- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004

America has lost their kind-hearted Captain Kangaroo. Bob Keeshan, who played the beloved and mustachioed children’s TV host for almost 40 years, died yesterday after a long illness. He was 76.

Splendid in a big-pocketed uniform and surrounded by a quirky cast of pals and neighbors, Mr. Keeshan amused and amazed his young audiences from 1955 to 1984 on CBS, followed by six years on PBS.

“Bob Keeshan was a true pioneer in children’s television whose legacy goes unmatched,” said CBS Chairman Les Moonves yesterday. “Bob entertained millions of children across the country. He was a great entertainer, showman and innovator.”

With infinite patience and good humor, Mr. Keeshan reasoned with Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit, he sat through the sleepy poems of Grandfather Clock and commiserated with Mr. Green Jeans — just a few of the 30 agreeable characters who populated his TV home over the years.

Mr. Keeshan was both actor and clown: He could turn three minutes of pretend house cleaning into a spirited jig, waggling a giant ostrich plume duster at the camera as a tinny band played on.

But the clowning was Mr. Keeshan’s original entree to the big time.

Fresh from a two-year hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps, the New York native was working as an NBC Radio receptionist in 1947 when “Buffalo Bob” Smith of the old “Howdy Doody” kiddie show put him to work managing the roiling young audiences crammed into the Peanut Gallery.

One chance appearance in a clown suit was enough to put Mr. Keeshan in the real spotlight. He was a natural.

Mr. Smith quickly gave him the role of Clarabell the clown, and the rest was horn-honking history. Mr. Keeshan stayed with the show for five years, bounding about in circus-striped clown duds and communicating through twin bicycle horns and a seltzer bottle as puppets and humans ran riot through the set.

But there were creative differences, despite the merry mayhem.

Mr. Keeshan was fired in 1952 because he couldn’t sing or play an instrument — de rigueur in Doodyville — and there were some disagreements over Clarabell’s salary, $600 a week at the time. The show had also received complaints from mothers who feared their children were getting just too excited over a clown that one reviewer called “aggressive and prone to misbehavior.”

But the clown held no grudges. Mr. Keeshan consistently credited Mr. Smith for giving him a delicate sense of comic timing, solid production values and an understanding of TV technology.

A year later, Mr. Keeshan was already hosting his own shows, first as a clown showing cartoons, then as a more grandfatherly toy maker named Tinker — actually the prototype for what would become the most successful children’s TV show in history.

Captain Kangaroo arrived at CBS in the heyday of the fabulous 1950s, and in glorious black and white — forever burned into the memories of nostalgic baby boomers. With grace and seamless charm, the good Captain incorporated lessons about science, music, manners and literature into his comedic fare, minus shrill high jinks or heavy brand-name tie-ins.

“He was part of the routine of childhood. Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers were the kings of the quiet, gentle, fuzzy style which later gave way to the more hip fare of Sponge Bob and Rug Rats,” observed Syracuse University culture analyst Robert Thompson yesterday.

“But when I heard of his passing, it was like hearing Santa Claus had died. I realized that Captain Kangaroo, too, was human,” Mr. Thompson said.

Mr. Keeshan sold the rights to the famous name when he left the air at age 66. Four years later, a TV production group offered a reinvented version; the series lasted 26 episodes.

In his 38 years on the air, Mr. Keeshan preserved a certain moral tone in his work, refusing to air violent cartoons and later becoming a public advocate against exploitive children’s programming, tobacco use and irresponsible day care.

Mr. Keeshan received six Emmy, two Gabriel and three Peabody awards, and wrote six books in the course of his career. His wife of 40 years, Jean Laurie, died in 1990; he is survived by three children.

“Our father, grandfather and friend was as passionate for his family as he was for America’s children,” his family said in a statement. “He was largely a private man living an often public life, as an advocate for all that our nation’s children deserve.”

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