Expands Children’s Television Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A new orientation in television that respected children’s intelligence was demonstrated by the long-lasting, highly popular, and much-praised Captain Kangaroo, one of the first successful shows to combine education with entertainment for youngsters.

Summary of Event

With high hopes but with no fanfare, as there were no well-known stars in the low-budget program, Bob Keeshan made the premiere on October 3, 1955, of Captain Kangaroo. Not even the creators of Captain Kangaroo could have predicted in its infancy that the program would remain on television for almost a third of a century. Captain Kangaroo (television program) Television;children’s programs[childrens programs] [kw]Captain Kangaroo Expands Children’s Television (Oct. 3, 1955) [kw]Children’s Television, Captain Kangaroo Expands (Oct. 3, 1955)[Childrens Television, Captain Kangaroo Expands] [kw]Television, Captain Kangaroo Expands Children’s (Oct. 3, 1955) Captain Kangaroo (television program) Television;children’s programs[childrens programs] [g]North America;Oct. 3, 1955: Captain Kangaroo Expands Children’s Television[04980] [g]United States;Oct. 3, 1955: Captain Kangaroo Expands Children’s Television[04980] [c]Radio and television;Oct. 3, 1955: Captain Kangaroo Expands Children’s Television[04980] [c]Education;Oct. 3, 1955: Captain Kangaroo Expands Children’s Television[04980] Keeshan, Bob Brannum, Hugh Allegretti, Gus

The Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System;children’s programming[childrens programming] (CBS) had selected the show from among five possibilities after seeing, in July, 1955, the pilot constructed by Bob Keeshan and Jack Miller Miller, Jack , who left the show in 1958. Keeshan, a former page at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), had played the clown Clarabelle for five years (1947-1952) on The Howdy Doody Hour, Howdy Doody Hour, The (television program) but he had been fired from the job. CBS was looking for a replacement for Jack Paar’s morning show, and the network wanted to experiment with children’s shows to try to increase the sales of television sets in general and the popularity of CBS in particular.

Eight months of unemployment must have been difficult both economically and psychologically for Keeshan, but it did not stop him from critically considering the contemporary offerings in children’s television, especially the volume of slapstick and pie throwing. As Clarabelle, he had followed directions and held steadfastly to the classic nonspeaking clown role. He had begun experimenting with some of his ideas as Corny the Clown on Time for Fun, Time for Fun (television program) a midday children’s show shown by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). He observed his own children, and he continued his discussions with Jack Miller regarding the natural curiosity and the potential of young children.

By the time the opportunity to develop a pilot for CBS arose, Keeshan had decided that children could learn a great deal while being entertained and that appropriate analogies could be used to keep from treating children condescendingly. Keeshan and Miller themselves could not recall which one of them actually proposed using “Captain” as a label for the grandfatherly figure they envisioned featuring in the main role in the Treasure House (later called the Captain’s Place). When CBS had asked for pilot shows to consider as a replacement for Jack Paar’s morning program, there was a limited time period to conceptualize the pilot, develop the set and costumes, rehearse, and film the program. Even the name of the Captain Kangaroo character was decided at a late date. The huge pockets (to hold various treasures) in the coat constructed for the captain prompted the decision to call the wigged and aged character Captain Kangaroo. The name served for the program as well.

Although the program evolved over the years, especially as technology developed, a guiding philosophy was obvious from the earliest days of production. Children were addressed directly and respectfully. They were encouraged to enter a fantasy land and believe in the captain, a mute but bespectacled bunny rabbit who regularly found ways to get carrots, a grandfather clock that composed poetry, a dancing bear, a talking moose, and a variety of other characters.

These characters were joined by real plants and animals for the presentation of a variety of fascinating and educational material. More than two thousand species of animals appeared on the program during its existence. No topic was considered beyond the comprehension of children; topics needed only to be presented appropriately. Presentations included skits and songs; songs provided an opportunity to discuss the musical instruments used in their performance. Cartoons were used to fill time when the set had to be changed but were not a primary focus. Sometimes there were well-known guests. When the captain read a book, requests for that title increased at local libraries. Most programs (called visits) included playtime during which the construction of some item was demonstrated.

The techniques used were not unusual, but the context and the respectful orientation to children found in Captain Kangaroo were in marked contrast to the slapstick activities and seltzer-spraying clowns of other shows. The show was calm; children watching the show did not have their level of excitement whipped to near hysteria.

Children’s television, especially at the local level in the early days of television, had low production standards. Many producers believed it unnecessary to hire professional writers or professional performers with experience in children’s television. Keeshan knew the importance of writers, praising them and others behind the scenes as well as those on screen. His show thus was innovative in creating quality programming for an audience of children.

Significance

Strict standards always were placed on writers and performers involved with Captain Kangaroo. Violence and cruel or derisive behavior had no place during the visit the captain made to children each day. Sudden loud noises were prohibited, as were deep shadows. When a suit of armor caused fear for one child, according to his mother’s letter, it was enough to send the suit of armor to a dark corner of the basement. Cameras did not zoom in on subjects. A gentle approach was favored. The overall welfare of the child was of central importance and was made apparent by a concentration on messages of safety, ethics, and health. The program refused to accept some products as sponsors of the program because these products were believed to be inconsistent with the show’s philosophy.

Initially the program was aimed at six- to eight-year-olds, but the primary audience consisted of children aged three through nine. Frequently, mothers were as much as one-third of the audience. Attempts to cancel the show as early as 1957 revealed the power of the adult public to influence the network. Letters (as many as ten thousand in one week), phone calls, and personal visits were effective in getting the network to retain the program.

