In the wake of Bob Keeshan's death in late January, one can't help but think about, and mourn the loss of another gentling presence in our children's lives: Captain Kangaroo. When Keeshan launched his now-famous program in the 1950s, he deliberately chose a format and established a tone that set him apart from the other frenetic, sugar-fueled, product-driven shows that were already afloat on the public airwaves.
Keeshan began in television the way so many did then and still do, at the bottom. He was a young assistant at CBS where he worked for one of the brashest and loudest of the children's program hosts, Buffalo Bob Smith, on The Howdy Doody Show.He wrangled children into the Peanut Gallery and handed out prizes, and eventually got his big acting break as Clarabelle the Clown. Clarabelle "spoke" only through the bicycle horn that he kept handy, along with a seltzer bottle, just in case he was put upon too much. Soon Keeshan was Corny the Clown on another children's show; and then a toymaker in Tinker's Workshop, and by 1955 he was on the air with what would become television's longest-running children's show, Captain Kangaroo.His last name referred to the large pockets on the trade-mark coat that he wore every day in the Treasure House. There was a fleet of other Captains at the helms of local children's shows across the country, so that part of the name was hardly original. But what Keeshan brought to his show was.
Bob Keeshan was part of a tradition of gentle, nurturing men who are often dismissed and devalued in our culture. His public personna was that of the kind grandfatherly figure whose work-place was the carefree one of the imagination, of play, of expansive, engrossing fun. For the boys who grew up watching him and who became fathers themselves, Keeshan provided a template for a different kind of masculinity. The course Keeshan set for himself -- and the others who followed and have built upon his lead (Mr. Rogers, Jim Hensen, Bill Cosby, Lavar Burton) -- runs against the grain of many of our standard ideas of muscular masculinity. Happily, though, the tides have been changing for some time, and thanks to the Captain, we've seen how it is possible to sail into those peaceful waters where the deepest hopes for our children and their future are to be found.
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Copyright 2004 © John Cech
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