When you ask a member of the post-World War II baby boom generation what one of their first childhood memories is with regard to ping pong balls, odds are a large number of them will tell you they remember a wily moose who took great delight in dropping a large number of them on an unsuspecting ‘kangaroo.’ In addition to the ping-pong balls, images of Luden’s ® cough drops, Hostess® cupcakes, Colgate® toothpaste and Schwinn® bikes will dance in their heads.
Born on June 27, 1927, Robert ‘Bob’ Keeshan became a beloved friend and mentor to the baby boomers. Known to millions by the name ‘Captain Kangaroo’, Bob taught good manners, obedience to parents and reverence for God to his young television audience.
Keeshan began his career in television shortly after World War II ended. He made his debut on the Howdy Doody Show on January 3, 1948 as Clarabell, the silent Auguste clown. Using horns to communicate, ‘Clarabell’ would honk one horn to say ‘yes’ and another to say ‘no’. When he wasn’t honking his horns, he was spraying Buffalo Bob Smith with the seltzer bottle and playing other practical jokes. He filled this role until 1952.
September 21, 1953, Keeshan joined WABC-TV in New York City for another children’s show entitled Time for Fun, again playing a clown, Corny. In this role, Corny was allowed to have his say. Before the year ended, Keeshan was busy doing two shows for children. In addition to Time for Fun, Bob began Tinker’s Workshop. For this program, Keeshan played Mr. Tinker, portrayed as a grandfather-like elderly gentleman.
October 3, 1955 was a big day for Keeshan’s career. It was on that day the role he is best remembered for began. Captain Kangaroo was a brilliant piece of teamwork between Keeshan and his close friend, Jack Miller. Using ideas from Tinker’s Workshop, these television masterminds created a new approach in children’s programming and won the approval of CBS to televise it. He based the Captain on the loving relationship between grandparents and children.
The show was an instant hit and kept Keeshan on television for the next 30 years in the starring role. The New York Times referred to Keeshan as, “Captain Kangaroo, a round-faced, pleasant, mustachioed man possessed of unshakeable calm . . . was one of the most enduring characters television ever produced.” Keeshan’s character offered children whose fathers were very busy or even absent a caring male role model who taught them good manners through the use of his ‘magic words’ – ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.
The show’s supporting actor was Hugh ‘Lumpy’ Brannum who played the captain’s friendly farmer friend, Mr. Green Jeans (though it would be a number of years before anyone knew for sure if the overalls he wore were really green since the show’s early years were broadcast in black-and-white). Many times Mr. Green Jeans would bring an animal to the Treasure House for the children to see and learn about, in addition to supplying the Captain with the carrots Bunny Rabbit would find clever ways to lay claim to. Dancing Bear and Grandfather Clock rounded out the cast of characters.
On July 13, 1981, Keeshan had just stepped off a plan at Toronto International Airport when he suffered a heart attack. He was in Toronto to accept a children’s service award. He underwent a triple bypass and received upwards of 5,000 get-well wishes. He went on to receive three Emmy awards in the years 1982, 1983 and 1984 for Outstanding Performer.
Though Captain Kangaroo received numerous accolades, CBS shortened the show to make room for extending the CBS Morning News. Renaming the program Wake Up with the Captain, CBS placed it in the 7 AM timeslot. In 1982, they moved it to 6:30. When the fall lineup was established, CBS now had Keeshan’s show on for one hour each weekend and by 1984, that was shortened to 30 minutes on Saturday. Keeshan finally tired of CBS’s reduction of his show and left Captain Kangaroo just shy of the show’s 30th anniversary. In 1987, PBS began airing daily reruns.
Though he was no longer the Captain, Keeshan’s love for children continued as he hosted CBS Storybreak. This show featured various selections of children’s literature in animated form. In 1987, he partnered with former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander to found Corporate Family Solutions, in an effort to provide businesses with day-care programs.
Keeshan spent his last 14 years in Vermont, Here he became an author while continuing his efforts as a children’s advocate. In 1995, Fairview Press published his memoirs, Good Morning, Captain. Keeshan spoke strongly against violent video games for children and even took part in congressional hearings on the subject in 1993.
Bob Keeshan died in Windsor, Vermont on January 23, 2004. He was 76 at the time. His wife, Anne Jeanne Laurie Keeshan, preceded him in death in 1990. In May 2004, his grandson, Britton Keeshan, became the youngest person to climb Mount Everest. He carried with him pictures of his grandfather and buried one of the two of them at the summit.
A bit of Keeshan trivia –
Though he was not a Dartmouth graduate himself, the Keeshan name is well-known there. As an adopted member of the Class of 1942, Bob received an honorary doctorate degree in 1975. His son, Michael, graduated from Dartmouth in 1973 and his daughter Laurie in 1975. Michael’s son, Britton, received his master’s degree from Dartmouth in 2006.
Keeshan was the motivating force in thousands of baby boomers becoming teachers.
– One of the big secrets of finding time is not to watch television.
– Parents are the ultimate role models for children. Every word, movement and action has an effect. No other person or outside force has a greater influence on a child than the parent.
– If you want more time in your life, don’t watch TV.
– Just as actors are afraid of child audiences because they’re so honest, I would be scared stiff of going before the big folks.
– Play is the work of children. It’s very serious stuff.