Bob Keeshan’s career took him from a short stint as the original Clarabell the Clown on NBC’s “Howdy Doody” to a 30-year run as Captain Kangaroo…
Bob Keeshan’s career took him from a short stint as the original Clarabell the Clown on NBC’s Howdy Doody to a 30-year run as Captain Kangaroo on his own CBS show. The New York Times called the captain “one of the most enduring characters television ever produced.”
How Keeshan maintained the fun-loving, grandfatherly character for so long was a tribute to his own gentle demeanor and commitment to nonviolent children’s programming. Keeshan, who was only 28 when Captain Kangaroo launched in 1955, was heavily made up to look older in the show’s early years, according to Wikipedia. By the time the show’s run ended in 1984, the 57-year-old Keeshan actually looked the part. His character’s name was inspired by his oversized coat pockets.
The show was the longest-running nationally broadcast children’s television program of its day; it regularly included sidekick Mr. Green Jeans (Hugh Brannum) and puppets Bunny Rabbit and Mr. Moose. “Captain Kangaroo taught us values and gave those with busy or absent fathers a gentle and caring male role model to learn good behavior and manners from,” IMDb’s Web page on Keeshan says. “A love of reading was encouraged and the animals … allowed children who had never seen a particular animal to experience it through his fascination with it.”
Keeshan died 10 years ago today – Jan. 23, 2004 – of a heart attack at 76. He had undergone triple-bypass surgery in 1981 after an earlier heart attack.
Robert James Keeshan was born in 1927 in Lynbrook, New York, to parents of Irish descent. His father managed a grocery store, but when he lost his job, the family moved to Queens where Keeshan became interested in radio at school. “Back in the old days, when I was a child, we sat around the family table at dinner time and exchanged our daily experiences,” Keeshan wrote in a 1979 essay in the Times. “It wasn’t very organized, but everyone was recognized and all the news that had to be told was told by each family member. We listened to each other and the interest was not put-on; it was real.”
According to his obituary in the Times, Keeshan was paid $13.50 a week as an NBC page at Rockefeller Center while he was still in high school. He joined the Marines when he graduated but never saw combat. When the war ended he returned to NBC where he worked while attending Fordham University – and where Buffalo Bob Smith hired him to play the original Clarabell.
There were short stints on other programs before CBS offered him his own show. Keeshan and Captain Kangaroo won five Emmy Awards and three Peabodys. Keeshan was elected to the Clown Hall of Fame in 1990 and inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1998, according to Wikipedia.
After retiring from television Keeshan moved from Long Island, where he had raised his family, to Norwich, Vermont. There, he wrote several books including his autobiography, Good Morning, Captain, which was published in 1995, and made appearances on behalf of children and against violence in video games and action toys. Among the books he authored are the Itty Bitty Kitty books and Growing up Happy: Captain Kangaroo Tells Yesterday’s Children How to Nurture Their Own. He also recorded several children’s albums.
Keeshan was widowed in the 1990s. When he died, he was survived by three children and six grandchildren. One grandson, Britton Keeshan, climbed Mount Everest in 2004 where, according to the Times, he buried a photo of himself and his grandfather at the summit. Keeshan himself is buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Babylon, New York.
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called “Living with Grief.” Find her on Google+.