Every morning, he opened the door to his Treasure House and invited kids to share an easygoing hour of laughter and learning. He wore a jacket with giant pockets, and thus came his name, Captain Kangaroo. He had the longest running children’s program in network television history. (Only Public TV’s Sesame Street can beat the record.) Let’s take a look back at this beloved show.
Bob Keeshan was no stranger to children’s TV. He spent five years (1948 to 1952) playing Clarabelle the Clown on The Howdy Doody Show. After that program ran its course, Keeshan envisioned a different kind of kids’ show. Instead of the frantic pace and noisy chaos typical of the day, he created a relaxed atmosphere of friendly whimsy. His Captain Kangaroo persona offered the reassuring presence of a favorite uncle or grandfather, though Keeshan was a mere 28 years old when the show began.
Captain Kangaroo made its debut in 1955 as a live broadcast. In 1959, the show was committed to pre-recorded tape, and in 1966, the Captain was in color. Captain Kangaroo was on six mornings a week, with Sundays off. Here’s an early opening sequence from the show:
And now, one from one of the color episodes:
A typical episode included the Captain reading from a storybook, watching pictures appear on the Magic Drawing Board, and interacting with his puppet friends. Bunny Rabbit, a bespectacled hare, was ever ready to steal carrots. Mister Moose, the high-pitched prankster, topped every joke with an avalanche of ping-pong balls dropped directly on the Captain’s never-suspecting noggin. Grandfather Clock offered wisdom in rhyming couplets, and Dancing Bear lived up to his name by, well, dancing. All of these characters were performed by puppeteer Cosmo ‘Gus’ Allegretti. This one-man ensemble also brought Miss Frog, Mister Whispers, and the non-puppet character of Dennis the Builder to life. Mr. Green Jeans, a kindly farmer, taught about the world of animals, usually accompanied by live critters. Hugh ‘Lumpy’ Brannum was the actor behind this character. (Sorry, there’s no truth to the rumor that he was Frank Zappa’s father. That urban legend was no doubt spurred by the title of a Zappa song, “Son of Mr. Green Genes.”) Brannum played a number of other roles as well, including Mr. Bainter the Painter.
Vaudeville performer Sam Levine made an impression as The Banana Man. He would pull endless fruits out of his baggy pockets, eventually forming a banana train that he drove off the set. (He only said one word, WOW, in a high-pitched voice.) Keeshan himself played the silent role of the Town Clown in an ongoing series of slapstick mime sketches. Cartoons were also part of the daily recipe. Terrytoons offered shorts in the UPA style with Tom Terrific, a boy in a funnel hat who can change into any shape. He must constantly save his pet, Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog, from the villainous plans of Crabby Appleton. Other cartoons included Lariat Sam, Ludwig, and Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings.
Eventually, other performers joined the cast. James E. Wall and Debbie Weems arrived in 1973 as friends Mr. Baxter and Debbie. (Weems also performed the role of Phoebe Beebee, as well as voicing the puppet Baby Duck.) John Burstein joined the gang in 1980 as Slim Goodbody, a man in a body-stocking decorated with the parts of the human body. He offered tips on good nutrition and exercise. (This character was created in accordance with a demand for more educational content from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.) Bill Cosby joined the show as host of the Picture Pages segment, an interactive spot in which kids played along with at-home worksheets. If you were there, then the insistent Picture Pages jingle is probably playing in your head right now.
In 1981, the hour-long show was cut back to half an hour and moved to an earlier timeslot to make room for CBS Morning News. The shorter program was re-named Wake Up With The Captain. By 1984, the show had been pushed back even earlier, then relegated to weekends, before the network finally pulled it. Captain Kangaroo made a comeback via Public Television, running old segments along with some new material until 1992. In 1998, John McDonough became the All New Captain Kangaroo. Bob Keeshan was invited to appear on the retooled show, but declined. This new incarnation ran only one season.
Sadly, Bob Keeshan passed away in 2004, but he will live on forever as the one and only Captain Kangaroo. If you have fond memories of spending your childhood mornings watching this beloved children’s show, share them with all of us at Retroland.