Bob Keeshan – Cap’n Kangaroo – died today at 76. As he was an incredibly huge part of my youth, I thought I’d reprint a little piece I did for the Indy back in 1996. Enjoy! (or ignore!)
Anyone who has grown up in the Midwest will remember the pitch-black winter mornings that would accompany a typical third grader’s attempt at getting to school. The wind chills would frequent the minus-50s; the car, driven by a hapless parent, would have to be started an hour before actually driving; the passenger door locks thawed with a butane lighter. Diesel snow, gray and frozen solid, lined the sides of streets for three months at a time.
Captain Kangaroo, on at 7am thanks to CBS, was our morning companion throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. Competing networks didn’t stand a chance against the Captain – imagine hog reports lisped by octogenarian weathermen, or the tedious ramblings of adults selling self-help books on “Good Morning America.”
The Captain’s show had weird quirks. “The Dancing Bear,” a recurring skit that featured this guy in a bear suit dancing around a corral, was surreal enough to scare the shit out of me. Mr. Moose, a puppet character that hid behind the bar in the main room, seemed amazingly conniving and evil. Somehow, someway, Mr. Moose would always trick the Captain into saying something that would unleash a torrent of ping-pong balls on top of him.
Now I knew that they didn’t hurt or anything, but whenever they cut to the G.I. Joe and Stretch Armstrong commercials, one thought permeated my mind: who’s going to clean up all those thousands of ping pong balls? Does Captain Kangaroo himself have to get on his knees and do it by hand? What about all the ping pong balls that roll underneath the camera dolly?
The characters on the original show are etched into the reptilian hindbrain of most kids now aged 18-38. Mr. Green Jeans (who, as I discovered when we got a color TV for the kitchen in fourth grade, wore blue overalls) was always around to dole out country-fried advice, and – being from the sheltered 319 area code – Mr. Baxter was one of the first black people I felt like I knew.
So what do you do when a charter member of your subconscious comes to your hometown? You go see him, of course, even if it is at a store called Zany Brainy in the asphalt savanna of the new Walmart strip mall.
Zany Brainy is the thinking parent’s Toys’R’Us – the visual overload of a warehouse is replaced by soothing, carpeted aisles and piped-in Muzak, peer-group tested to make your child calm and capitalistic. In the music section, there are three CD’s that are take-offs on the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” (for obvious cross-marketing reasons). There is a Play Center in the middle of the store, where kids can beat each other with tiny wiffle bats. Everything at Zany Brainy is fluorescent yet pre-chewed, all edges rounded off so nobody gets hurt, the spines of books lacquered and drool-proof, everyone wide-eyed like Muppet babies.
The Captain sat in the back of the store, signing autographs from a long line of parents and children, all of them remarkably well-behaved. Everyone wanted pictures of themselves with him, so I contented myself near the back of the line with a book I found on the shelf entitled “When We Married Gary.” Told in heartwarming pastels, it was the story of one girl’s struggle to accept her mom’s new husband Gary, a balding computer programmer who, we are told, “sometimes gets mad just like daddy used to.” I put it back in the Family Upheaval section, and moved forward.
And there he was, Captain Kangaroo, just two people ahead of me. The Captain once had the same unfortunate struggle with history that all Vulcans from Star Trek still have – having come of age in the mid-60’s, they are now forever stuck with Beatle haircuts. The Captain has lost some of his hair, but I was struck by how handsome he is – easily the best looking man in his late-70s I’ve seen in years. His eyes glowed as he met each child, sitting patiently for photographs with a calm smile, something he has no doubt done for forty years.
When I got to him, he seemed surprised that I was there by myself. People in their late 20s are not represented very well at Zany Brainy, as we are too old to buy anything and too young to have kids.
“I just wanted you to sign my booklet,” I told him, “And just to tell you that you got me through some very cold, depressing mornings in Iowa.”
He nodded, and signed my book. I turned to go, but I had to ask him.
“Um, this may seem vaguely stupid, but… who was it that picked up all those ping pong balls every day?”
He smiled and said gruffly, “Some very highly paid Union stagehands.”
Which is what I figured anyway, but I just had to hear it from the man.