KEESHAN, BOB

U.S. Children's Television Performer

Bob Keeshan is the actor and producer responsible for the success of the long-running children's program, Captain Kangaroo. As the easy-going Captain with his big pockets and his bushy mustache, Keeshan lured children into close engagement with literature, science, and especially music, adopting an approach which mixed pleasure and pedagogy. Children learned most easily, he argued, when information and knowledge became a source of delight. Keeshan's approach represented a rejection of pressures towards the increased commercialization of children's programming as well as a toning-down of the high volume, slapstick style associated with earlier kid show hosts, such as Pinky Lee, Soupy Sales and Howdy Doody's Buffalo Bob.

Keeshan was working as a receptionist at NBC-Radio's Manhattan office when Bob Smith started offering him small acting parts on his NBC-TV show, Triple B Ranch, and then, subsequently, hired him as a special assistant for The Howdy Doody Show. Though Keeshan's initial responsibilities involved supervising props and talking to the children who were to be program guests, he was soon pulled on camera, bringing out prizes. After appearing in clown garb on one episode to immense response, he took on the regular role of Clarabell, the mute clown who communicated by honking a horn. Leaving the series in 1952, he played a succession of other clown characters, such as Corny, the host of WABC-TV's Time For Fun, a noontime cartoon program, where he exerted pressure to remove from airplay cartoons he felt were too violent or perpetuated racial stereotyping. While at WABC-TV, he played an Alpine toymaker on Tinker's Workshop, an early morning program, which served as the prototype for Captain Kangaroo.

The CBS network was searching for innovative new approaches to children's programming and approved the Kangaroo series submitted by Keeshan and long-time friend Jack Miller. The series first aired in October 1955 and continued until 1985, making it the longest running children's series in network history. Keeshan not only vividly embodied the Captain, the friendly host of the Treasure House, but also played a central creative role on the daily series, supervising and actively contributing to the scripts and insuring the program's conformity to his conceptions of appropriate children's entertainment. Through encounters with Mr. Green Jeans and his menagerie of domestic animals, with the poetry-creating Grandfather Clock, the greedy Bunny Rabbit, the punning trickster Mr. Moose, and the musically-inclined Dancing Bear, the Captain opened several generations of children to the pleasures of learning. Unlike many other children's programs, Captain Kangaroo was not filmed before a studio audience and did not include children in its cast. Keeshan wanted nothing that would come between him and the children in his television audience and so spoke directly to the camera. He also personally supervised which commercials could air on the program, and promoted products, such as Play-Dough and Etch-a-Sketch, which he saw as facilitating creative play, while avoiding those he felt purely exploitative.

As his program's popularity grew, Keeshan took on an increasingly public role as an advocate for children, writing a regular column about children and television for McCall's and occasional articles for Good Housekeeping, Parade, and other publications. Keeshan wrote original children's books (as well as those tied to the Kangaroo program) and recorded a series of records designed to introduce children to classical and jazz music. He appeared at "tiny tot" concerts given by symphony orchestras in more than 50 cities, offering playful introductions to the musical instruments and the pleasure of good listening.

Upon his retirement, Keeshan became an active lobbyist on behalf of children's issues and in favor of tighter controls over the tobacco industry. A sharp critic of contemporary children's television, Keeshan is currently making efforts to get a new version of Captain Kangaroo onto the air, but since he does not own the rights to the character, there is some possibility that the captain may be recast.

-Henry Jenkins

 


Bob Keeshan
Photo courtesy of Bob Keeshan

BOB KEESHAN. Born in New York City, New York, U.S.A., 27 June 1927. Attended Fordham University, 1946-49. Served in United States Marine Corps Reserve, 1945-46. Married: Anne Jeanne Laurie, 1950; children: Michael Derek, Laurie Margaret, and Maeve Jeanne. Began career as Clarabell for NBC-TV's Howdy Doody Show, 1947-52; appeared as Corny the Clown (ABC-TV), 1953-55, and Tinker the Toymaker (ABC-TV), 1954-55; starred as Captain Kangaroo (CBS-TV), 1955-85; president of Robert Keeshan Associates, from 1955; appeared as Mr. Mayor and the Town Clown (CBS-TV), 1964-65; president, Suffolk County Hearing and Speech Center, 1966-71; director of Marvin Josephson Associates, Inc, New York., 1969-77; director of Bank of Babylon, New York, 1973-79; chair, board of trustees, College of New Rochelle, New York, 1974-80; director of Anchor Savings Bank, 1976-91; chair, Council of Governing Boards, 1979-80; commentator, CBS-Radio, 1980-82; television commentator, 1981-82. Member: Board of Education, West Islip, New York, 1953-58; board of directors, Good Samaritan Hospital, West Islip, New York, 1969-78. Honorary Degrees: D. of Pedagogy, Rhode Island College, 1969; D.H.L. Alfred University, 1969; D.F.A., Fordham University, 1975; Litt.D., Indiana State University, 1978; L.L.D., Elmira (New York) University, 1980; D.L., Marquette University, 1983; D.P.S., Central Michigan University, 1984; D.H.L., St. Joseph College, 1987. Honorary Fellow: American Academy of Pediatrics. Recipient: Sylvania Award, 1956; Peabody Award, 1958, 1972, 1979; American Education Award, Education Industries Association, 1978; Distinguished Achievement Award, Georgia Radio and TV Institute-Pi Gamma Kappa, 1978; Emmy Awards,1978, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984; TV Father of the Year, 1980; James E. Allen Memorial Award, 1981; Distinguished Service to Children Award, 1981; National Education Award, 1982; American Heart Association National Public Affairs Recognition Award, 1987; Frances Holleman Breathitt Award for Excellence, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 1987; Clown Hall of Fame, 1990; AMA Distinguished Service Award, 1991.

TELEVISION SERIES

1947-52 The Howdy Doody Show
1953-55 Time for Fun
1954-55 Tinker's Workshop (also produced)
1955-85 Captain Kangaroo (also produced)
1964-65 Mr. Mayor (also producer)
1981-82 Up to the Minute, CBS News (commentator) 1982     CBS Morning News (commentator)

RADIO

The Subject is Young People, 1980-82

PUBLICATIONS

Growing Up Happy. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Family Fun Activity Book. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Deaconness Press, 1994.

Holiday Fun Activity. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fairview, 1995.

Books to Grow By. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fairview, 1996.

Alligator in the Basement. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fairview, 1996.

Hurry, Murry, Hurry. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fairview, 1996.

FURTHER READING

Blum, David. "Fighting Demotion To Mr. Marsupial" (interview). New York Times, 14 June 1995.

Deutschman, Alan. "Lessons from Dad." Fortune (Chicago), 29 January 1990.

Kaye, Evelyn. The ACT Guide To Children's Television: Or How To Treat TV With T.L.C. Boston: Beacon, 1979.

Norton-Smith, Thomas M., and Linda L. Norton-Smith. "Two Conceptions Of The Value Of Individuals In Children's Programming." The Midwest Quarterly (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), Autumn 1992.

 

See also Children and Television