The philosophy behind Captain Kangaroo and the program itself encouraged a child to be imaginative. Keeshan did not understand the disillusionment some parents would heap on their children by taking them to see an ordinary-looking man without costume and insisting to the puzzled children that the man was Captain Kangaroo. Keeshan has upon occasion denied that he is Captain Kangaroo, responding that the captain is a person in costume, much like Santa Claus, and existed in children’s imaginations.

Advocates of the show claimed that it improved children’s manners, as the captain encouraged the use of “please” and “thank you.” He typically signed off with his reminder that it was another “Be-good-to-Mother day.” When he inadvertently failed to include that statement one day, he received mail from mothers asking him not to forget.

Children apparently respected and believed in the captain. The warm relationship the captain was able to build with his young audience was confirmed by children climbing into the lap of the costumed character when he traveled. Fairly soon after the program began, the captain was taken on the road in the “Fun with Music” format. In cooperation with an orchestra, he would introduce very young children to the sounds of a symphony and have them participate in searching for a certain sound among the instruments, by riding their hobbyhorses, and by conducting the orchestra. Such programs were an extension of the television program’s philosophy, with the added benefit of providing some feedback and a sense of satisfaction while aiding symphonies in developing future audiences.

Children did not appear on Captain Kangaroo as a rule. The captain wanted to emphasize that he was visiting with child viewers at home and did not want to play to (or visit with) any children on-site. Once, Keeshan’s youngest daughter visited on the set and interacted with the captain. After he had removed his costume and makeup, he came out to be greeted by his daughter. She gave him a big hug and started talking about her visit with the captain.

Although the actors on screen were the visible forces on the show, Keeshan stressed that the writers and others not on screen were equally important in the attempt to set higher standards for children’s television. Many of them went on to other programs after they shared their talents and had their training with Captain Kangaroo. David Connell Connell, David began as a clerk-typist but progressed to executive producer of Captain Kangaroo before leaving to become one of the founders of Children’s Television Workshop and a creator of Sesame Street. Kevin Clash Clash, Kevin grew up watching Captain Kangaroo and gained experience as a puppeteer with Jim Henson before he created puppets for Captain Kangaroo, acted as a puppeteer, and eventually acted on the program. Fresh ideas and personnel kept arriving while a core of regulars remained with Captain Kangaroo.

The need for more visible role models for males in society was given as the justification for the preponderance of male characters in the early decades of the show. Female characters were added to the cast regulars in the 1970’s. Early consideration of the role of language in perpetuating gender and racial stereotypes was obvious in the way Keeshan dealt with cartoons and in the type of phrases that were not used on the program. Phrases such as “boys don’t cry” and “act like a man” or other admonitions that would limit options were never acceptable.

Keeshan believed in the earliest days of Captain Kangaroo that there was no alternative to the use of cartoons, as time had to be made to allow changing of sets. He never hesitated, however, to speak out against the prejudice portrayed in the cartoons of the 1920’s and 1930’s. His director was very cooperative and would turn the camera away from an offending cartoon. Finally, Keeshan won the right to preview cartoons and splice out the offensive sections. The use of cartoons was never encouraged on the program. The cartoons of the 1950’s and 1960’s often included slapstick comedy or horror and other violent action. Economics, however, dictated their eventual takeover of children’s programming. Captain Kangaroo was one of the last major children’s programs featuring real people. Captain Kangaroo (television program) Television;children’s programs[childrens programs]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Balk, Alfred. “Captain Kangaroo’s Campaign Against TV Violence.” Today’s Health 38 (August, 1960): 19-21, 62-66. Deals with the basic philosophy of the program, particularly its stance toward violence. Includes names of the principal cast members and their previous experience. Specifics on early awards, difficulties of getting sponsors, and coping with animals on stage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hentoff, Nat. “The Magic Mornings of Captain Kangaroo.” Reporter 19 (October 2, 1958): 39-40. Especially useful in its description of the techniques and practices used on the program. Includes some information on Keeshan’s personal life and a few anecdotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Inglis, Ruth. The Window in the Corner: A Half-Century of Children’s Television. London: Peter Owen, 2003. Comparison of British and American children’s television programming from their beginnings to the turn of the twenty-first century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keeshan, Bob. Good Morning, Captain: Fifty Wonderful Years with Bob Keeshan, TV’s Captain Kangaroo. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fairview Press, 1996. Keeshan’s reflections on producing Captain Kangaroo. Includes full chapters on each of his major collaborators, as well as anecdotes, behind-the-scenes facts, and many photographs of the set, cast, and crew.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Growing Up Happy: Captain Kangaroo Tells Yesterday’s Children How to Nurture Their Own. New York: Doubleday, 1989. A combination of autobiography and how-to book on nurturing children. Each chapter is filled with references to the television program. Excellent detail on the thinking that shaped every decision. Anecdotes from the show, excerpts from Keeshan’s mail, and experiences with his children and grandchildren.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Langdon, Dolly. “Gentle Captain Kangaroo Is the Tough Skipper of a Show Now in Its 25th Year.” People Magazine 12 (November 5, 1979): 107-108+. Mostly biographical data on Keeshan, Keeshan’s family, and Gus Allegretti, with photos from early days of the show. Refers to his lecturing and testifying as an expert witness on children’s television and child rearing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Norman S. “What’s Good About Children’s TV.” The Atlantic 224 (August, 1969): 67-71. One of the few sources to view the broader field of children’s television and make some judgments before Sesame Street made an impact. Outlines the principles of a successful children’s television show and critiques cartoons. Makes reference to plans for what eventually became Sesame Street.

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