A Children’s Classic
Before Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood there was
Captain Kangaroo was actually Bob Keeshan, a warm-hearted man who
wanted to give children a gentle alternative to the more frenetic nature
of most other television shows. Keeshan had previously been Clarabell
the Clown on the Howdy Doody Show. But in 1955 he became Captain
Kangaroo. Not only did Keeshan play this role throughout the program’s
30 year run, but he was also the program’s producer. He personally
supervised which commercials aired on the program, emphasizing products
that encouraged learning and creativity in children.
The name Captain Kangaroo came from the big pockets in the coat
he wore, pockets like the pouches of kangaroos. Keeshan also sported a
big, walrus-like mustache and bowl haircut.
Although Keeshan was only in his late 20’s when he began the
program in 1955 he presented himself as a grandfatherly figure,
providing several generations of children with a world of learning,
music and fun. From his Treasure House the Captain told stories, recited
poems and welcomed guests, both human and puppet.
One of the most common guests was Mr. Green Jeans. Played by Hugh
Brannum, Mr. Green Jeans wore green farmer’s overalls. He was a jack of
many trades on the program. Sometimes he acted as the Captain’s
handyman. Other times he was an inventor. He often brought animals for
the viewer to enjoy.
Another frequent visitor was Cosmo “Gus” Allegretti. Allegretti
portrayed the characters Dennis the Apprentice, Grandfather Clock and
others. He also performed many of the programs’ puppets, including Bunny
Rabbit and Mr. Moose. Bunny Rabbit’s claim to fame was tricking the
Captain into feeding him carrots. Mr. Moose told knock-knock jokes and
riddles. Mr. Moose’ joking always ended with a deluge of ping-pong balls
cascading from above.
Special guests over the years were many. Shari Lewis and her
sheep puppet, Lamb Chop visited. So did Minnie Pearl, Imogene Coca and
even Mr. Rogers (in the 1970’s).
Featured on the program from 1957 to 1959 and then again during
part of the 1960’s was the cartoon Tom Terrific. Created by Gene Deitch,
Tom Terrific was an animated serial done in very simple black and white
drawings. The title character was a super hero type with a funnel-shaped
hat through which steam came out when he became upset. Tom could change
into any shape that the situation called for. He had a lovable, and very
lazy, dog named Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog. Tom often had to rescue
Manfred from the villainous Crabby Appleton (whose motto was “Rotten to
the core!”). The cartoon was run in five part episodes, one part per
weekday. The first four parts always ended in a cliffhanger. In addition
to Crabby Appleton, Tom also took on other villains including Captain
Kidney Bean and Sweet Tooth Sam. Tom Terrific was fun, clever, and,
Captain Kangaroo ran live for the first few years. Until the late
60’s it was in black and white. Then it switched over to color.
It was an hour-long program for most of its run, changing to a
half-hour length only in the last few years. It ran weekday mornings and
Saturdays for most of its history. When it went off the air in 1984, it
was the longest running children’s television program of all time.
Sesame Street has now surpassed this.
Throughout Captain Kangaroo’s run, and afterwards as well, Bob
Keeshan was an outspoken advocate for children. He passed away in 2004.