Kangaroo's message was one of gentleness and consideration for others. One of the Captain's most familiar admonishments was: "Let's wake Grandfather Clock. But remember, let's use our soft voice, so we don't startle him."

Reading sessions

Mr. Keeshan also emphasized the pleasure of reading, using picture books such as Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. The Captain, sitting in a rocking chair, frequently was joined for reading sessions by Mr. Green Jeans, a farmer and amateur inventor.

The two characters read slowly, then turned the book to the camera so that young viewers could see the illustrations.

Long before Oprah came on the air, these simple segments created spikes in book sales (though in amounts that would seem quaint today) that foreshadowed the way in which television would become the principal arbiter of taste (and primary sales force) in popular culture.

Though Captain Kangaroo offered one animated segment, "Tom Terrific," the cartoon was devoid of violence.

No matter what, the emphasis was on kindness, not glitz. With such regular inventions as "be kind to mothers and others day," Mr. Keeshan introduced millions of children to the notion of civility.

"The show was a reflection of the man," Mr. Hirschfeld said. "He really was a beloved figure to those of us who worked with him. I mean, he could become a little temperamental when things didn't go right. But he was there from the beginning [of network television], and it was an honor to work with him."

Born in Lynnbrook, N.Y., Mr. Keeshan became a page at NBC Radio while in high school. After being discharged from the Marines in 1948, he went to work as Clarabell, a mute, horn-honking clown on The Howdy Doody Show, a seminal children's program but one with no educational aspirations.

After five years, Mr. Keeshan left the show, frustrated by the lack of opportunity to do much more than honk a bicycle horn and spray seltzer.

During the next two years, he served as host of two New York City children's shows, Time for Fun and Tinker's Workshop. He was then chosen by CBS to perform on its new weekday show, Captain Kangaroo, which debuted Oct. 3, 1955.

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