O Captain, My Captain

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If I had known as a child how good for me Robert J. (Bob) Keeshan intended Captain Kangaroo to be, I'm sure I never would have watched it. Keeshan, who died last Friday at 76 from a long illness, meant his children's show to counter TV's violence and hyperstimulation — all of which, of course, I consumed greedily on other programs. But like the orange-and-black "helping hand" signs in the windows of my 1970s Michigan neighborhood (telling kids to which houses they could run to escape from bad adults), the Captain's Place was a kind of haven in a sometimes seedy media landscape. That made Keeshan honorable. What made him a genius was that for some 9,000 episodes, I and millions of other kids were too busy laughing to notice.

Keeshan, like great television artists from Ernie Kovacs on, was in a fundamental way pushing back against the very medium he loved. In 1948 he got his first onscreen job, as Clarabell — the mute clown who spoke by honking a horn — on what would become the Howdy Doody show. Kids loved Clarabell, but something about the show's boisterous atmosphere didn't fit with Keeshan's feeling that children's television should be "intimate." When CBS gave him the chance, in 1955, to create his own kids' show, Keeshan made Captain Kangaroo something very different.

Where Howdy Doody whooped up a crowd of kids, Captain Kangaroo addressed "you" — singular. He introduced himself as a kindly, absentminded host, continually pulling surprises out of his oversize pockets (whence the Kangaroo). There was typical kids'-show fun, with a panoply of pals that included the Banana Man, Dancing Bear, and Tom Terrific with his sidekick Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog. But there was also an underlying seriousness of purpose. On his first broadcast, taking young viewers on a tour around the Treasure House — which later became the Captain's Place — Captain Kangaroo even did the on-TV unthinkable: he suggested they go outside and get some fresh air. He would regularly sit down and read an entire book, accompanied by nothing but music and mesmerizing illustrations. In retrospect, he was doing everything but reaching a hand through the screen and unplugging the box for us.

Many of Keeshan's grownup fans may have been surprised to hear that he was not older than 76 when he died. Over the decades Keeshan literally became the kindly old man he created at only 28 — he didn't grow his soup-strainer mustache until the mid-'60s, and his face and figure gradually rounded into kindly Falstaffian proportions as the years went by. (The bowl haircut, however, was always a wig.) Though he cautioned parents against using TV as a baby sitter, knowing some would anyway, he made himself into a virtual grandfather. "It was not a show," he would later say. "It was a visit."

Unlike Fred Rogers, who worked in the relative cocoon of public TV, Keeshan spent most of his career in commercial television. (After nearly 30 years, CBS callously bumped Captain Kangaroo to expand its morning news show, and Keeshan took the program to PBS, where it died in 1993 for lack of underwriting.) Perhaps because it competed in the marketplace, the show evolved more conspicuously over the years than Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which always seemed to exist in a kind of immortalized 1950s Pittsburgh, Pa. Different generations remember different Captains. Mine was the '70s version, with its Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings stories and the environmentalist, hippie-ish furry-creatures band the Wombles.

But there were constants as well. Mr. Green Jeans (Hugh Brannum) shared his love of animals with us. The greedy, bespectacled puppet Bunny Rabbit conned the Captain out of truckloads' worth of carrots. And wiseacre puppet Mr. Moose told jokes, punctuated by a rain of Ping-Pong balls that would drop on the Captain's head. (Captain Kangaroo may have been gentle, but it wasn't above a good slapstick bit.)

The greatest constant was Keeshan's bedrock goal, to give kids the tools they needed to thrive — even if those tools, too, changed with time. Early on, he taught vocabulary and skills like crossing the street. Later, as divorce rates and family instability grew, he taught self-love and confidence. And every day he stressed the simple power of two "magic" phrases, the first being "Please" and the second — and his most fitting farewell — being "Thank you."