| Bob Keeshan: 1927-2004 |
'Captain Kangaroo' Was Friend To Generations of Youngsters
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2004; Page A01
Bob Keeshan, who as the gentle Captain Kangaroo introduced the baby boom generation to television, died yesterday in Windsor, Vt., after a long illness. He was 76.
Keeshan, with his Dutch-boy haircut, bottle-brush mustache and uniform coat with pouch pockets, was a non-threatening, grandfatherly presence on morning network television from 1955 to 1985, then for six more years on public television. Along with his gardening pal Mr. Green Jeans, the carrot-munching Bunny Rabbit and knock-knock joke fanatic Mr. Moose, Captain Kangaroo never patronized his young audience.
In a statement, CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves called Keeshan "a true pioneer in children's television whose legacy goes unmatched."
Although his family did not give a cause of death in the statement announcing his death, Keeshan had had a heart attack and triple bypass in 1981. More than 5,000 children sent him get-well cards and letters.
The show was simplicity itself: The Captain would stroll through his Treasure House, jangling his keys as the theme music played. When he dropped the keys, the music stopped. Recurring characters included Dancing Bear, the Magic Drawing Board and Grandfather Clock, who was always dozing until children in the audience joined in waking him up. Captain Kangaroo was periodically surprised by Ping-Pong balls cascading down on his head. The show taught the joys of friendship, the wonder of reading and the companionship of animals.
Even after he left the role in the early 1990s, Keeshan remained a children's advocate, criticizing most television programming for youngsters, urging good parenting and speaking out against tobacco.
His show, the longest-running children's TV show on network television, won six Emmys and three Peabody awards. His show was sometimes criticized for not dealing with the rougher side of life, but Keeshan said that was intentional.
"We think that real life for 7-year-olds is all about getting along together and valuing friends and having good health habits," he told The Washington Post in 1980. "The main thing is to make the child feel good about herself. . . . We're trying to make them feel they're of value in the world."
But it was a different time, at least at first. Bunny Rabbit's habit of sneaking carrots from Mr. Green Jeans's garden -- often before lunch -- constituted a crime wave. Production of the show was simple and live in the first few years. Later, many of the show's writers went on to the faster-paced "Sesame Street," which dealt with some of the thornier issues of life for children and parents.
Psychologist Joyce Brothers, who spent three seasons on "Captain Kangaroo," called it "a wonderful service for children and parents."
"Parents could turn on the TV with complete security that what was shown wouldn't be harmful in any way," Brothers told the Associated Press.
Keeshan was born in Lynbrook, N.Y., and became a page at NBC while he was in high school. He joined the Marine Corps in 1945. For three years, he attended Fordham University, and years later, Fordham was one of at least 14 colleges that gave him an honorary degree.
He was working as a "cue-card boy" for "Buffalo Bob" Smith of "The Howdy Doody Show" when he walked in front of the camera by accident, Smith said. The producer said that if Keeshan was going to be on camera, he should be in costume, and the only costume available was a clown outfit. Eventually, the character evolved into Clarabell, the clown who didn't speak but honked horns and sprayed seltzer all over the host. Keeshan played the role for five years. He later played Corny the Clown, host of a noontime cartoon program in New York, and Tinker the Toymaker on ABC in 1954.
Captain Kangaroo was a name often attributed to the pouchlike pockets in his jacket, but Keeshan insisted that he decided on it because the words sounded good together. The show debuted Oct. 3, 1955, and Keeshan was 28 years old. He also created a year-long show on CBS, "Mr. Mayor," and produced a CBS Afternoon Playhouse show, "Revenge of the Nerd." He did radio commentary in the 1980s and wrote and edited books for children.
In 1987, he and former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander co-founded Corporate Family Solutions to provide day-care programs to businesses.
His wife of 40 years, Jeanne, died in 1990. Survivors include three children, Michael, Laurie and Maeve, and six grandchildren.