June 7, 2017
Captain Kangaroo and the Love Generation
This thought occurred to me while I was pondering a question for which I really don't have an answer, and perhaps some of you out there can help shed some light on it. Now, I know that it can be pointless for someone to build an entire opinion piece out of such a proposition; at the very least, it comes off as looking like the author had nothing else to write about that day, and judging by the number of words I've already typed, I'd be doing pretty good at it if that was my purpose. But it isn't; what I'm really after is to get you to think a little, as I've been forced to, to ruminate on the significance of something and see if there actually is some conclusion to which we can come, some observational truth that can be intuited. It is, after all, what cultural archaeologists do.
By the time I'd reached the age at which I could consume television with some appreciation of what was going on, Captain Kangaroo was already a national institution. The show had launched in October of 1955, and would run until 1984. I watched it when I was growing up, as I'm sure many of you did in the years before Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and I loved the Captain, especially in the original years before the show got a makeover and jettisoned its famous Puffin' Billy theme. But in the years since - and this is where the question comes in - there's been something that's troubled me, and I'm not quite sure what to make of it.
The question is this: why did so many of the kids who grew up with the Captain turn out to be so rotten?
(At this point you might find the discussion turning political, so if you'd like to avoid that kind of thing, Don't worry - I won't be offended. You can come back on Friday, all will be forgiven.)
Let me explain. I'm thinking here particularly of the mid '60s through the mid '70s, when sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll were prevalent, when protests overwhelmed college campuses and riots engulfed the nation, and you had an entire generation trying to assert itself - often loudly, violently, and with an unmistakable air of self-righteous supremacy. If the show's audience was comprised primarily of preschoolers, then anyone born after 1950 would have been a potential viewer. And if you were a five-year-old viewer in 1955, you would have been about 17 in 1967 - a perfect age to be a participant in the psychedelic scene over the next few years. In fact, almost every student on a college campus in 1968 - the year of the protests at Columbia University - would have been in the demographic range to be a follower of the Captain.
Does this mean anything? Bob Keeshan himself was a political liberal, as were many of the people associated with the program, but I never got the impression, then or now, that there was a subliminally subversive message involved. Keeshan obviously loved and cared for children, so I don't think he would have been setting out to create a generation of radicals. And he was known for eschewing violence - he wouldn't even allow the cartoon character Lariat Sam* carry a gun, so he couldn't have approved of what he saw going on in the streets.
*Did you know that one of the producers of Lariat Sam was future game-show host Gene Wood? He sang the theme song as well. No, I didn't know that either.
Perhaps he created in these children a heightened sensitivity to injustice, a conviction that everyone had been created equal and should be treated the same way. Since many of the protests, such as those at Columbia, centered around civil rights, that could be one explanation. On the other hand, there wouldn't be anything in that to suggest the kids had been encouraged to join the sex-and-drugs movement. (The Captain always taught kids about responsibilities as well as rights, and that they should always be polite to their parents.) That could only be explained if you took the Captain's message to include one against materialism, one of the other things against which the young rebelled. But Captain Kangaroo was no different than any other program; it had plenty of sponsors and commercials, including the one I remember best, where the train pulls up to the station and one of the cars gets filled up with Kellogg's Corn Flakes. That wouldn't seem to be a recipe for anti-materialism.
Keeshan once said that the impetus for Captain Kangaroo was to replicate the warm relationship between children and grandparents, and as we all know, grandparents have a propensity for spoiling their grandchildren. Was that it? Were they made to feel too special, as if they were somehow privileged or pampered? I remember times in school when we all had to sit in a circle and the teacher asked each of us who the most important person in the room was. The obvious answer was "You are," since were it not for the teacher, we wouldn't be trying to answer this stupid question. But it was obvious what we were supposed to say. Each one of us said "I am," because all of us are special, or something can't happen without each member of the group being involved, or something like that. (Hopefully, you get the point.) There's no question, though, that most of the kids of the Love Generation were extraordinarily self-centered, even as they professed to be all about loving their fellow man and/or woman.
Add to that the historically awful parenting job done by the members of the Greatest Generation.* Look, I get that they wanted their kids to have everything they couldn't have, so they indulged them, spoiled them, etc., and perhaps they got caught up in the materialism of the time, which just happened to provide the target for the youthful rebellion that every generation goes through. Could that, combined with the gentle message of the Captain to his "special" friends, have had something to do with it?
*Which is not to diminish the major contributions that generation made, especially during World War II and Korea. They were indeed great in many ways - but not all.
Now, before we get to the end, I want to make sure I'm not painting with too broad a brush here. There were many, many young people of that era who never indulged in the excesses of the Love Generation, never got into sex and drugs, never took over one of their campus buildings. (Maybe they were the ones who watched Captain Kangaroo?) Likewise, there's the 'Greed is Good" generation, some of whom came from the Love Generation, while others learned the materialistic message while they were in college. Many of them would have grown up with the Captain as well, although they also had other televised influences. What about them?
What remains, after all is said and done, is the undeniable fact that here we have a show which millions of children watched over the course of nearly 30 years, one of the most famous children's shows ever, and a good many of the children in the target audience turned out to behave in a matter completely antithetical to the values and manner displayed by its beloved host. And before anyone scoffs at the idea of preschoolers being expected to retain the lessons of a television show they might not have seen in years, I'd remind you that we've always worried about the influence television has on its viewers, including children. Programs from Captain Kangaroo to Sesame Street have sought to be more than just babysitting entertainment; they try to teach children, to leave them with something that stays with them, that helps in their future development. If we're concerned that certain types of television can make children violent or hyperactive or antisocial, it means we're automatically accepting the idea that they can be - indeed, are - influenced by these shows from a very early age.
It is, therefore, foolish to look at this seeming dichotomy and dismiss out of hand the simple question as to why all of this should be. Remember I don't say that there is a relationship - I just wonder about it. It is, as the King of Siam put it, a puzzlement. It seems, however, that this is one of those questions for which there may never be an answer, at least not for simple minds like mine.
I wonder, though, if Bob Keeshan saw the irony in it, that a generation for which he cared so much, for which he worked so hard, exploded the way it did. Or was there something more he - and everyone else - could have done?