Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Lost Grave of Captain Kangaroo

Unlike many of my Generation X peers, I was not a huge fan of Captain Kangaroo.  Quite frankly, I didn't get it.  I still don't.  Maybe it was the suit.  Maybe it was the puppets.  Mr.  Moose's antlers were in a perpetual state of about to fall off.  Whatever the reason, I never watched it.  But a lot of people did.  It ran from 1955 to 1984 and was the longest running nationally broadcast children's television program.  So what do I know?

The Captain was brought to life by New York native Robert James "Bob" Keeshan, who was born on June 27, 1927.  Keeshan graduated from high school early in order to serve his country during World War II.  He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1945 but never shipped out, as Japan surrendered shortly thereafter.  He took his GI Bill though and went to Hillsdale College.

After finishing his education, the future captain jumped immediately into network television.  He joined the cast of Howdy Doody when it premiered in 1948 and was the original Clarabell the Clown.  I did not know that.  Here's a clip of Keeshan from 1950 clowning around with show host, "Buffalo" Bob Smith.  Be sure to drink your Ovaltine!

"Buffalo" Bob Smith, Howdy Doody, and
Bob Keeshan as Clarabell
He left Howdy Doody in 1952 and joined other children's series, including the long forgotten Time for Fun and Tinker's Workshop

Having established himself in the world of children's entertainment, Keeshan, joined by long-time friend Jack Miller, submitted his proposal for Captain Kangaroo to CBS in 1955.  The network had been looking to break into children's programming, and immediately greenlit the production.

Every morning, a slew of different celebrities would welcome the Captain to the airwaves via a series of pre-recorded greetings.  Most came from primetime series on CBS, such as this one from 1976 or this one from 1981.

I'd be remiss not to mention some of the Captain's early-morning co-stars, including Mr. Green Jeans (Hugh "Lumpy" Brannum), Dennis (Cosmo Allegretti) or his faithful puppets Bunny Rabbit and the aforementioned Mr. Moose.  Here's a clip of Mr. Green Jeans tending his garden.

Keeshan was good friends with fellow children's host Fred Rogers.  In fact, the Captain dropped by Mister Rogers Neighborhood on April 27, 1970.  It is during this crossover event that the Captain finally reveals how he got his name - a result of his many pockets full of interesting items.  I'm having more fun writing this than I thought I would.

The two would re-unite on a primetime special in 1981 entitled Good Evening, Captain.  It premiered following Keeshan's heart attack (gasp).  Near the end, Rogers and Dick Clark presented him with a bouquet of flowers and encouraged his speedy recovery.   

That same year, CBS shortened Captain Kangaroo from a full hour to just 30 minutes, in order to expand the CBS Morning News program.  It continued airing daily in this format until the fall of 1982, when CBS sidelined it to Saturday mornings.  Fed up with the constant reductions, Keeshan left the show in 1984, which ended the following year.

Although the series had ended, Keeshan stayed with CBS.  In the fall of 1985, he began hosting CBS Storybreak, a series that brought children's literature to life.  Watch him set up one such adventure here.  He also founded Corporate Family Solutions, a company that outsources day care programs to businesses.  Today, it's known as Bright Horizons, and you can visit their web site here.

By the 1990s, Keeshan was interested in reviving his Captain Kangaroo persona in a new property.  He found children's TV growing more and more violent, even crusading against such programs as He-Man and The Transformers.  Unfortunately, he was never able to obtain permission from ICM, the company that owned rights to the show.

Eventually, Keeshan settled down in Windsor, Vermont.  He resided there during his final years and passed on January 23, 2004.  He was 76 years old. 

Now, if you want to pay your respects to the Captain it can be a bit tricky.  His page at Find a Grave has previously posted incorrect cemetery information, so be careful.  The Captain is buried at St. Joseph's Cemetery in Babylon, New York.  

I wish I could tell you specifically how to find it, but here's the best I can do.  Drive through the front gate (or walk - it's a small cemetery).  Take the gravel road all the way down to the end and park.  Get out on your left and search the field near the back fence.  That's where you'll eventually find Keeshan.  Adding insult to injury, the day I visited, the grounds had recently been tended to, and his marker was covered in grass clippings.

RIP Captain!

  • An urban legend purports that actor Lee Marvin and Bob Keeshan served together at the Battle of Iwo Jima when neither ever set foot there.

