Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Wizard of Kangaroo

Bob Keeshan’s name has come up in a number of social media discussions that I’ve participated in lately. He’s been dead now for just 15 years; and yet, as was pointed out to me the other day, most adults under the age of 40 have no idea who he was or what he accomplished, or how important he was in the lives of those of us over the age of 40.

However, there are still a few places on the internet where the history of CAPTAIN KANGAROO (and MISTER MAYOR and THE HOWDY DOODY SHOW, in which Keeshan was the first of several actors to play Clarabell the Clown) can be gleaned, and there are even a few early episodes up on YouTube that give a good round sense of what the show, and the character, were like; and why they were important to the medium, and to a generation of young TV fans.

So I’m not here to write an appreciation or a history of the man and the show — you can get that elsewhere. I’m here today to write about a single thing: a Great Moment in Television History that is not widely remembered; indeed, it seems to be all but completely forgotten. I witnessed this Great Moment when it happened, and so (I assumed) did millions of other kids. But it was pointed out to me by a friend that a great number of those millions of other kids may not have been as impacted by the moment as I was, may not even have been able to see it as I did… and perhaps this is why that Great Moment remains apparently completely undocumented to this day.

Color was a long time coming to American television and American Homes. Walt Disney was the first producer, in 1961, to shoot and broadcast his TV show entirely in Color; most of the rest of Prime Time programming (that is, 8-11 PM EST) did not catch up to Disney until the fall of 1965. Even then, much of what was broadcast out of prime time remained in black & white; in fact, color TV sets did not become the standard in most American homes until the very late ‘60s. It was 1970 or ’71 before all American programming was produced in color, with PBS, then known as ETV (Educational Television) being one of the last to fully update to the color standard.

In the category of Children’s Television, black and white remained the norm longer than in other genres. Bob Keeshan and CBS were Early Adopters: and the way that Keeshan presented the change on CAPTAIN KANGAROO, by borrowing a page (it must be said) out of THE WIZARD OF OZ, was a brilliant, classic use of the medium. I know: I was there: I saw it.

At that time, Keeshan was doing an hour show of CAPTAIN KANGAROO every weekday morning at 8:00 AM. By 1966, this had been his regular gig for eleven years. On September 9, 1966, the show opened just the way that it always had: with the theme music playing over a black & white panel painted with some decorations and the show title. The Captain greeted us by opening the panel and admitting us into the Treasure House: a place that was part museum, part library, part circus and part toy shop. Again, this was broadcast, as it always had been, in black & white. The Captain jangled his keys as always, then throw the key-ring onto a nail, which caused the theme music to stop. Then, in his gently easygoing manner, speaking as he always did directly to us, the audience, the Captain told us that this was going to be a very special day, because the Treasure House was moving.

He didn’t say where. Or how. Instead, he wandered over to the left side of the set and exchanged a few words with Grandfather Clock — who, if you haven’t guessed it, was a “real,” living Grandfather Clock who could talk and give the time, but who was always dropping off to sleep in the middle of a conversation. This was normal. But then Captain Kangaroo, without any kind of show or fanfare, did something he’d never done before: he opened Grandfather Clock’s cabinet door… and stepped inside.

And there was no time to even think about what this might mean, because the camera cut, and the Captain immediately emerged on the other side of the wall, though the cabinet door of a Grandfather Clock who was now situated on the right side of the room. We had entered a mirror universe! As the Captain came through, the camera pulled back and we found ourselves in an all-new Treasure House, where everything, including Grandfather Clock and the Captain himself, was in full color. It was fully as magical a moment as that similar moment when Judy Garland opens the front door of her Aunt & Uncle’s recently displaced house and sees Munchkinland through the doorway instead of Kansas.

Perhaps because he knew that a great number of his viewers still did not have color TV sets, the Captain did not make much of this change; he simply went on with the show as normal, pointing out a few key differences between this Treasure House and the old one, differences that had more to do with set upgrades that everyone could see, whether they had color or not.

But it was a great, magical moment that I have never forgotten. Over the years, I’ve sometimes wondered why TV historians didn’t mention it at all, and why I never encountered anyone else who remembered seeing it. And now I understand. On the one hand, most kids weren’t watching on a color TV set as yet. And on the other: the episode aired just that one time, and no one thought that they had done anything special. Although pre-recorded, no tape or kinescope of the episode exists today. The tape was probably wiped and used again a week later. Like most kid’s TV shows of the day, and all real magic, it was temporary. History is made and whooshes by in a flash, before disappearing forever, leaving only a memory… if that.

— Thorn.

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