February 01, 2020


(CBS, October 3, 1955-December 8, 1984)

Keeshan-Miller Enterprises, Robert Keeshan Associates, CBS Television Network

Bob Keeshan – Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Pennywhistle, Mr. Doodle, Wally, Town Clown
Hugh “Lumpy” Brannum – Mr. Green Jeans, the New Old Folk Singer, Percy, Uncle Backwards, Mr. McGregor, Mr. Bainter the Painter
Cosmo Allegretti – Mr. Bunny Rabbit, Mr. Moose, Dennis the Apprentice, Willy, Miss Frog, Mr. Whispers, Dancing Bear, Grandfather Clock, Uncle Ralph, TV Fred
Sam Levine (1955-74) – The Banana Man
Bill McCutcheon (1965-68) – Mr. Homan
Jane Connell (1965-68) – Mrs. Homan
James Wall – Mr. Baxter (1968-78)
Debbie Weems (1973-78) – Debbie, Baby Duck
John Burstein (1978-81) – Slim Goodbody
Bill Cosby (1980-84) – Himself
Kevin Clash (1980-84) – Artie, various
Carolyn Mignini (1981-83) – Kathy, various

          Conceived by star Bob Keeshan based on the “warm relationship between grandparents and children”, Captain Kangaroo became the longest-running national network children’s show (and the longest-running overall until it was passed by Sesame Street in 1999, where many people who worked on Kangaroo went to work following its conclusion).

The Captain.

            Keeshan, along with long-time friend and director Jack Miller, had taken notice of the success of The Uncle Al Show—a local children’s show out of Cincinatti, Ohio—and approached the network they were currently working for, ABC, with the idea to produce one of their own. However, the network had previously attempted and failed at doing so before and passed on the idea. Pitching it again a year later, they were given the weekend to have the show ready for a pilot on Monday morning. Working with the station’s crew, they created a set and a costume, Keeshan dyed his hair gray after being unable to get a wig done, and used music from the station’s library to come up with Tinker’s Workshop. Debuting on November 15, 1954, the series centered on kindly toymaker Tinker (Keeshan) in his toyshop somewhere in a Swiss village, where he would use kids’ love of toys and play to impart important values, skills and other lessons to their audience in between reruns of old theatrical shorts. 

Keeshan as the Tinker.

         CBS was on the constant lookout for innovative approaches to children’s television programming at this time. In the summer of 1955, they approached Keeshan and Miller about coming up with a similar show to Tinker for them. They decided to try and create a better format with a kindly old tour guide and captain of the guards of a children’s museum called “The Treasure House.” Keeshan got out of his contract with ABC and the network bought out the rights to Tinker, leaving Keeshan and Miller free to develop the new show for CBS. The result was Captain Kangarro.

Mr. Green Jeans and Dancing Bear prepare a cake for the Captain.

            Captain Kangaroo debuted on CBS on October 3, 1955. Keeshan played the title character The Captain, who was given the nickname “kangaroo” due to the large pockets on his trademark jacket (originally blue, but later red). Initially, CBS wanted Al Lewis to host, but he wouldn’t be released from his contractual obligations to host The Uncle Al Show.  The show didn’t have a strict format; the only constant was that the entirety of the action took place in or around the Captain’s house, known initially as The Treasure House and later The Captain’s Place. However, there were recurring segments and bits, such as “Reading Stories” sessions where the Captain would read a book to his audience, The Magic Drawing Board where he would interact with animated characters, and a running gag of his getting ping pong balls dumped on him. For the show’s introduction, the Captain would enter the House/Place and hang his keys on the hook, which would then cause the theme song to stop playing. However, sometimes the Captain would miss the hook or drop the keys, and the song would continue playing until they were finally hung. The Captain would end each the show encouraging parents to spend some time with their children, first directly to them and later more subtlety via a song listing activities to do outside instead of watching television. The first show of each month was also when the Captain would wish a happy birthday to every kid who celebrated that month.

The Captain with Mr. Green Jeans, Dancing Bear, Mr. Moose and Mr. Bunny.

The Captain would interact with a variety of characters. On the human side was farmer Mr. Green Jeans (Hugh “Lumpy” Brannum), the mute Town Clown (also Keeshan) and Sam Levine as The Banana Man. There were animals like the silent Dancing Bear, living appliances like the rhyming Grandfather Clock, and puppets like Mr. Bunny and Mr. Moose (all Cosmo Allegretti, who was the primary puppeteer for the show). Levine had purchased the props and gimmicks from Adolf Proper’s estate and resurrected The Banana Man for the show, whose gimmicks included communication through sounds and instruments, quick costume changes, and pulling an impossible number of props from his coat pockets. He played the role until his death in 1974.

