Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Captain Kangaroo

Today would have been the 90th birthday of Bob Keeshan. Of course, for most Americans Bob Keeshan will forever be known as Captain Kangaroo. Indeed, most Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, if shown a picture of Bob Keeshan (even when he wasn't in costume), would identify him as "Captain Kangaroo" rather than by his given name. There should be little wonder that this should be the case, as the TV show Captain Kangaroo ran for a total of 36 years between CBS and PBS.

Captain Kangaroo was the brainchild of Bob Keeshan and his business partner Jack Miller. Mr. Keeeshan was the original Clarabell the Clown on the highly successful children's show Howdy Doody. After five  years with the programme, Bob Keeshan left the role in 1952. In 1953 he was hired by WABC in New York City for their new children's show Time for Fun. More importantly, it was later that year that starred in Tinker's Workshop, a forerunner of Captain Kangaroo. Like Captain Kangaroo, Tinker's Workshop was created by Bob Keeshan and Jack Miller. Bob Keeshan played the title character, a grandfatherly toymaker, even though he was only 26 at the time. Unable to have a grey wig made in time for the first broadcast, Mr. Keeshan simply used grey hair spray and makeup to make himself look the proper age.

Tinker's Workshop proved successful, successful enough that CBS took notice. CBS offered Bob Keeshan and Jack Miller a deal. If they could develop a show right away, CBS would give them the prized 8:00 AM EST time slot. In fact, CBS wanted the show on the air so quickly that they only gave Messrs. Keeshan and Miller nine days to come up with a pilot. The two used Tinker's Workshop as a template for their new show. It would centre on an elderly captain complete with a walrus moustache and bushy sideburns. It was from an artist's sketch of the character in a jacket with deep pockets that the name "Captain Kangaroo" was derived. The show debuted on October 3 1955 (another legendary children's show, The Mickey Mouse Club debuted later that afternoon). As to Tinker's Workshop, it continued without Bob Keeshan. Gene London took over as Tinker and the show ran until August 22 1958.

Captain Kangaroo centred on the title character, who lived in The Treasure House. The show featured an extensive cast of supporting characters. Mr. Green Jeans (played by Hugh Brannum) was a farmer who acted as the Captain's sidekick as well as the handyman around The Treasure House. He often brought various animals to The Treasure House. Other characters were puppets played by puppeteer Cosmo Allegretti. Mr. Bunny Rabbit was a rabbit who was always trying to trick Captain Kangaroo into giving him carrots. Mr. Moose was a moose who was fond of both riddles and knock-knock jokes, both of which would result in hundreds of ping pong balls descending from above. Grandfather Clock was an anthropomorphic clock. In addition to the puppets, Cosmo Allegretti also played Dancing Bear (in a bear suit) and, in later years, Dennis the Apprentice. Over the years other characters would come and go, but Mr. Green Jeans, Mr. Bunny Rabbit, Mr Moose, Granfather Clock, and Dancing Bear remained constants for most of the show's run. A few cartoons also aired on Captain Kangaroo, including "Tom Terrific" and "Lariat Sam" in the Fifties and Sixties. Captain Kangaroo differed from earlier children's shows in that it was not shot in front of an audience of kids (an example being Howdy Doody's Peanut Gallery).

Captain Kangaroo spent its first several months airing from Monday through Friday. It was on August 4 1956 that an edition was added on early Saturday morning as well. For the 1965-1966 season its old Saturday morning timeslot was taken by a new show Mister Mayor. Mister Mayor starred Bob Keeshan in the title role, the mayor of an unusual town. Bob Keeshan created Mister Mayor because of a dispute with his agent, Mitchell J. Hamilburg over the rights to Captain Kangaroo. In March 1965 CBS even announced that Captain Kangaroo would end its run on weekday mornings to be replaced by Mister Mayor. This resulted in various campaigns to save Captain Kangaroo, such as one started by the National Association  for Better Radio and Television. Ultimately Bob Keeshan and Mitchell J. Hamillburg were able to work out their differences and Captain Kangaroo remained on the air for many more years. As to Mister Mayor, it ended its run on September 18 1965. Captain Kangaroo returned to Saturday mornings the following week, where it remained until 1968.

Captain Kangaroo underwent various changes in its long run. On May 17 1971 the show was given a slight revamp. The Treasure House was refurbished and renamed "the Captain's Place". The Captain's navy blue coat was also replaced by a red one. In 1974 the original theme song for Captain Kangaroo, "Puffin' Billy", was replaced by a new song, "Good Morning, Captain". Sadly, changes would be coming that would ultimately mean the end of Captain Kangaroo's run on CBS. In the fall of 1981 CBS moved Captain Kangaroo from 8:00 AM Eastern to 7:00 AM Eastern and cut it from an hour to a half hour. It was also given a new title, Wake Up with the Captain. In the spring of 1982 it was moved to the even earlier time of 6:30 AM Eastern. In the fall of 1982 Captain Kangaroo was restored to an hour, but it was moved from weekdays to Saturday morning at 7:00 Eastern. CBS affiliates were offered reruns to air on Sunday mornings. In the fall of 1984, Captain Kangaroo was once more cut back to a half hour. Bob Keeshan, unhappy with CBS's treatment of Captain Kangaroo, ended the show when his contract with the network expired. It last aired on CBS on December 8 1984.

Captain Kangaroo would not remain off the air for long. On October 13 1986 Captain Kangaroo made its debut on PBS. The editions of Captain Kangaroo that aired on PBS were a mixture of both old and new material, not quite the repeats as often reported. It ran on PBS until 1993.

It was later in the Nineties that Bob Keeshan attempted to revive Captain Kangaroo. Unfortunately, ICM, who then owned the rights to Captain Kangaroo, refused him permission to go ahead with the revival. A reboot entitled The All New Captain Kangaroo would emerge from Saban Entertainment in the late Nineties. It starred John McDonough as the Captain. Bob Keeshan was invited to appear as a character called the Admiral in a guest appearance. Not only did he turn the invitation down after he saw some sample episodes, but he entirely distanced himself from the show. It ran for a single season in 1997-1998. The  Cashin Comedy Co. obtained the trademark to Captain Kangaroo in 2011.  Pat Cashin portrayed the Captain on a blog and there were plans for another revival of the show. These ended when Pat Cashin died at age 48 in 2016. As of 2016 the rights to Captain Kangaroo were for sale.

Captain Kangaroo was a truly revolutionary children's show when it debuted. It had a slower, gentler pace than many of the shows that preceded it. Although cartoons appeared on the show, there was not a plethora of them. What is more, it lacked an audience of children present at the studio, aiding in the illusion that the Treasure House was an actual place. Ultimately it would be one of the longest running children's shows of all time. There can be little doubt that its success was mostly due to Bob Keeshan. Possessing a good deal of common sense and a gentle demeanour, he was a children's advocate his entire life. While he might not have owned the rights to the character, Bob Keeshan was Captain Kangaroo.

No comments: