Bob Keeshan was a symbol of what childhood used to be - before irony, before MTV flash edits, before totally extreme marketing to kids. He was "Captain Kangaroo" (CBS, 1955-1984), the man behind the longest-running kids' TV show in history. Decked out in his strange bright red blazer with white piping, the Captain read books aloud, got pelted with ping-pong balls, hung out with a farmer - basically, he made preschoolers feel special. Off camera, he denounced television and fought against the evolution of TV into an electronic babysitter that, he felt, spewed violence and chaos. In an interview with NPR, Keeshan explained the theory behind his carefully crafted program. "Television prepares children to be aggressive and violent, but there is little preparation for being gentle. In the everyday encounters that make up most of our lives, kindness is the essential quality, yet television does nothing to prepare children for this."
Robert James Keeshan was born in Lynbrook, Long Island, NY on June 27, 1927, to Irish immigrant parents, Margaret Conroy and Joseph Keeshan, a manager at a local supermarket chain. When the market was absorbed by Safeway, dad lost his job and the Keeshan clan (including a younger sister and two older brothers) relocated to the more affordable neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens. From the time he was young, Bob had an interest in radio, writing plays and broadcasting them over the P.A. system at school. When he was 15, the Keeshan siblings lost their mother to a heart attack. Young Robert was grief-stricken and would later credit a school guidance counselor for providing support and being a good role model for him during that time.
The future Captain Kangaroo entered the world of entertainment at the age of 16 when he landed a night job as a page at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center. He had no real aspirations in show business yet, but enjoyed the well-paying job seating audiences for radio shows and generally acting as a gopher. After high school graduation, he enlisted in the Marine reserves; however the war ended by the time he completed basic training and he never saw combat. A popular Hollywood urban legend placed Keeshan with Marine-turned-acting legend Lee Marvin at the battle of Iwo Jima, but the dates show that Keeshan was still in training camp when the battle occurred. In 1946, Keeshan returned to New York and enrolled in night classes at Fordham University with the vague notion of becoming a lawyer. He picked up his page job where he had left off and found himself assigned to the reception desk on Rockefeller Center's fourth floor - right outside the offices of local radio show host, Bob Smith. When Smith began hosting the "The Puppet Playhouse" (NBC, 1947-1960), Keeshan assisted with seating the rambunctious audience and handing out prizes. The network was uncomfortable that this plain-clothes teen could be seen with the audience on camera, so they asked him put on a clown costume. Clarabell the Clown was born. As Clarabell, Keeshan did not speak, but rather honked several horns attached to his belt and chased "Buffalo" Bob around the studio, teasing him with bottle of seltzer. By now the show was known as "The Howdy Doody Show."
In 1950, Buffalo Bob decided he needed a clown who could play an instrument, and the non-musical Keeshan was fired from the show. He was soon reinstated after NBC received an avalanche of angry phone calls and letters from parents who hated his replacement - a trained actor, dancer and mime. Keeshan stayed on the show until 1952, when he and several other cast members quit over a dispute with the network. The former Clarabell the Clown spent the next year working for his father-in-law, an undertaker, but he had not given up children's television. He stored away all that he had learned about the technical and creative aspects of television, continuing to be inspired by his time with Buffalo Bob Smith, despite the fact that their relationship had been rocky at times. In 1953, ABC cast Keeshan as Corny the Clown on a new kids' show called "Time for Fun," which he did for two years before taking the title role in the preschool program, "Tinker's Workshop"(1954). The grandfatherly character he created for the show was the precursor to Captain Kangaroo, and when CBS called the following year to offer Keeshan his own show, the character came with him.
"Captain Kangaroo" debuted in the fall of 1955. The show enjoyed 30 years on CBS, with the character becoming one of the most enduring in television history. With his moustache, mutton chops, and oversized military coat (the "kangaroo-sized" pockets inspired the character's name), Keeshan looked far older than his 28 years. He deliberately wanted to cultivate an elderly, gentle persona modeled after the relationship that grandparents have with their grandchildren. There was to be no loud noise and nothing tasteless, mindless or violent in The Treasure House. There would also be no studio audience, so that each toddling viewer would feel as if they were being spoken to personally. For most of the show's run, Keeshan even held veto power over the commercials that aired during the show, refusing anything that was not in keeping with the uninterrupted hour of kindness he wanted to cultivate. For someone who learned his trade at "The Howdy Doody Show," the quiet, slowly-paced "Captain Kangaroo" was the anti-Howdy. Offscreen, Keeshan began a lifelong fight for quality children's television and became an advocate against violence on TV and later, video games.
"Captain Kangaroo" consisted of a variety of different segments held together by the central set of the Captain's Treasure House. There was a regular cast of live characters - including the nature-loving Mr. Green Jeans (former jazz bass player Hugh "Lumpy" Brannum), who introduced farm animals and wildlife to the young audience. The puppet Bunny Rabbit would stop by to cleverly trick the Captain out of carrots. Mr. Moose was forever dropping loads of ping-pong balls on the forever unsuspecting Captain as the punch line to his knock-knock jokes. The show went through a series of cartoon segments, starting out with Tom Terrific in the '50s and '60s and Simon and the Land of Chalk Drawings in the '70s (which was apparently the inspiration behind comedian Mike Meyers' popular "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) sketch about a British boy named Simon and his chalk drawings). The Captain encouraged a love of reading with his "Reading Stories" segment, wherein he read popular children's books aloud, turning the pages of "Curious George" and "Make Way for Ducklings" like a pro school librarian. Later in the show's history, the Captain added a Dancing Bear who visited world cities, Slim Goodbody and his organ-accurate bodysuit, and Keeshan taking the helm of the Picture Pages segment, a draw-along educational exercise. Throughout the history of the show, kid-friendly celebrities dropped by to visit the Treasure House, including Marlo Thomas; Carol Channing; Shari Lewis and her puppet, Lambchop; Minnie Pearl and Pearl Bailey.
The show aired at 8 AM, six days a week from 1955 to 1984. In the early days, the show was produced live twice in a row - first, for the East Coast broadcast and then re-enacted a second time for the Central time zone. Keeshan was still living in Long Island, and taking the 4:20 AM train every morning to make it to the studio in time. In 1981, the show was cut to a half hour and moved to 7 AM to make room on the schedule for "CBS Morning News" (1963-1987). It was later moved to 6:30 AM, and then off the weekday schedule altogether, lingering on the network during weekends only. CBS cancelled "Captain Kangaroo" altogether in 1984. PBS aired reruns for six more years. A syndicated version of the show with a new cast fared badly in 1997.
Keeshan remained active in children's advocacy co-founding - with former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander - Corporate Family Solutions, a company aimed at providing day-care programs for large businesses. He also served on education boards and was outspoken about parenting issues, early childhood education, and the negative influence of the media on children. He was a lecturer and author of Growing Up Happy: Captain Kangaroo Tells Yesterday's Children How to Nurture Their Own (1989), and the memoir Good Morning Captain: 50 Wonderful Years (1995), among others. Keeshan suffered from heart problems throughout the eighties, dying in 1994 in Vermont, where he had moved after retiring from television.