The Captain and Mr. Green Jeans with Mr. Baxter, Debbie and Dennis the Apprentice.

             As the show went on, more cast and characters came and left. In 1965, Bill McCutcheon and Jane Connell joined as friends Mr. and Mrs. Homan. Stage manager James E. Wall talked his way into the audition to play Mr. Baxter in 1968, turning Captain Kangaroo into one of the first integrated children’s shows on television. Debbie Weems appeared as Debbie and provided the voice for the puppet character Baby Duck. A decade later, John Burstein joined as Slim Goodbody, who wore a suit displaying the parts of the human body and offered tips on nutrition and exercise (in compliance with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s push for more educational content on television). Puppeteer Kevin Clash would not only control the puppet character Artie, but would appear as himself in many sketches. Carolyn Mignini was the last new cast member added, playing Kathy and a variety of other female roles.

             In 1978, local Pittsburg children’s show Picture Pages was integrated into Captain Kangaroo. Created by Julius Oleinick in 1974, the show interacted with its audience via puzzle booklets given away at local supermarkets. The Captain would conduct a series of lessons on basic arithmetic, geometry and drawing on his magic drawing board. In 1980, Bill Cosby was brought on to take over the segment and drew with the aid of his character-topped magic marker named Mortimer Ichabod Marker, or M.I. for short. When Captain Kangaroo ended, the segment was adopted as part of Nickelodeon’s Pinwheel until that was cancelled in 1989.

             Celebrities and fellow children’s show stars often made a habit of stopping by to visit the Captain; particularly beginning in 1974 when the show began with people (including non-celebrities) wishing the Captain a “good morning”. Among their number was Dr. Joyce Brothers, Shari Lewis, Dudley Moore, Carol Channing, Lorne Greene, Eli Wallach, Dolly Parton, Walter Cronkite, Marlo Thomas, Carrie Fisher, Danny Aiello, Anita Gillette, Andy Griffith, Doc Severinsen, Mae Questel, Emmett Kelly, Hank Aaron, Marty Brill, Stubby Kaye, Bob Denver, John Ritter, Jean Stapleton, Frank Gifford, Fred Rogers, Big Bird (Caroll Spinney), and William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (in character as Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, respectively).

Mr. Rogers stops by The Treasure House.

            Along with the live-action routines, there were a number of cartoon shorts shown throughout the program. While two were created specifically for Captain Kangaroo, the majority of them were imported from other countries. They included:

             Tom Terrific, running from 1957-59 and rerun for years after. Created by Gene Deitch under the CBS-owned Terrytoons studio, the series focused on a boy hero who lived in a treehouse and could transform himself into anything via his magic “thinking cap”. Along with his lazy sidekick, Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog, he battled the evil forces of Crabby Appleton, Mr. Instant the Instant Thing King, Captain Kidney Bean, Sweet Tooth Sam the Candy Bandit and Isotope Feeney the Meany. The show was done in a simple style reminiscent of children’s drawings, and every character was voiced by Lionel Wilson. 26 episodes were produced and were aired in five parts across each episode of a given week. For the Saturday broadcast, the episodes were edited into a two-part adventure with all of the daily cliffhangers and recaps removed.

             Alternating with Tom Terrific every other week was The Adventures of Lariat Sam. Created by notable game show announcer Gene Wood, the cartoon was a western comedy centering on sheriff Sam, who protected the tiny town of Bent Saddle with his poetry-reading horse, Tippytoes. Their primary foe was the outlaw Badlands Meeney and his stooge, J. Skulking Bushwack. Sam often defeated them, as the title implied, by using his lasso and manipulating it in various physics-defying ways. Dayton Allen provided all the character voices, and Wood sang the theme song himself. Like Tom Terrific, the series was animated by Terrytoons.

            The Most Important Person was a mixed animated and live-action series of 60 shorts produced by Sutherland Learning Associates. They helped translate everyday things in the life of children so that they could be better understood and allow them to develop a strong sense of self-awareness and self-importance. A spin-off series, The Kingdom of Could Be You, explored various occupations and gave children an idea of what they could become when they grew up. Both series were made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Child Development, and were later syndicated individually or as part of other children’s programs.

