October 3, 1955, a magical thing happened in our home and in the homes
of baby boomers all across America. Via our family’s black-and-white
television set, a grandfatherly figure named “Captain Kangaroo”
found his way onto our living rooms and our hearts for the very first
time. He would stay for 36 years.
At the time the show debuted,
I figured “The Captain” had to be at least fifty or sixty
years old (ancient in the eyes of a seven-year-old). Actually, he was
28, but it really didn’t matter. To us, his was the most unique
and entertaining program on television. At a time when there were only
two or three channels to watch on television, and when children’s
programming consisted mainly of mindless cartoons and not much else,
the captain was a breath of fresh air in the innocent world of millions
of boomers. We already had “Howdy Doody,” of course. And
“Gunsmoke” debuted the same year as the Captain, but it
was he who taught us things while he entertained us, and we loved it.
From his “Treasure
House,” Captain Kangaroo, played by actor/writer/producer Bob
Keeshan, created a world within our world, and he populated it with
characters we never grew tired of watching: Bunny Rabbit, who never
talked; Mr. Moose, who seemed to talk incessantly; Dancing Bear; Miss
Frog; Grandfather Clock; Fred the Magic Drawing Board; Flora and Albert;
Dennis The Apprentice; Uncle Ralph and many others. In their own way,
each of them taught us something.
I remember telling my great
aunt that Captain Kangaroo had taught me some magic words: “Abbra
Cadabbra, Please and Thank You!” She informed me in her usual
prim, proper and grumpy tone that I didn’t need the “Abbra
Cadabbra.” Somehow, it was a lot more fun learning civility and
manners from the Captain.
One of my favorite parts of
the show was a simple, line-drawing cartoon called “The Adventures
of Tom Terrific.” As the title implied, Tom Terrific’s life
was special and exciting. It had to be. After all, he had adventures!
Looking back, it is amazing the positive things I learned from that
Tom had a dog named “Manfred
the Wonder Dog” and a very special, funnel-shaped hat that enabled
him to turn into any object he wanted in order to help people. In one
episode, Tom used his magic hat to turn himself into a mouse in order
to make it through a narrowing tunnel. When he seemed stymied at a point
through which even a mouse couldn’t fit, I remember thinking,
“Why doesn’t he just change himself into something smaller
– an ant, maybe?” I guess there are limits to what even
a magic funnel-hat can do for you.
Long before “Mr.
Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “Sesame Street” or “The
Muppets,” there was “Captain Kangaroo.” I would be
in my forties, with grown sons of my own, before the Captain would sign
off the air for good.
Bob Keeshan was a gentle
soul whose talents enabled him to write, direct, produce and act, which
he did for all of his adult life. Yet he will always be remembered for
the lovable character he created nearly half a century ago. As a teenager,
he had fought at Iwo Jima during World War II and returned to make a
positive contribution to the lives of an entire generation.
Keeshan, who had been ill
for several years, died last week at the age of 76. Say “hello”
to Mr. Greenjeans for us, Captain.