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January 23, 2004

Good Night, Captain

Bob KeeshanMister Green Jeans. Mister Moose. Bunny Rabbit. Miss Frog. Slim Goodbody. Dennis the Apprentice. Grandfather Clock. Picture Pages. Miss Worm. Mister Bainter the Painter. The Professor. Ping Pong Balls. Carrots. The Treasure House. The Captain's Place. Dancing Bear. Picture Pages. Mr. Baxter the Math Teacher. Debbie. The Toothbrush Family. Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings.

These are touchstones to a time on television when a major network could allow for gentleness, goodness, and warmth without panicking or selling toys. This was an era of thirty straight years, when a show for preschool children could rule the morning, and the most important lessons it taught were about reading and wonder. This was a time when we had a friend, and his name was Captain Kangaroo.

Bob Keeshan brought the Captain to life, as part of a rich legacy of characters and children's television which he truly pioneered. How much of a pioneer was he? Bob Keeshan was a member of the first nationwide true television program for children, Howdy Doody, starting all the way back in 1947. In fact, he was the silent clown Clarabell, who honked a horn to communicate. He disliked Howdy Doody's frenetic style, however, and pushed for a gentler kind of children's show -- one where kids would find learning a source of delight and wonder. One that didn't pander to kids and didn't preach to them. And against all odds, he found it with Captain Kangaroo. At one point even after the start of Captain Kangaroo he created Mr. Mayor, for Saturday mornings. After the end of Captain Kangaroo, he went on to continue promoting reading with CBS Storybreak. He promoted musical education for children, releasing albums that would introduce kids to jazz and classical music. He used to tour with Pops orchestras, drawing children to come out and see him introduce classical works, and inculcate a love of music in them. In a world where so many media figures fought to promote themselves or their sponsors, Bob Keeshan promoted children.

Captain KangarooMost famously of all, he promoted reading. On every episode of Captain Kangaroo he read a book, his voice comforting and lulling, even as he provided the sound effects for sirens or cars or cows or what have you. And what books they were. Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. Caps for Sale. Make Way for Ducklings. So many, many more. Books that told a story and usually had engaging pictures, but also encouraged thought... and encouraged a love of reading. Captain Kangaroo didn't have to convince us books were special -- he made them special. He believed it, and he passed that belief onto us.

The sketches were funny. The puppets were allowed to trick the Captain, who was generally the butt of the jokes. Bunny Rabbit found a way to get carrots from the Captain. Mr. Moose found a way to get the Captain to say 'Ping Pong balls,' and drop a load of balls on the Captain's head, time and time again. Nickelodeon might have refined the art of dumping disgusting things on actors, but the Captain pioneered the art and didn't even need gooey slime to do it.

Bob Keeshan died last Friday. He was 76 years old. He hadn't been on television for several years. Back in 1985, CBS decided that they wanted to compete with the Today Show and Good Morning America, and so they cancelled Captain Kangaroo while Keeshan was in the hospital, recovering from a heart attack. This had been after several years of changing what time he was on and reducing the length of his show, all for the news. Saturday Night Live satirized the moment perfectly, running a sketch where the Captain and Tom Snyder -- recently thrown out of his traditional timeslot for a then-once-failed David letterman -- were forced to work for Ted Turner. The Captain (in the sketch) told the story, Captain Kangaroo style, of his being a beloved figure to children, an icon of America, and then he had a heart attack and had to be rushed to the hospital -- rrrrrRRRRrrrraaaaaaaaarrrrrr -- and while he had tubes in him and was trying to get better, 'some sleazeball from the network' showed up and told him he was fired because they wanted more time for the news.

Captain KangarooKeeshan would never have said such a thing in public, of course, though of course SNL was right. That many, many different iterations of the CBS Morning News/CBS This Morning/The Early Show have all failed in their time slot, over and over again seems to highlight the sheer hubris of cancelling the distinctive, beautiful, gentle children's program. Keeshan brought his program to PBS for a time, then retired after Hugh 'Lumpy' Brannum, who played Mr. Green Jeans, Mr. Bainter the Painter and so many others passed away. In later years, he worked to return to television as the character he embodied, but he didn't own the rights, so "The All New Captain Kangaroo" didn't include the one person who made it all work, and failed. (From all accounts, this new Captain Kangaroo sacrificed honesty and wonder for political correctness and talking down to the children -- things Keeshan never did nor would do.) However, he kept busy. He wrote children's books of his own. He helped produce videos of the Captain and of other worthy subject. He was an advocate for children's issues and for children's right. He was an advocate for the control of advertising to children and controlling tobacco advertising. In a world where children's performers were often disgruntled actors who yearned to 'make it' and escape their signature roles, Bob Keeshan walked the walk. He was the real deal.

It's sad. We all know that. And we're going to miss him terribly. We know that too.

But as with Mr. Rogers last year -- a man who was Bob Keeshan's close friend -- we know that we carry the Captain with us where we go. He is a part of who we are. He is a friend. And, so long as we remember him, he will be there, ready to set sail or perform some magic or introduce a cartoon where dreams come true with the scribbling of chalk.