         Produced for the BBC between 1971 and 1974, Crystal Tipps and Alistair followed the adventures of a young girl and her dog in a fanciful world. The 5-minute shorts were created by Hilary Hayton and Graham McCallum, who drew the artwork using felt markers and an airbrush. The series was produced and animated by Q3 of London, which was formed by former BBC executive Michael Grafton-Robinson specifically for these shorts and another series, Fingerbobs, instead of expanding the BBC’s Children’s Department of Graphics Unit into a full-blown animation studio. The shorts were silent except for the music accompaniment by Paul Reade. However, when aired on Captain Kangaroo, Allegretti added voice-over narration in his Mr. Moose voice.

             The Wombles was a stop-motion British cartoon made from 1973-75 by FilmFair Productions. It was based on a series of children’s novels created by Elisabeth Beresford about fictional pointy-nosed, furry creatures that lived in burrows and helped the environment by collecting and creatively recycling trash. Two seasons of 30 five-minute episodes were produced, with Bernard Cribbins supplying all of the voices and Barry Leith crafting all the sets and models.

             Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings was another British animated series from 1974 created by Edward McLachlan and produced by FilmFair. Young Simon had a magic chalkboard on which things he drew came to life in the Land of Chalk Drawings that Simon could enter by climbing over a fence near his home. The 5-minute episodes dealt with the unintended consequences Simon’s drawings had over the Land. Originally narrated by Cribbins, Keeshan dubbed over it with a new narration when it aired on his show.

             Ludwig was another British import about a magical egg-shaped gemstone that lived in a forest and often came to the rescue of the animals that dwelled there. Ludwig possessed facets that could open up to reveal arms, legs, or various gadgets whenever he needed them. A human birdwatcher (Jon Glover) constantly watched Ludwig and served as the viewer’s point of view and narrator. The 25 five-minute episodes were produced by Mirek and Peter Lang, who wrote them with Jane Tann and also animated them. The music was arranged and played by Reade and was comprised of the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, for whom the central character was named. The series would begin an end with a small section of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 1”.

          Coming from Australia in 1974 was The Toothbrush Family, which centered on a group of anthropomorphic toiletry items conceived by Marcia Hatfield as a way to get kids to focus on their hygiene when her son refused to brush his teeth. The main characters were father Tom, mother Tess, kids Tina and Toby, and Gramps, along with toothpaste Flash Fluoride, electric toothbrush Hot Rod Harry, hairbrush Bert Brush, Cecily Comb, Nev Nailbrush, Susie Sponge, Shaggy Dog, Callie Conditioner and Sally Shampoo, who all came to life at night in the light of the moon. Hatfield wrote the episodes with Al Guest and Jean Mathieson providing the screenplays, which were then produced by Rainbow Animation. Len Carlson and Billie Mae Richards provided all of the character voices. A revival was made in 1998 focusing on some new characters.

             The Red and the Blue was another stop-motion series, this time hailing from Italy’s Misseri Studios and created by Francesco Misseri. It centered on two Claymation shapeshifting characters—one red, one blue—on a white plane in which they interacted. They often try to outdo each other by assuming various forms that would one-up the other. For instance, if Blue became a boat, Red would become an island.

             Another Rainbow Animation production from Canada, The Undersea Adventures of Captain Nemo was a reimagining of the Jules Verne book Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Guest and Mathieson. The show followed ocean researcher Captain Mark Nemo (Carlson) and his kid assistants, Christine and Robbie (both Richards), as they went on adventures in their nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus. The 5-minute episodes attempted to teach children about oceanography and marine biology.

The Captain chatting with Grandfather Clock.

             Captain Kangaroo was initially broadcast live daily on weekday mornings. For the first four years, it was performed twice a day for the Eastern and Central time zones, and recorded on kinescope for the Western as Keeshan refused to perform three times a day. Eventually, it would be scheduled for the same time in all time zones. It was also given a 6th Saturday morning broadcast until 1968; replaced briefly in the 1964-65 season by Keeshan’s other short-lived show, Mr. Mayor. The Mayor character was Kangaroo in everything but name and look. It was a gambit by Keeshan to show he was willing to abandon the Captain if he couldn’t acquire the full rights from an unwanted partner he was saddled with due to the Captain’s evolution out of the Tinker character from their previous series. The gambit paid off, and the Mayor was retired for the Captain full time.

