Today’s Guest: Captain Kangaroo, a.k.a., Bob Keeshan, long-time CBS morning host for children’s television
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Today, June 27, 2016, would have been the 89th birthday of the great CBS-TV children’s TV host, Bob Keeshan, better known to the Baby Boomer generation as “Captain Kangaroo.” Keeshan passed away in 2004, and I’ve spent years trying to recover the telephone interview I did with him as a St. Petersburg Times correspondent, published September 19, 1984. I’m pleased to say I finally found it and upgraded the audio quality. You can now read the interview as published or, for the first time ever, listen to our actual conversation. I hope you’ll enjoy this classic edition of Mr. Media and share it with your friends and family. — Bob Andelman)
When it comes to children’s television, Captain Kangaroo is a man who knows what he’s talking about.
And what the soft-spoken Captain is discussing these days is the scarcity of quality network programing provided for kids.
Captain Kangaroo, a.k.a. Bob Keeshan, will address the subject at a free lecture at the University of South Florida’s Cooper Hall auditorium, CPR 103 (College of Arts and Letters, Tampa campus), on Thursday at 8 p.m. He was last here in 1976, taping segments of the program at Busch Gardens.
His appearance corresponds to the end of the Captain’s nearly 30 years on CBS.
The end has been in sight for some time. In January 1982, some CBS affiliates such as Tampa’s WTVT-Ch. 13 dropped the weekday morning Captain Kangaroo Show (it was picked up briefly by WFTS Ch. 28). Later that year, CBS Morning News was lengthened and for the first time the Captain could only be seen on Saturday and Sunday mornings. For a short time even the name and format of his show was changed, to the fast-paced Wake Up.
UNTIL December, the Captain Kangaroo Show continues on weekend mornings, al though it has been unavailable in Tampa Bay for some time. After the first of the year, the future of the Captain, Mr. Greenjeans, Mr. Moose and Grandfather Clock is uncertain.
BOB KEESHAN podcast excerpt: “I feel very strongly that I’m able to take that role as advocate and let people know how strongly I feel that society needs to do a better job nurturing people.”
“We are searching for a time period on public television, where we hope we will be on Monday to Friday and reach the audience that the program has been designed and produced for over the many years. I think there’s a very strong chance,” Keeshan said in a recent telephone interview from his New York office.
The people involved in making decisions at CBS have displeased Keeshan but he says they are doing “what they have to do. If the FCC didn’t tell them they were free to do what they wanted to do, they would make other decisions. But with that unshackling of responsibility, the stockholders have got to get their due, as much money as they possibly can. That’s the bottom line.
“I might have some strong feelings about the FCC and their doctrinaire feelings about letting the marketplace function and take care of children. God knows the marketplace certainly will take care of children but not the way we expect it to,” he adds.
“WE’VE BEEN talking to PBS, and they have nothing but enthusiasm for the project. The key factor really is the finding of underwriting for it. Public television is not a very wealthy system. They have a great deal of difficulty financing their operations, especially since (President Reagan) has seen fit to veto the latest appropriation for public television. They’re in difficult straits, so we have to find corporate underwriting. We’re seeking a far-sighted company that feels strongly about the future of the nation to the extent that (the way) we nurture children through television is important to the future of the nation,” Keeshan says. If steps are not taken to improve the way children are raised, Keeshan says, “we’re going to be in trouble in this country.”
Keeshan, now 57, was a 20-year old college undergraduate when he started playing Clarabelle the Clown on Howdy Doody in 1948. Five years later he left that show and played Corny the Clown on Time for Fun and Tinker the Toymaker on Tinker’s Workshop.
On Oct. 3, 1955, Captain Kangaroo premiered five mornings a week.
(In 1967. the show added Saturday mornings as well for a few seasons.)
THE NOW-FAMOUS character’s name was an afterthought to the creation of the Captain’s personality. At the last minute somebody said what are we going to call this thing? He had to come up with a name. “Alliteration in those days – Rootie Kazootie, Howdy Doody – seemed important. We thought of him as the captain of a treasure house, a museum sort of place. We gave him a rank that a guide might have, and because he had large pockets like the pouch of a kangaroo, we called him Kangaroo, Captain Kangaroo. It was alliterative,” Keeshan recalls, “a little catchy.”