  • Keeshan appeared as the Captain on an episode of the game show What's My Line?  View it here.

  • The final episode aired on December 8, 1984.  It isn't a farewell episode per se, and the Captain doesn't sign off.  Regardless, you can watch that final episode here.

  • Keeshan authored a few tell-all books, including Good Morning, Captain: Fifty Wonderful Years with Bob Keeshan, TV's Captain Kangaroo.  Check it out on Amazon.

  • Both Headline News and CBS report on Keeshan's passing in this YouTube clip.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

You Ol' Fish-Eyed Fool!

Lawanda Page was born Alberta Peal on October 19, 1920 in Cleveland, Ohio.  She was raised in St. Louis, where she began her career in show business when she was just fifteen.  Billed as "The Bronze Goddess of Fire," her early nightclub act saw her stripping, eating fire and lighting cigarettes with her fingers.  A far cry from the comedy that would define her.

From the late 1930s to the early 1960s, Page was a regular on the nightclub circuit, where she often worked with notable comedians such as Richard Pryor. She was beginning to stretch her comedic wings and decided to hone her wit by moving to Los Angeles.  There around 1965, she joined the comedy group Skillet, Leroy and Company.  It's members included Ernest "Skillet" Mayhand, Wilbert "LeRoy" Daniel and an up and coming comedian who called himself Redd Foxx.  Page was no stranger to Foxx however, as the two had grown up together in St. Louis.

During her time with the group, Page honed her feisty approach to comedy, eventually earning a new billing - "The Black Queen of Comedy."  By the late 60s, she began recording comedy albums for Laff Records, which were incredibly raunchy.  Hear one of them here.  You've been warned.

In 1971, NBC offered Foxx his own sit-com, Sanford and Son, the show that would define both his and Page's careers.  Watch the intro here. It was based on a BBC program called Steptoe and Son, though the two bare little if any resemblance to one another.  Watch an episode of Steptoe here.

While the network was sold on Foxx, they had deep reservations about hiring Page.  Although she had made a name for herself on the comedy stage, she'd never performed in a sit-com before, prompting the network to show her the door.  Foxx dug his heels in however, threatening to walk off the show himself if Page wasn't signed.  The rest, as they say, is history.

As Aunt Esther, Page spent the next six years sparring with her brother-in-law Fred Sanford.  Their scenes together were a highlight of the series, and you can watch a compilation of them here.

In 1977, NBC canceled Sanford and Son, but attempted to keep some of the characters around in a new series entitled Sanford Arms.  While lacking either of the original title characters, the new series did resurrect Page's Aunt Esther as well as Don Bexley's Bubba.  You can watch a full episode here, if you want, but the thing only lasted eight episodes for a reason.  Four years later, Sanford would return to NBC, but Son was still nowhere to be seen.  Page however did return, and the revived series, appropriately titled Sanford, lasted two seasons.  Watch the intro here.

Page stayed active in television and films, often appearing on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.  Watch her take down Jimmy Stewart in this classic clip. She later returned to her roots as a fire-eater on Circus of the Stars.  Man, I used to love that show.  She also resumed her stand-up career.  Watch one such engagement here.

By the late 1990s, Page was suffering from diabetes, which ultimately took her life on September 14, 2002.  She was 81 years old.  She was cremated, and her ashes were interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery outside Los Angeles.

Inglewood Park Cemetery
Capistrano Court
Memorial Panel 43
Row F-3

RIP Queen.

  • In the 1980s, Page did a number of commercials for Church's Fried Chicken.  Watch one here.  Here's another one.

  • Redd Foxx used to have an office building in downtown Los Angeles.  Long since torn down, the sidewalk out front still bares signatures and handprints of the original comedy group, Skillet, LeRoy and Company.  Read about it here.

  • While the plaque baring Peal's name appears above ground on a columbarium, her ashes are actually stored in an underground chamber, along with hundreds of others.  While the staff here at Six Feet Under Hollywood have yet to breach this hideaway of the dead, we remain vigilant in our efforts to do so.

  • When Sanford and Son began its third season in 1973, NBC moved it to a new time slot, Friday nights at 8:00, where it continued to see ratings success.  It is often cited as the nail in the coffin for its counterpart on ABC, this long-running sit-com that was canceled after five seasons.