Saturday, 26 May 2012

Keeshan and Cartoons

As someone who parked himself in front of the TV mornings and afternoons throughout the 1960s, Captain Kangaroo wasn’t really my style, even as a young child. Too low-key. Not funny like Brakeman Bill and Crazy Donkey playing old cartoons and kibbitzing on Channel 11. The Captain didn’t keep my attention but, being a cartoon fan, I’d watch Tom Terrific.

Sure, Tom didn’t have the smart ass-ery of a Bugs Bunny. But the imaginative transformations and uses of Tom’s funnel hat (reminiscent of the silent Felix the Cat changing his tail into something else) and the irony of having a laconic “Wonder Dog” was enough for me to tune in. And Crabby Appleton’s a clever name for a villain; I appreciated clever writing even then.

So what did the Captain think of all those cartoons on kids shows on the other channels? This syndicated newspaper story of November 19, 1961 may give you an idea. As a background note, the prime-time line-up that September/October saw the debut of three animated shows—‘The Alvin Show,’ ‘The Captain and the Colonel’ and ‘Top Cat.’

Captain Kangaroo Deplores Lack Of Good TV
Bob Keeshan is responsible for 312 hours of children’s programming a year. As Captain Kangaroo he is perhaps the only performer in TV who complains bitterly that he has no competition.
“A few years ago my show was hanging by a thread, but the parents came to our rescue and we were renewed. Now we're loaded with sponsors, tops in our time slot and pointed at with pride, but we’re still alone in our field. It’s frightening to realize that American children are being abandoned by network TV to cartoons, westerns and violence.”
Off screen Bob runs a rather large organization known as Keeshan Enterprises which is dedicated, in addition to making money, to the type of programming that Captain Kangaroo personifies. They endorse products, make records, book concert tours for the Captain and prepare the daily adventures in the Treasure House.
“The show is actually run by the parents,” Bob said. “If the mail indicates that something is particularly well–received we try and give it more time on the show. As far as endorsing products goes, that's a delicate matter.”
I asked Bob how he feels about the flood of cartoon shows now dominating the so-called adult-kiddy market. “I love cartoons and I think it’s an unexplored field as far as TV is concerned. My only regret is that a few of the current films will set TV cartooning back ten years. After all, this is a commercial business, and the success of ‘Flintstones’ started the cartoon gold rush and when all the new ones fail. . .it’ll be almost impossible to sell a cartoon to TV.”
Keeshan was one of the first to develop a cartoon for TV. His ‘Tom Terrific,’ made in association with Terrytoons, has been a Treasure House standby for years. In a few months he intends to introduce “Lariat Sam,” a Western satire which the kids will laugh at and understand.
All the publicity for the very successful cartoon shows claims that their secret is that the kids are excited while the grown-ups laugh at the comedy,” Keeshan said.
“Perhaps that’s why they’re all failing this year. A cartoon should be designed for either adults or youngsters and not for both.
“If you ask me, our youngsters are being exposed to too much ‘adult’ TV. All day, while the preschool child is sitting in front of the set waiting for mommy to finish her chores. TV feeds him a steady diet of reruns. When they grow up their idea of marriage will be ‘I Love Lucy,’ which is great for laughs but hardly a true picture of life.
“As far as the westerns go they teach the kids that there is only right and wrong. . .no middle ground or compromise . . .and most problems can be worked out by a six shooter.”
About four years ago CBS cut Captain Kangaroo down to 45 minutes and filled the time with a world news program. This season the network finally realized that preschool youngsters would rather have another 15 minutes with the Captain so the quarter hour was returned to them.
“We try and present the show to entertain the older children before they leave for school as well as their younger sisters and brothers,” explained Bob. “It’s really quite simple. If we have something on science or serious music we always use it early in the show while the older youngsters are still with us.”
Now in his eighth year as the Captain, Bob fully expects to be the Captain for the children of his present fans. New, ready-made audiences are being created for him by the ever-increasing birth rate, and all of his plans center around the children.
“All I want to do is continue what I’m doing to the best of my ability,” Bob said. “And all I ask of television is not to let me do it alone. The networks owe it to the American people to provide decent, planned entertainment for children during the 5-7 time period when there’s nothing on but cartoons and two-reel comedies. TV’s potential for reaching children must be explored, not exploited.”

One wonders if Keeshan truly believed people would grow up to believe Lucy Ricardo was the epitome of American motherhood (still, she was never a neglectful or harmful mother, was she?) or that they can’t discern the difference between television westerns and reality. And “cartoons, westerns and violence” were kids’ programming long before television; they were all featured in Saturday matinees at local theatres.

Keeshan, like many others, believed television should be a medium of information and education. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, many believe that’s all it should be. Kids, like adults, need fun escape, too. Just as there was a place for ‘Playhouse 90’ and ‘Gilligan’s Island’ on TV, so there was a place for ‘Tom Terrific’ and ‘The Jetsons.’ And there still is today.


  1. Lariat Sam was a very underrated show, mostly from the mind of someone you don't usually associate with cartoons - Gene Wood, better known as a game show announcer.

  2. I think the "cartoons should be for adults or kids not both" thing is pretty damning, considering the classic theatricals were an all audiences thing...

  3. This interview was also done six months post-"Vast Wasteland" speech by then FCC Chairman Newton Minnow (who's still around and still doesn't like most programming on TV, BTW). Minnow's speech was seen as a major rebuff to the network people programming as critics saw it for the lowest common denominator and supportive of those wanting more educational fare. Keeshan was strongly in the latter camp, so it's not a big shock to hear he wasn't a big fan of most of the TV animation that hit the airwaves in 1961 (albeit for educational and not for entertainment or craftsmanship reasons).

  4. And, Ted, as you know, Huckleberry Hound attracted a large number of adults, no doubt the reason the show stayed on the air. The statement is hollow.
    J.L., I think the funniest commentary on Minow's speech was in Elroy's TV Show where all television in the future is educational and nobody's tuning in because people are too educated to watch TV.

  5. Mark Christiansen posted that commentary along with some prteviews in hiu blog [as you may have known] and others in a recent post he diod earlier this month. Mr.Keeshan is famously kinown as entertaining himself; he's also remembered as, well, NOT exactly a cartoon fan [there were worse critics, of course, like Newton Minow, of animation, and othert forms of entertainment than our good Captain], but he did seem to come off praising some cartoons, including those of his. BTW Leonard Maltin, in his groundbreaking 1980 "Of Mice and Magic",[TERRYTOONS], praised the "Tom Terriffics" himself, saying that they disappoint neither an adult nor a child, working on both levels [and even at least one rock band loved Tom Terrific, calling tiself Cranbby Appleton], and you yourself started out, Yowp, praising it. Lionel WIlson,. bte, was the show's own personal Marvin Miller or Mel Blanc, doing all the voices. Notes Leonard Maltin, again [1980]"music played on a lone according".Steve C.[but my owner Gumby could also top Tom Terriffic,in transformation, and was gentle AND entertaining.:]

  6. It's "Calvin and the Colonel".

    A little triva about the aforementioned "Gilligan's Island" and Newton Minow-the wrecked sailing vessel on that program, the S.S. Minnow, was named after the controversial chairman.