If I had known as a child how good for me Robert J. (Bob) Keeshan intended Captain Kangaroo to be, I'm sure I never would have watched it. Keeshan, who died last Friday at 76 from a long illness, meant his children's show to counter TV's violence and hyperstimulation--all of which, of course, I consumed greedily on other programs. But like the orange-and-black "helping hand" signs in the windows of my 1970s Michigan neighborhood (telling kids to which houses they could run to escape from bad adults), the Captain's Place was a kind of haven in a sometimes seedy media landscape. That made Keeshan honorable. What made him a genius was that for some 9,000 episodes, I and millions of other kids were too busy laughing to notice.
Keeshan, like great television artists from Ernie Kovacs on, was in a fundamental way pushing back against the very medium he loved. In 1948 he got his first onscreen job, as Clarabell--the mute clown who spoke by honking a horn--on what would become the Howdy Doody show. Kids loved Clarabell, but something about the show's boisterous atmosphere didn't fit with Keeshan's feeling that children's television should be "intimate." When CBS gave him the chance, in 1955, to create his own kids' show, Keeshan made Captain Kangaroo something very different.
Where Howdy Doody whooped up a crowd of kids, Captain Kangaroo addressed "you"--singular. He introduced himself as a kindly, absentminded host, continually pulling surprises out of his oversize pockets (whence the Kangaroo). There was typical kids'-show fun, with a panoply of pals that included the Banana Man, Dancing Bear, and Tom Terrific with his sidekick Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog. But there was also an underlying seriousness of purpose. On his first broadcast, taking young viewers on a tour around the Treasure House--which later became the Captain's Place--Captain Kangaroo even did the on-TV unthinkable: he suggested they go outside and get some fresh air. He would regularly sit down and read an entire book, accompanied by nothing but music and mesmerizing illustrations. In retrospect, he was doing everything but reaching a hand through the screen and unplugging the box for us.
Many of Keeshan's grownup fans may have been surprised to hear that he was not older than 76 when he died. Over the decades Keeshan literally became the kindly old man he created at only 28--he didn't grow his soup-strainer mustache until the mid-'60s, and his face and figure gradually rounded into kindly Falstaffian proportions as the years went by. (The bowl haircut, however, was always a wig.) Though he cautioned parents against using TV as a baby sitter, knowing some would anyway, he made himself into a virtual grandfather. "It was not a show," he would later say. "It was a visit."