Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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Editorial: Thanks, Captain
by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register
(From the Feb. 5, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)
It’s been a lousy 12 months for proponents of quality children’s TV.
First it was Fred Rogers. Now it’s Captain Kangaroo.
Bob Keeshan was a TV pioneer in more ways than one. He began working for NBC during World War II. After service in the Marines – “I was the least aggressive Marine in the history of the Marine Corps,” he later recalled – he returned to office work at NBC. Eventually he worked as Clarabelle the Clown on the old Howdy Doody TV show – not, perhaps, TV’s finest hour.
In time, however, he got his own show, at CBS, and his own character, Captain Kangaroo. Six days a week, for an hour a day, the Captain led children throughout the country – and probably a few parents, too – on a quiet, gentle, inquisitive, uncomplicated, and entertaining journey through life and relationships.
The show was deliberately constructed to be gentle and involving. Demonstrate a craft? Keeshan showed how it was done. (Though I have to admit my own frustration: He was forever using those brass paper fasteners and we never had those brass paper fasteners at our house.) I’d guess he came up with approximately 1,001 uses for shoe boxes. (Maybe people walked more then and there were more shoe boxes to use.) And, when tricked by a hand puppet – as he often was – expressing frustration not by retaliation, but by quietly drumming his fingers on top of a counter.
As I got older, with the sophistication that thankfully is reserved to teenagers, I remember remarking, “He looks like he feels kind of silly.”
“He always did,” said my mother.
In retrospect, with three children of my own, and after spending a fair number of hours working with and around other children, I’m not sure that’s accurate. He did what he did for 40 some years. After 30 years, CBS cancelled him to make way for a Today Show wannabe. He moved to PBS for another six. Silly? Maybe knowing. Maybe embarrassed that he knew a secret most adults then – and now – didn’t.
After he retired from children’s TV he kept up a busy schedule of writing, speaking, lecturing, advocating, and engaging in who knows how many hobbies, including photography and sailing. When a reporter asked how he managed to do it all, Keeshan replied, “One of the big secrets of finding time is not to watch television.”
It’s fascinating that the children’s programming that lasts, that has had an impact, that has demonstrated durability, has been the kind of programming that Keeshan espoused, frequently and vocally and passionately. No, there’s no need to condescend. Yes, children can learn while they’re being entertained. Take a look: There’s a huge world out there, and discovering that world really is a source of joy and life. Like Fred Rogers, who worked his magic for public television for decades, and Jim Henson, who managed to straddle both public and commercial media, Keeshan used a persona of kindness, of gentleness, of good humor, of curiosity, of intellectual engagement. Every day brought something new, and that meant something joyful. Every day brought information and experience and laughter. And every day was “be nice to Mommy day.”
There are so many worse ways to engage children’s interest. So many destructive behaviors to model. So many soul-less examples to broadcast.
If TV’s history proves anything, those won’t last. Jim Henson, Fred Rogers, Bob Keeshan: Theirs will.
Rest in peace, Captain.
(Quotes came from the Keeshan obituary that appeared in the Jan. 23 edition of the New York Times.)