Maybe it’s because Bob Keeshan, better known as “Captain Kangaroo,” grew up just a few miles from our family home on the south shore of Long Island. Or might it be because my father would sometimes spy him on the Long Island Railroad, a fellow commuter jockey making his way into Manhattan? Then again, it might just be because his show was downright funny and entertaining, and as a four-year-old, I liked to laugh.
It’s probably a mixture of all three reasons that well over 45 years later, I still think of “The Captain” from time to time. He passed away in 2004.
“Captain Kangaroo” first hit the airwaves on October 3, 1955. It wasn’t his first show, though. He had previously played the role of “Clarabelle the Clown” on the “Howdy Doody Show.” He had joined NBC after serving in the United States Marines. But as the kindly, mustached host of his program, Keeshan would become a household name for three decades. How did he choose to play and shape the role of the “Captain”?
“I was impressed with the potential positive relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, so I chose an elderly character,” he once reflected.
It was from that seasoned perch that Keeshan’s character, along with Mr. Green Jeans and others, modeled civility, kindness, empathy, and gentleness. Kids gravitated to him. Parents trusted him.
“We have respect for our audience,” he told The New York Times in 1965. “We operate on the conviction that it [the audience] is composed of young children of potentially good taste, and that this taste should be developed.”
When’s the last time you heard Hollywood producers casting that type of vision for childhood programming?
During Bob’s tenure as host of his show, he stressed the importance and effectiveness of simplicity, especially when dealing with children. Conversely, his friend and legendary comic, Jackie Gleason, stressed the opposite. “Never use one elephant when you can get two,” Gleason would often tell him. Yet when Keeshan launched his own program, he placed a sign in the office that read, “Never use two elephants when one is enough.”
In today’s hyped-up, 24/7 news-saturated world, it surprises people to remember that “Captain Kangaroo” aired weekdays at 8 A.M. on CBS. The Today Show was doing its things with news, sports and weather, but the nation’s children were happily tuning into the Tiffany Network, myself included.
Those mornings of gentle childhood programming on network television are gone, of course. “Captain Kangeroo” went off the air in 1984 after CBS decided to switch to more hard news. They’ve never looked back.
It’s easy to romanticize the past, suggest things were better years ago – and such a claim might not be far from the truth. But even midway thru his award-winning run, Bob Keeshan wrote in Guideposts Magazine:
“I know you can’t turn the world around and go backward. Times change; life gets more complicated. But that doesn’t stop me from stressing on my television show the simple values: faith in God, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ being a good neighbor and sharing what you have with others.”
Thankfully, parents and children still have options that reinforce those values – and more. Just this morning, I walked by our youngest son’s room, and he was wrapped up in a blanket by the heat vent on the floor listening to “Adventures in Odyssey.” However favorably I feel toward the late Bob Keeshan, AIO is exponentially richer, deeper and more deliberate in sharing the Gospel message with its listeners. If you’re not familiar with the program, please check out the show’s page. You won’t be disappointed.