Monday, March 18, 2013

Come Back, Captain Kangaroo

It's a television performance art form that's pretty much disappeared today.  It's been reflected in films.  The last popular movie we saw it in was 1993's Mrs. Doubtfire starring Robin Williams.  Mrs. Doubtfire became...a weekday kiddie show host on local television.
Yes, I know about Robin Williams and Edward Norton in Death to Smoochy.  But I wrote "popular movie."   A Ryan Seacrest paycheck for two weeks' work is probably more than what Death to Smoochy made its opening weekend at the box office.  On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, one of the best episodes of the truly classic sitcom centered on the untimely death of the local station's beloved kiddie show host during a personal appearance.  Remember "Chuckles Bites the Dust"?  In the late 1980s, comedian/actor Mario Cantone hosted one of the most delightfully subversive kiddie shows ever.  Back in the New York/New Jersey area, I knew lots of grown-ups who couldn't wait to see his Steampipe Alley on weekend mornings.

In 2011, I lived in San Francisco and tried to resurrect my TV career there after New York work opportunities vanished due to the dreaded Recession.  I got a meeting with the top executive of a local independent TV station and pitched ideas to him.  One was -- let me host a weekday kiddie show or be the weekend nighttime host of a sci-fi/monster movie show.  Local kiddie shows were always low budget and, for us young viewers, big fun.  They were comfort TV.  I was a latchkey kid.  I grew up watching the Godfather of Network TV Kiddie Show Hosts -- Captain Kangaroo on CBS.

He was part of my upbringing.  He presented groovy cartoons and totally cool characters on his show.  He and his characters -- Bunny Rabbit, Mr. Moose, Dancing Bear and Mr. GreenJeans, taught us valuable lessons ranging from social etiquette to personal hygiene.  Mom and Dad worked.  My father was a postal clerk at Los Angeles' main post office in the downtown area.  My mother was a registered nurse in hospitals.  They both had to leave for work before I walked to Catholic elementary school every weekday morning.  So they drilled me in how to make sure the stove was turned off, all lights were turned off, the back and front door would be locked and how I would leave for school at half-past Captain Kangaroo.  If I checked the house and walked out the front door thirty minutes into that one-hour CBS show, I'd have enough time to get from our cul-de-sac block to St. Leo's by 8 o'clock.

Last year, I shed a few tears reading that Sheriff John died at age 93.  He was my favorite weekday kiddie show host when I was growing up in the Southland (what native Los Angelenos call Southern California).  Slim, handsome John Rovick was the Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and Sandy Koufax of kiddie show hosts.  Classy, cool, he had style and he never gave a bad performance.  He was a good singer and sang every day on his KTTV/Channel 11 show.  A regular feature on Sheriff John's Lunch Brigage was his "Happy Birthday" greetings.  I'm positive there's a generation of us Southern Californians who feel that his "Birthday Polka" is much more festive than the traditional "Happy Birthday To You."  If I recall correctly, Sheriff John's "Birthday Polka" was even sung in one episode of Bosom Buddies, the 1980s ABC sitcom starring Tom Hanks.

Emmy-winner Sheriff John even posed with TV's Superman, George Reeves.

Other kids' programming hosts on local L.A. television were Channel 9's Engineer Bill...who had a "red light/green light" drinking game to make you drink your milk....

...and Skipper Frank who did magic tricks and ventriloquism on Channel 5.

Hobo Kelly was on KCOP/Channel 13.  She had an Irish brogue and "Mischief Makers."

Our ABC affiliate, KABC, had Chucko the Clown.  He was way cooler than Bozo.  Bozo was vaudeville. Chucko was more Ziegfeld Follies.  Here he is with Engineer Bill.

Tom Hatten dressed up like a sailor on KTLA/Channel 5 and presented Popeye cartoons.  Hatten was also handsome, had a warm and inviting TV persona and he was one terrific sketch artist.  He always sketched on his shows.  As I got older, I always felt that his viewership probably was not limited to just youngsters.  Tom Hatten was definite eye candy in a T-shirt and white pants.  He was one hot sailor.

I met Mr. Hatten when I was a high school junior.  You'd have thought I was meeting a Motown star or one of The Beatles.  He was extremely flattered.  My mother and I were at the old Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood.  I'd been picked to be one of the first teen contestants on a syndicated game shot being shot there.  Before my appearance, I was asked to come watch one show.  Mom and I were backstage when the shooting finished.  Two of the celebrities on that edition -- Pinky, A Letter To Three Wives and Leave Her To Heaven movie star Jeanne Crain and Ben-Hur star Stephen Boyd  -- came through the doors and casually walked over to where Mom and I were standing.  They were close to us...but then I noticed that so was...Tom Hatten!  He was doing some Hollywood stand-in work.  Not only was he touched that I was a fan of his KTLA show, he said to my mother "How did he know that?" when I gushed, "..and you had a line in the movie Sweet Charity!"  I'd recently seen the movie and recognized him in an opening scene right after Shirley MacLaine sings and then gets pushed into Central Park lake.

That game show marked my first featured and speaking appearance on television.  But the first time I ever got my face on camera was when my sister and I were in the KTTV/Channel 11 audience for Billy Barty's Big Top.  Mom went with us.  She loved Billy Barty because he always gave attention to  the few minority kids who'd be in the mock-circus audience and he'd make sure they got their faces on camera.  That was the case with my sister.  She got a close-up that was about as long as Greta Garbo's final shot in Queen Christina.  Yes, I was jealous of my sister that afternoon in Hollywood.

All of these local L.A. kiddie show hosts made a great impression on me and influenced my style of performance decades later when I became a VH1 veejay in New York City.  Some of those hosts were even funnier to grown-ups than they were to us kids.  I'd notice when they'd do or say stuff that would make the camera crew laugh -- just the way Soupy Sales did on his screamingly funny syndicated show.  In San Francisco, I had the notion that an "old school" kind of kiddie show could have a retro appeal to baby boomer parents and grandparents.  And kids would dig it too.  It would also be cheap to produce and could promote community events.  I never got a response to that pitch -- and I no longer live in San Francisco.

Did you watch kids' show hosts on local TV when you were growing up?  Who were they?  Did you ever get to meet any of them?

My pitch to be a nighttime "Creature Feature" weekend host was a bit edgier because more teens and grown-ups might be watching.  I'd be a cemetery character with a team of politically-correct spirit sidekicks called My Boos.  They'd say things like "Don't call us 'Spooks'!  We're 'Ghost-Americans'!"  I thought that would play with the San Francisco crowd.  I never got a response to that pitch either.

From Captain Kangaroo to Sheriff John and Engineer Bill and cute Hobo Kelly...I still have a special place in my heart for the kiddie show hosts -- especially my local ones.  The work was always entertaining and always appreciated.  They made kids feel safe, they made kids laugh, they taught kids the importance of good manners and respect for other cultures.  And they gave prizes!  I miss that kind of TV programming.  There's an art to that kind of children's programming entertainment.  I loved watching those local TV artists.  They were fine performers.  They made so many of my young days brighter.

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