BOB KEESHAN podcast excerpt: “We thought of him as the captain of a treasure house, a museum sort of place. We gave him a rank that a guide might have, and because he had large pockets like the pouch of a kangaroo, we called him Kangaroo, Captain Kangaroo.”
Captain Kangaroo’s growth represents development over periods of time, including on-the-job training and research outside of television.
“I did not, on Howdy Doody,” Keeshan admits, “have any knowledge of the needs of children or how we could meet them. But in 1951, my son was born, so I began looking at television from a different perspective, viewing it as a parent, showing some concern in those very early days, fairly excited for the potential of using television to instruct the child emotionally and culturally. I began seriously thinking and studying ways in which that could be done. My whole approach to children changed radically.”
Keeshan and his wife Jeanne eventually had three children of their own, Michael, 33, Laurie, 31, and Maeve, 29. They have two grandsons, both almost three years old.
LIKE MOST children growing up between 1955 and 1982, the young Keeshans watched the Captain as any child might do. They were never tested, never asked what they liked or disliked. “They were never even told I was the Captain until they got to an age when they realized that. We lived in a suburban community that very much respected our wishes in that respect so they were very ordinary kids, the same as if I had been an airline pilot, executive of a company, something of that sort.
“If they felt very strongly about something, they might tell their mother about it,” Keeshan continues, “the same way any child might say, ‘Gee, I liked the dancing bear and what he did today.’ I never depended on them as a laboratory.”
How good or bad is today’s television for kids? Keeshan responds by asking how good today’s television is for adults. The juvenile audience is not monolithic, he insists. It’s not one individual and therefore one program is good for all and another is bad for all.
“Children bring, as adults do, different backgrounds, experiences and stages of emotional development to a program. So for some children a particular program is fine viewing. For other children it’s not appropriate viewing at all. The same is true with adults. We have to recognize there are millions of different human beings in the children’s audience, each of them unique. No two have ever been born alike.
“SOME CHILDREN,” Keeshan suggests, “at their stage of emotional and cultural development, are able to watch a particular program and benefit from it. Other children might well be harmed by that same program. That implies that parents have a very great need of responsibility to intervene in the program selection of their children.
“A lot of parents would never think of just sending their children out to play and not be concerned about who they were playing with, where they were playing or what activity they were engaged in. American children spend much more time with television than they do with their real life sandbox playmates and are being much more influenced by their television viewing than by real life playmates. Parents ought to be at least as much concerned about their television playmates as their real life playmates,” he says.
BOB KEESHAN podcast excerpt: “I might have some strong feelings about the FCC and their doctrinaire feelings about letting the marketplace function and take care of children. God knows the marketplace certainly will take care of children but not the way we expect it to.”
Keeshan says there was a good deal more programing for young people 15 and 20 years ago than there is today.
Public television has always had an “excellent” commitment to children, he says, but the commercial networks have fallen a long way from the days of Howdy Doody, Rooti Kazootie, Ding-Dong School, The Mickey Mouse Club. Mr. Wizard and Lucky Pup. “There were a substantial number of programs, most of fairly high quality. Maybe they weren’t as educational as Sesame Street or Mister Rogers are today, but they certainly were not programs that harmed the child in any way.”
KEESHAN HAS mostly compliments for Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, the only cable channels directed at children, but is bothered that parents have to pay for the services.
“The people who need and use television the most are children in homes below the poverty level who certainly can’t afford services like that, Twenty percent of the children of this nation are living below the poverty level – one in five. There’s no money in their family budget for recreation,” he says.
A lot of the Captain’s off-air time these days is spent in education, health care, and with organizations like the National Council for Prevention of Child Abuse.
He says that while sexual abuse of children has become a “popular” topic, attention should not be drawn away from ordinary physical and psychological abuses, which can break the will of a child and leave him or her with no self-esteem, “unable to accomplish anything after 15 years of being told they’re no good at this and that. I think I owe that to children. I feel very strongly that I’m able to take that role as advocate and let people know how strongly I feel that society needs to do a better job nurturing people.”