             While many shows had begun broadcasting in color by the time Captain Kangaroo hit the air, CBS wouldn’t adopt a color format for it until late 1966. Throughout the show’s run, it was nominated for several Emmy Awards, winning three. It also won two Peabody Awards and a Young Artist Award. Although extremely popular, Captain Kangaroo’s ratings rarely eclipsed its network competition’s. In 1981, CBS moved the show early to 7:00 AM and cut it down to 30 minutes, retitling it Wake Up with the Captain, to make more room for the expanded The CBS Morning News. In 1982, it was moved further back to 6:30 AM when very few people would be awake to see it. It was restored to an hour format in 1982, but remained in poor time slots in various time zones. Many CBS affiliates had also stopped carrying the show and declined a rerun package for Sunday mornings. When CBS decided to cut the show back down to a half hour again in 1984, Keeshan angrily decided to let the show end when his contract with the network expired. However, Keeshan would return to the network the following year to host CBS Storybreak, which was essentially inspired by his “Reading Stories” segment. A fond farewell to the Captain was given with the primetime special Captain Kangaroo and His Friends that same year.

             The original Captain Kangaroo theme song, “Puffin’ Billy” (about a steam locomotive), was used from 1955 until 1974. Written by Edward G. White and recorded by the Melodi Light Orchestra, it was from the Chappell Recorded Music Library, a British stock music production library. Mary Rodgers wrote lyrics for the song in 1957, making it the official Captain Kangaroo theme. In 1974, Robert L. Brush composed the new theme, “Good Morning, Captain”. Originally, it featured elements of “Puffin’ Billy”, resulting in White receiving credit on the song, but copyright issues caused the song to be rerecorded in 1979 with those elements removed. When the show was retitled, a new theme called “Wake Up” was used until the title, format and second theme were reinstated. Lynn Ahrens wrote a final theme, “Here Comes Captain Kangaroo”, which would be used from 1982-84 and subsequent reruns.

             On September 1, 1986, Captain Kangaroo returned in reruns on PBS with funding from public television stations, School Zone Publishing Company, and the John D. Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. New segments were filmed and inserted into the reruns, which ran until 1993. In 1997, Saban Entertainment produced a short-lived reboot called The All New Captain Kangaroo, with John McDonough as the Captain. Keeshan declined an invitation to appear as “the Admiral.” It ran for only one syndicated season, but produced a spin-off called Mister Moose’s Fun Time which was at the center of a programming block called Captain Kangaroo’s Treasure House that ran from 1997-2000. In 2011, professional clown Pat Cashin acquired the Captain Kangaroo trademark and began portraying the Captain. Cashin died in 2016, leaving the rights to his estate. In 2018, actor Mark Wahlberg announced his (as yet unrealized) desire to bring back the Captain as a scientist so that his own children would develop an interest in science, technology and engineering.

One of the Captain's albums.

             Keeshan’s estate owns the rights to all of Captain Kangaroo’s footage, and they have yet to put the show on DVD or make it available for streaming. There have been a number of VHS collections containing various episodes and related bits from the show’s run. A wide assortment of merchandise was released throughout the show’s 29-year career. These included coloring and activity books, story books, a card game featuring Mr. Green Jeans, frame tray puzzles, a mix and match pet building set, lunch boxes, various handheld games and more. A number of albums recorded by the cast and featuring the music of the show were produced; partly as an attempt to introduce children to various types of music. Captain Kangaroo and friends were featured in three issues of Dell ComicsFour-Color Comics between 1956 and 1958. Beginning in 1957, Pines Comics published a 6-issue series based on Tom Terrific, who also appeared in a Wonder Book.

Keeshan's memoirs.

             Keeshan spent the remainder of his life in the service of children as an author and a speaker. He founded Corporate Family Solutions with Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander to provide day-care programs to businesses. In 1993, he participated in the congressional hearings against video game violence. In 1995, he published his memoirs, titled Good Morning, Captain, through Fairview Press. He also considered a revival of the Captain as an answer to increasingly violent cartoons on TV, but was unable to obtain permission from ICM, who held the rights to the Captain at the time. Ultimately, Keeshan died in 2004 before getting to bring the Captain back one last time.


1 comment:

Nora Ranft said...

I loved the Captain Kangaroo Show when I was just a little girl only 5 years old . I wish the children of this generation could watch it now , it had so much imagination and real funny stories and helped me be the Mom , Grandmother I am today. When I think back on what I watched many years ago, I just smile because at 73 years young it was very entertaining to me and my sisters.