From the Archives: Bob Keeshan, 76; Entertained Millions as TV's Captain Kangaroo

Bob Keeshan, television's beloved Captain Kangaroo, who entertained and educated millions of children for more than 30 years, died Friday. He was 76.

Keeshan, who lived in Hartford, Vt., died after a long illness at a hospital in Windsor, his family said.

"Bob Keeshan was a true pioneer in children's television whose legacy goes unmatched," CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves said in a statement Friday. "He was a great entertainer, showman and innovator, and he will always hold a special place in the history of CBS and the hearts of television viewers."

Launched by CBS in 1955, the live, hourlong "Captain Kangaroo" quickly captured a huge following. The 8 a.m. show became as much of a morning staple as a bowl of corn flakes for young baby boomers.

As the grandfatherly captain, Keeshan presided over his Treasure House, which an early CBS publicity release described as a "private wonderland of childhood."

Keeshan was joined by Treasure House regulars Mr. Green Jeans (actor Hugh "Lumpy" Brannum), various puppet friends, including Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit, as well as Dancing Bear and the venerable Grandfather Clock.

The captain's gentle and calm demeanor and the low-key atmosphere of the Treasure House contrasted sharply with that of most other early children's shows. As a review in Newsweek pointed out, "There is, mercifully, no studio audience of hyper-stimulated youngsters."

A television pioneer who had been the original Clarabell the Clown on one of the medium's first big hits, the "Howdy Doody" show, Keeshan had his own ideas about children's programming.

The "Tom Terrific" cartoons that aired on the show were nonviolent, for example. And Keeshan made a point of teaching his young viewers – his primary audience was children 4 to 6 years old -- lessons in values such as kindness, sharing and honesty. He read a book a week to his audience.

Keeshan believed he knew the secret to staying on the air a long time and it was not violence.

"Violence is part of life, and there is no getting away from it," he once said. "But there is also gentleness in life, and this is what we have tried to stress on our shows."

Keeshan was just 28 when he first donned a bobbed wig, walrus mustache and makeup to make him look the part of Captain Kangaroo – along with the uniform with the deep pockets, like kangaroo pouches, which gave him his name.

Over the years, he needed less makeup to play the part, and his own hair turned gray, then white.

As he liked to say, "I have grown into the part."

Keeshan's TV image was so convincing, he wrote in his 1995 memoir, "Good Morning Captain," that his youngest daughter, Maeve, once visited the set and sat in the captain's lap for a chat. When Keeshan returned to the set out of costume, his daughter told him, "Daddy, Daddy, you just missed Captain Kangaroo!"

The show, which ran for 29 years on CBS and later on PBS for six seasons, won five Emmy Awards and three Peabody Awards.

"If you were going to build a monument to commercial children's television and you had to put a statue on top of it, it would have to be Bob Keeshan," Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said Friday.

Keeshan and the late Fred Rogers, who died last year, were "the kings" of the gentler, slower-paced form of children's television programming that emerged in television's early days, Thompson said.

"Kids' programming is now hipper, much more modern, more apt to appeal to the older siblings and the parents as well," Thompson said.

"Bob Keeshan and then Mr. Rogers weren't afraid of being incredibly square," he said. "Since their shows were essentially aimed at kids under the age of 8, kids not only didn't mind that, they found it comforting."

Thompson, who grew up watching "Captain Kangaroo," includes himself in that group.

When he heard the news of Keeshan's death, he said, "immediately the theme song played in my head and I felt warm oatmeal in my tummy."

Among the millions of Americans who grew up watching "Captain Kangaroo" is film critic Leonard Maltin, who was 4 when the show was launched.

That was a different era of children's programming, Maltin said, when hosts spoke directly to young viewers "and created a very warm, personal connection with us."

"So you weren't just watching pre-packaged entertainment," Maltin said. "You were watching people that you really cared about and who seemed to care about you."

Keeshan was born in Lynbrook, N.Y., and grew up in Forest Hills, where, he once said, his childhood was "delightfully free from worries or insecurities."

He had a pleasant speaking voice, and in high school a teacher encouraged him to consider becoming a radio announcer.

At 16, he landed an after-school job as a page at NBC in Manhattan. After his high school graduation in June 1945, he joined the Marine Corps; he served a little more than a year before returning to work at NBC.

He took pre-law courses in night school at Fordham University but gave up thoughts of becoming a lawyer in 1947 when NBC-TV personality Bob Smith hired him to work on "Howdy Doody," which Smith had just created.

At first assigned to handling props and talking to the children who were to appear as guests, Keeshan began making occasional on-camera appearances. In one, he dressed up as a clown. His clown went over so well that it became a fixture on the show, and, for the next five years, Keeshan was the voiceless, horn-honking Clarabell the Clown.

He was fired in 1952 after a disagreement with Smith, who was host of "Howdy Doody" as Buffalo Bob.

After eight months of unemployment, he was hired to play Corny the Clown, the host of "Time for Fun," a noontime program on WABC-TV in New York City.

It's there that he began incorporating some of his ideas for children's programming, including rejecting cartoons that he found too violent for young viewers and talking to the children about manners, health and safety habits.

He was host for the show until 1955, completing his final year on that program while simultaneously doing a one-man morning show for the same station, "Tinker's Workshop," on which he played an old Alpine toy maker.

When CBS asked him for a pilot children's show, he wrote in "Good Morning Captain," he was already developing the idea for a show based on "the warm relationship between grandparents and children."

In his later years, Keeshan was active as a children's advocate – writing books, lecturing and lobbying on behalf of children's issues.

He remained critical of violence in children's television shows and always stressed the importance of parents.

"Parents are the ultimate role models for children," Keeshan said. "Every word, movement and action has an effect. No other person or outside force has a greater influence on a child than the parent."

In 1987, he and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander co-founded Corporate Family Solutions, an organization that provided day-care programs to businesses around the country.

Keeshan's wife, Jeanne, died in 1990. They had two other children besides Maeve: Michael and Laurie.

"Our father, grandfather and friend was as passionate for his family as he was for America's children," Keeshan's son, Michael, said in a statement Friday. "He was largely a private man living an often public life as an advocate for all that our nation's children deserve."

news.obits@latimes.com

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