Robert Keeshan life and biography

Robert Keeshan picture, image, poster

Robert Keeshan biography

Date of birth : 1927-06-27
Date of death : 2004-01-23
Birthplace : Lynbrook, New York, United States
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-09-07
Credited as : Actor and television show host, hosted "Captain Kangaroo" ,

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Robert James Keeshan born June 27, 1927 in Lynbrook, New York, United States - died January 23, 2004 in Windsor, Vermont, United States was an American television actor whose show Captain Kangaroo entertained children for thirty years and also producer.

Keeshan was the third of four children born to Joseph Keeshan, a grocery store manager, and Margaret Frances (Conroy) Keeshan, a homemaker. Keeshan later described himself as a solitary child who could find a world of entertainment in a small patch of sand. Keeshan’s mother, a recent émigré from Ireland, was a stay-at-home parent, a choice that greatly influenced Keeshan’s future philosophy of child rearing. His father, also from Ireland, worked for Daniel Reeves, a chain of grocery stores, where he rose from clerk to an executive position with responsibility for more than a hundred stores on Long Island, New York.

Their prosperity on the rise, the family moved to Forest Hills, New York, when Keeshan was six. In 1940, however, the Safeway chain bought the Daniel Reeves stores, and Joseph Keeshan lost his job. The family began to struggle financially. In 1943 Keeshan’s mother died of a coronary thrombosis. To help make ends meet, Keeshan, then a seventeen-year-old high school senior, got a job as a page at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). He earned $13.50 per week working from five o’clock in the afternoon until midnight. He then left for home, completed his homework, slept for a few hours, and went to school in the morning. After graduating from high school in June 1945, Keeshan joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.

Following Keeshan’s discharge from the military in 1946, he moved back to the home of his father and new stepmother and returned to work at NBC. He also began prelaw studies at Fordham University. Keeshan volunteered for a position on a quiet and isolated floor of the studio that would allow him to keep up with his reading. Buffalo Bob Smith, however, asked him one night to help out with Smith’s popular children’s radio show, The Triple B Ranch. This introduction to acting was the beginning of Keeshan’s long career in broadcasting.

Keeshan made his first television appearance two years later, in January 1948, on Puppet Playhouse, the original name of The Howdy Doody Show. Keeshan was soon given the role of Clarabell, a silent clown. As Clarabell, Keeshan wore oversized floppy shoes and squirted a seltzer bottle at Buffalo Bob, the host—antics that delighted the children in the show’s Peanut Gallery. In 1950 Keeshan met and married Anne Jeanne Laurie, a receptionist at the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). She stopped working after their marriage, to care for their three children. Keeshan soon abandoned his prelaw studies at Fordham because he was earning a good salary for his work in television.

Keeshan was fired from The Howdy Doody Show in 1952, however, because of a disagreement with Bob Smith over an agent. After several months of unemployment, Keeshan was approached to play Corny the Clown, the host of a local morning television show called Time for Fun. With three active children of his own at home, Keeshan understood the need “to help busy families during the corn-flakes-and-coffee time.” He believed that “a gentle, intimate approach” was best for children’s programming. Keeshan eventually won the right to preview the cartoons that were presented throughout the show, eliminating those that were either violent or racially insensitive.

In 1954 Keeshan was given the opportunity to create his own show—and only four days in which to do so. Tinker’s Workshop, a one-hour ad-libbed program, was the result of a frenzied weekend’s work. The title character, a Swiss toymaker modeled after Pinocchio’s father, Geppetto, was the precursor of Captain Kangaroo. Tinker’s Workshop was a success; it surpassed The Jack Paar Show in its first round of ratings and captured a larger New York audience than The Today Show. Some of the advertisements shown during the program were violent, however, or featured products that Keeshan considered inappropriate for children. As with the cartoons, he pressed for and eventually won the right to determine the tone and content of the show’s commercials. Putting the welfare of the audience before that of the sponsor also became a trademark of Keeshan’s best-known character, Captain Kangaroo.

A twenty-eight-year-old Keeshan, wearing a gray wig and whiskers, taped the first episode of Captain Kangaroo in July 1955. The show aired in October of that year. For the next thirty years, the Captain in his nautical cap and signature coat with its kangaroo pockets introduced generations of children to the wonders of science, literature, and music in his Treasure House. Gentle and avuncular, Keeshan educated, informed, and entertained his audiences with the help of his human and puppet friends: Mr. Green Jeans, Bunny Rabbit, Mr. Moose, Dancing Bear, and Grandfather Clock. The show was written for children between the ages of six and eight, although a 1965 survey found that one-third of the viewers were adults. Keeshan thought of his time on the air as less a show than a visit; consequently, he had no studio audience. Rather, he spoke directly into the camera “to make that one child at home know that he or she is unique, special, and valued.”

The essence of the show changed little during its long run. It was not broadcast in color until 1965, and not until 1971 were the costumes and sets updated. In 1984 Captain Kangaroo finally left CBS for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), where it ran for six seasons. Over its history, the show won six Emmy and three Peabody Awards and was the longest-running children’s series in the history of network television.

Keeshan received many honorary degrees and numerous other awards, including the TV Father of the Year Award in 1980 and the Frances Holleman Breathitt Award for Excellence from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1987. He was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1990. He was active on the boards of many public service organizations and published several children’s books. After retiring from broadcasting, Keeshan became a strong advocate for children’s issues as well as an outspoken critic of the tobacco industry for sponsoring activities for children.

“Child’s play is work,” Keeshan wrote in his autobiography, “the serious work of children through which they learn about their environment.” Keeshan believed that young children are little persons in search of security, that a strong sense of self and well-being are essential to a child’s happiness and success, and that children need nurturing and compliments to build their self-esteem. He felt that the first six years of life are critical to a child’s intellectual and social development and that the family is the basic unit of society. Thus he urged parents to work together actively with teachers in this effort, and he offered this advice: Give children your time; tell them you love them; and by all means, allow them to be children.

Keeshan suffered from health problems in his later years. He had a heart attack in the Toronto airport in 1981 and underwent further heart surgery in 1987. After his wife died in 1990, Keeshan moved from Long Island to Hartford, Vermont, where he wrote several of his children’s books. He died after a long illness in January 2004 at Mount Ascutney Hospital in Windsor, Vermont.

The Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College, where Keeshan received an honorary degree in 1975, has a slim file of articles by and about him. Two excellent resources, both written by Keeshan, are Growing Up Happy: Captain Kangaroo Tells Yesterday’s Children How to Nurture Their Own (1989), an autobiography that includes many of Keeshan’s observations on parenting, and Good Morning, Captain: Fifty Wonderful Years with Bob Keeshan, TV’s Captain Kangaroo (1996), a complete history of the Captain Kangaroo show. Obituaries are in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post (all 24 Jan. 2004).

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