January 24, 2004

More about Captain Kangaroo, Bob Keeshan, from the NYT obituary. He started out in show business with the job of seating children in the audience--the Peanut Gallery--for "The Howdy Doody Show." When he did "Captain Kangaroo," he had no studio audience. Asked why, he expressed his concern for the children watching at home:
"The children should never be excluded from what I am doing and should never have the feeling of being part of an audience."
How sensitive that was to the feelings of a child! I remember watching "The Howdy Doody Show" and feeling left out of the Peanut Gallery. Who were those children? How did they get there? Was there something that made some children "Peanuts" that allowed them into the wonderful television world, while I was left stranded on the other side of the screen--screened out? Mr. Rogers followed the same intuition.

Strangely, shows for nonchildren--Oprah, Letterman, MTV's Spring Break--go on the assumption that an audience tends to make the home viewer feel more included. Perhaps that's because nonchildren understand how to get out of the house and into the audience and can therefore project themselves into the audience, which they know is composed of people like them. They have shaken off the feeling that the people on TV are a different breed--they aren't Peanuts, just people like me getting out of the house.

It's funny that back in the 1950s, the kids on TV were Peanuts, while now, we name the people at home after foodstuffs: Couch Potatoes.

Back to Keeshan: He was elevated from audience-seating to a character role on "The Howdy Doody Show," in 1948. He was

"Clarabell, a clown who said nary a word but who jumped around the stage a lot and, to the delight of the members of the Peanut Gallery, frequently sprayed [the show's host Buffalo Bob] Smith in the nose with his seltzer bottle.

Buffalo Bob fired Keeshan/Clarabell because he thought he was trying to form a union! That was in 1950, a couple years before I was in a position to be watching the show, so the Clarabell I remember was Keeshan's replacement. (I remember Clarabell as the best-loved character on the show (along with Flub-a-Dub). I could never understand why Doody got top billing.)

Keeshan got started with "Captain Kangaroo" (which was originally called "Tinker's Workshop"), in 1954. I may very well have watched the first episode and believe I remember the original title.

To play Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Keeshan had to catch the 4:20 a.m. train from Babylon, on Long Island, to be at CBS by 6. He lived in constant fear of oversleeping and employed three alarm clocks plus a phone service. He never missed a broadcast.

In the beginning, he would do "Captain Kangaroo" live twice a day, an 8 a.m. broadcast for the East Coast and then, after a break of less than a minute, a repeat of the whole show for the Midwest.

Ah, the travails of live television! Those guys were heroes!

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