Good night, Captain.

Good Night, Captain

Bob KeeshanMister Green Jeans. Mister Moose. Bunny Rabbit. Miss Frog. Slim Goodbody. Dennis the Apprentice. Grandfather Clock. Picture Pages. Miss Worm. Mister Bainter the Painter. The Professor. Ping Pong Balls. Carrots. The Treasure House. The Captain's Place. Dancing Bear. Picture Pages. Mr. Baxter the Math Teacher. Debbie. The Toothbrush Family. Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings.

These are touchstones to a time on television when a major network could allow for gentleness, goodness, and warmth without panicking or selling toys. This was an era of thirty straight years, when a show for preschool children could rule the morning, and the most important lessons it taught were about reading and wonder. This was a time when we had a friend, and his name was Captain Kangaroo.

Bob Keeshan brought the Captain to life, as part of a rich legacy of characters and children's television which he truly pioneered. How much of a pioneer was he? Bob Keeshan was a member of the first nationwide true television program for children, Howdy Doody, starting all the way back in 1947. In fact, he was the silent clown Clarabell, who honked a horn to communicate. He disliked Howdy Doody's frenetic style, however, and pushed for a gentler kind of children's show -- one where kids would find learning a source of delight and wonder. One that didn't pander to kids and didn't preach to them. And against all odds, he found it with Captain Kangaroo. At one point even after the start of Captain Kangaroo he created Mr. Mayor, for Saturday mornings. After the end of Captain Kangaroo, he went on to continue promoting reading with CBS Storybreak. He promoted musical education for children, releasing albums that would introduce kids to jazz and classical music. He used to tour with Pops orchestras, drawing children to come out and see him introduce classical works, and inculcate a love of music in them. In a world where so many media figures fought to promote themselves or their sponsors, Bob Keeshan promoted children.

Captain KangarooMost famously of all, he promoted reading. On every episode of Captain Kangaroo he read a book, his voice comforting and lulling, even as he provided the sound effects for sirens or cars or cows or what have you. And what books they were. Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. Caps for Sale. Make Way for Ducklings. So many, many more. Books that told a story and usually had engaging pictures, but also encouraged thought... and encouraged a love of reading. Captain Kangaroo didn't have to convince us books were special -- he made them special. He believed it, and he passed that belief onto us.

The sketches were funny. The puppets were allowed to trick the Captain, who was generally the butt of the jokes. Bunny Rabbit found a way to get carrots from the Captain. Mr. Moose found a way to get the Captain to say 'Ping Pong balls,' and drop a load of balls on the Captain's head, time and time again. Nickelodeon might have refined the art of dumping disgusting things on actors, but the Captain pioneered the art and didn't even need gooey slime to do it.

Bob Keeshan died last Friday. He was 76 years old. He hadn't been on television for several years. Back in 1985, CBS decided that they wanted to compete with the Today Show and Good Morning America, and so they cancelled Captain Kangaroo while Keeshan was in the hospital, recovering from a heart attack. This had been after several years of changing what time he was on and reducing the length of his show, all for the news. Saturday Night Live satirized the moment perfectly, running a sketch where the Captain and Tom Snyder -- recently thrown out of his traditional timeslot for a then-once-failed David letterman -- were forced to work for Ted Turner. The Captain (in the sketch) told the story, Captain Kangaroo style, of his being a beloved figure to children, an icon of America, and then he had a heart attack and had to be rushed to the hospital -- rrrrrRRRRrrrraaaaaaaaarrrrrr -- and while he had tubes in him and was trying to get better, 'some sleazeball from the network' showed up and told him he was fired because they wanted more time for the news.

Captain KangarooKeeshan would never have said such a thing in public, of course, though of course SNL was right. That many, many different iterations of the CBS Morning News/CBS This Morning/The Early Show have all failed in their time slot, over and over again seems to highlight the sheer hubris of cancelling the distinctive, beautiful, gentle children's program. Keeshan brought his program to PBS for a time, then retired after Hugh 'Lumpy' Brannum, who played Mr. Green Jeans, Mr. Bainter the Painter and so many others passed away. In later years, he worked to return to television as the character he embodied, but he didn't own the rights, so "The All New Captain Kangaroo" didn't include the one person who made it all work, and failed. (From all accounts, this new Captain Kangaroo sacrificed honesty and wonder for political correctness and talking down to the children -- things Keeshan never did nor would do.) However, he kept busy. He wrote children's books of his own. He helped produce videos of the Captain and of other worthy subject. He was an advocate for children's issues and for children's right. He was an advocate for the control of advertising to children and controlling tobacco advertising. In a world where children's performers were often disgruntled actors who yearned to 'make it' and escape their signature roles, Bob Keeshan walked the walk. He was the real deal.

It's sad. We all know that. And we're going to miss him terribly. We know that too.

But as with Mr. Rogers last year -- a man who was Bob Keeshan's close friend -- we know that we carry the Captain with us where we go. He is a part of who we are. He is a friend. And, so long as we remember him, he will be there, ready to set sail or perform some magic or introduce a cartoon where dreams come true with the scribbling of chalk.

Good night, Captain.