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Tuesday, February 03, 2004 - Page updated at 01:56 P.M.
Bob Keeshan, TV pioneer Captain Kangaroo, dies at 76
By Kay McFadden
He was calm and comforting, yes. And with no boisterous studio audience, he seemed deliciously focused on you alone the child sitting at home in front of a television.
But when Bob Keeshan died Thursday at age 76, it marked the departure of a monumental pioneer whose career spanned the birth of television to the current era of commercially driven children's programming that he loathed.
In Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Keeshan created one of the medium's most enduring characters. The cheerful man with a Dutch bob that gradually turned from ginger to white over the years appeared on more than 9,000 shows, first on CBS and later on PBS.
In each, his signature accessories were a mustache and a jacket with the pouchy patch pockets that inspired his character's name.
"Captain Kangaroo" had other memorable participants: the animal-loving Mr. Green Jeans, played by Hugh Brannum; puppeteer Kevin Clash; actors Debby Weems and Carolyn Mignini; and Bunny Rabbit, Mr. Moose, Dancing Bear, Drawing Board and Grandfather Clock all voiced by the immensely gifted Cosmo Allegretti.
The show and its cast debuted Oct. 3, 1955, and immediately made a hit. (Maybe it was a lucky date for children's TV; "The Mickey Mouse Club" debuted later that same day.)
During an era when parents felt less guilt about using TV as a baby-sitter, "Captain Kangaroo" drew a substantial audience even opposite NBC's "Today" show. The program's tone consistently was one of careful guidance, delivered with a light and never-threatening touch.
Mr. Keeshan in turn influenced others. Fred Rogers, who died last year, often said "Mister Rogers" owed a huge debt to "Captain Kangaroo."
The two had more in common than a gentle, civilized approach to entertaining and instructing the young. Both were outspoken advocates of children and both deplored violent entertainment.
Mr. Keeshan, who moved to Vermont in 1990 and passed away in the town of Hartford after what The Associated Press described as a long illness, wrote books, lectured and lobbied on behalf of children's issues.
Most of his opinions about the younger set, however, were earned in the trenches: first as Clarabelle the Clown on NBC's "Howdy Doody" from 1948 to 1950, followed by hosting two ABC programs, "Time for Fun" and "Tinker's Workshop."
Then in 1954, CBS executives approached him about crafting a morning program. Mr. Keeshan agreed but had some requests.
Another stipulation was that cast members not deliver commercials on the show. Mr. Keeshan later became among the first entertainers to use "bumpers" announcements separating the program from the commercials so children wouldn't be misled.
He also had a low tolerance for cartoons, though "Captain Kangaroo" did feature the enormously popular animated serial "Tom Terrific," a little boy who could change himself into anything, and his sidekick, Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog.
Over ensuing decades, "Captain Kangaroo" grew in stature. Pearl Bailey, Carol Channing, Imogene Coca, Marlo Thomas, ballet dancer Edward Villella and basketball star Earl Monroe were among the guests who visited, setting a fashion later emulated by such shows as "Sesame Street." In 1980, Bill Cosby became a regular contributor.
The rest is history, though history will be much kinder to "Captain Kangaroo" than to the network executives of a later epoch.
For much of its run, "Captain Kangaroo" aired from 8 to 9 a.m., right after Seattle's "J.P. Patches Show," a perfect lineup for toddlers. The sole exception was in 1964-1965, when Mr. Keeshan hosted a short-lived Saturday morning show, "Mister Mayor."
But in fall 1981, "Captain Kangaroo" was moved to 7 a.m. and reduced to a half-hour to make room for CBS' morning-news program. The show also was renamed, somewhat hideously, "Wake Up with the Captain."
Time was running out. "Wake Up" was the last remaining morning show for children on for-profit broadcast television by 1982, when CBS shifted it to weekends. In 1984, it left the network after a 29-year run.
It was not quite his last hurrah. Mr. Keeshan briefly turned up on CBS as host of the short-lived "CBS Storybreak," and he later assisted in the repackaging of episodes and production of some new "Captain Kangaroo" segments for public television until 1992.
Mr. Keeshan's wife, Anne Jeanne Laurie, died in 1990. He is survived by their three children, Derek, Laurie and Maeve Jeanne, and by six grandchildren.
Mr. Keeshan found ways to spread out beyond television, but children never were far from his mind. He and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander co-founded Corporate Family Solutions, an organization that provided day-care programs to businesses around the country.
The man who co-created and starred in one of television's greatest shows for children also knew its limitations.
"Parents are the ultimate role models for children," he once said. "Every word, movement and action has an effect. No person or outside force has a greater influence on a child than the parent."
Kay McFadden: 206-382-8888 or email@example.com
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