Children's advocate Captain Kangaroo dies

Saturday, January 24, 2004

MONTPELIER, Vt. -- Bob Keeshan, who gently entertained generations of youngsters as TV's walrus-mustachioed Captain Kangaroo and became an outspoken advocate of less violence and more intelligence on children's television, died Friday at 76.

Keeshan, who lived in Hartford, Vt., died of a long illness at a hospital in Windsor, his family said.

"Captain Kangaroo" premiered on CBS in 1955 and ran for 30 years before moving to public television for six more. It was wildly popular among children and won six Emmy Awards and three Peabody Awards.

Each day, the grandfatherly Captain Kangaroo -- with his sugar-bowl haircut and a uniform coat with big pouch pockets that inspired the character's name -- would wander through his Treasure House, chatting with his good friend Mr. Green Jeans, played by Hugh "Lumpy" Brannum.

On the way, he would visit with puppet animals, like Bunny Rabbit, who was scolded for eating too many carrots, and Mr. Moose, who loved to tell knock-knock jokes.

Keeshan, born in Lynbrook, N.Y., became a page at NBC while he was in high school. He joined the Marine Corps in 1945.

His first television appearance came in 1948, when he played the voiceless, horn-honking Clarabell the Clown on the "Howdy Doody Show," a role he created and played for five years.

"Captain Kangaroo" debuted on Oct. 3, 1955. After the PBS show ended in 1992, Keeshan continued to play the role for a time in videos and public appearances.

Keeshan, who moved to Vermont in 1990, also remained active as a children's advocate, writing books, lecturing and lobbying. He criticized today's TV programs for children as too full of violence. And he spoke wherever he went about the importance of good parenting.

"Parents are the ultimate role models for children," he said. "Every word, movement and action has an effect. No other person or outside force has a greater influence on a child than the parent."

When Fred Rogers, the gentle host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," died last year, Keeshan recalled how they often spoke about the state of children's programming.

"I don't think it's any secret that Fred and I were not very happy with the way children's television had gone," Keeshan said.

As for "Barney and Friends," Keeshan found the popular 1990s show gentle but boring -- "what we used to call 'a program in a telephone booth."'

"There's no room to stretch," Keeshan said in 1993. "They have to break out and get away from that and build more characters and build other aspects to the show."

In 1987, Keeshan and Lamar Alexander -- former Tennessee governor and now a U.S. senator -- co-founded Corporate Family Solutions, an organization that provided day-care programs to businesses around the country.

Keeshan believed children learn more in the first six years of life than at any other time and argued for day care that provides emotional, physical and intellectual development for children.

"Play is the work of children. It's very serious stuff. And if it's properly structured in a developmental program, children can blossom," he said.

Keeshan's wife, Jeanne, died in 1990. He is survived by a son, two daughters and six grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

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