Capt. Kangaroo: boomer touchstone

When I told my 14-year-old daughter that Captain Kangaroo - also known as Bob Keeshan - had died Friday she quickly replied, "Who's that?"

For a splitsecond I thought she was kidding. I mean, how could anyone not know Captain Kangaroo? And then I realized that my offspring is part of a unique demographic audience. She and her peers are the first modern generation who've grown up without ever seeing the Captain on television.

For a moment, the notion seemed almost unbelievable. My classmates in high school and college all watched the show at some point in their lives. Our parents knew about it because a lot of moms back then were home during the day and controlled access to the family TV. The generation coming behind me tuned in, and so did the generation following them. I have a theory that sometime around 1975, Captain Kangaroo must have had almost universal name recognition in this country. It seemed he'd always been around, and always would be.

Many of the tributes to Mr. Keeshan have called him an icon. His face and voice are instantly recognizable to a huge segment of the population, much as Mark Twain seemed like a neighbor to all Americans a hundred years ago.

But I prefer the term "media landmark." He was the Rock of Gibraltar for nearly 30 years on the CBS-TV morning schedule. Although my memory is not perfect when it comes to personal childhood history, I probably did most of my Kangaroo watching between 1957 to 1959.

And in all honesty, I wasn't an avid fan of the man named after the ridiculously large pockets on his outsized jacket, nor of Bunny Rabbit, Grandfather Clock, or Mr. Greenjeans. They were nice enough people; but it was the features I waited for each day, especially cartoon segments starring Tom Terrific. He was a boy superhero who wore a funnel-shaped hat and could change himself into anything. If he needed to go someplace in a hurry he became a plane, or a car. He was assisted by Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog, a large, sleepy canine who specialized in uttering laconic remarks that gave Tom a burst of timely insight whenever he was trying to solve a difficult problem.

I was impressed by Manfred because his quiet demeanor concealed a powerful intellect. In that regard, the Wonder Dog was my first TV role model.

What I didn't realize about the Captain was that his calm, easygoing mannerisms and the deliberate pace of the show were all carefully planned. From my living room, it seemed like just me and him, and I had certain expectations about what I wanted from a TV show. I did not yet plug into the realization that millions of other kids were also watching, and they had their own particular expectations, and Captain Kangaroo had to come up with a balance that would satisfy all of us on some level. For every kid like me who thought he should pick up the pace, there had to be plenty of others who worried it was moving too fast. And somehow he kept it all going smoothly through four different decades. In that sense he was a terrific navigator as well as a captain.

I also failed to appreciate how much of the audience was comprised of viewers who were younger than I. Keeshan believed that an enormous amount of learning occurs during the first six years of life, and that age group was his target. In other words, if you can remember numerous episodes of the show in great detail, you were probably too old to be watching.

Did Captain Kangaroo have any positive impact on my learning abilities or social development? It's probably impossible to measure the individual or cumulative effects of his daily electronic visits to so many American households. But as time goes by, it becomes more and more obvious that Bob Keeshan had the right stuff whenever he stepped in front of the cameras.

I feel disoriented by the fact that my daughter and I cannot use him as reference point in our conversations. This is one of the strange side effects of growing up in a TV-dominated culture: It feels natural to assume that everyone you know has seen everything that you've seen broadcast. But in fact, as cable channels expand and split audiences into smaller segments, chasms grow in the common cultural experience, and it's tough to deal with them. So Captain Kangaroo was a cultural touchstone for baby boomers. And, as the saying goes, "It's hard to explain. You had to be there."

I'm glad he was there on that little screen for so many years. The show never insulted, demeaned, or embarrassed any participants. There was no deception, no humiliation. The humor wasn't edgy or subversive. Everyone felt welcome. And perhaps most important, the host genuinely enjoyed being there. For Captain Kangaroo, 8 o'clock in the morning was prime time.

Jeffrey Shaffer, a twice-monthly Friday Opinion columnist for the Monitor, is a freelance writer.

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