By Gerald Smith, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin
February 14, 2022
I seem to be stuck on a theme — and that is quite alright with me. After last week’s column about the Three Stooges coming to the area twice in the 1950's, another reader (thank goodness to all of you for the help) asked me about a visit of another beloved entertainer to Binghamton in the 1960's.
While the Stooges might have aimed their comedy, however childish, for adults, this entertainer aimed his skills strictly for the children. Please remember that this is long before "Sesame Street" graced the PBS stations around the country, and even before Mr. Rogers sat down in his studio in Pittsburgh to tell us that he “likes you just the way you are.”
We take a trip back in time to Oct. 26, 1963 — less than a month before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when the country seemed in a calmer mode.
Through two performances in the auditorium of West Junior High School in Binghamton, the room was filled to the rafters with screaming children and not-so-screaming mothers and fathers. Captain Kangaroo entertained them with his stories and interacting with the members of the Community Symphony (now the Binghamton Philharmonic), led by its founder, Fritz Wallenberg.
For those too young to remember, Captain Kangaroo was played by Bob Keeshan, who rose to fame by playing Clarabell the Clown on the Howdy Doody show in the early days of television. Keeshan, like Fred Rogers, saw television as something more than what Keeshan called “silly clowns and local cartoon shows.” He created a character, Captain Kangaroo, who occupied the Treasure House each Monday through Saturday from 8 to 9 a.m. on CBS stations starting in 1955 and lasting until 1984.
During that hour, the show aimed at 6-to-8-year-olds, and the Captain, with his familiar hat, military-styled jacket and mustache, read stories, did science experiments, had visits from animals, and interacted with a variety of screen characters. Those characters include Mr. Green Jeans (Lumpy Brannum), Mr. Bunny Rabbit, Mr. Moose, Magic Drawing Board and Grandfather Clock — all portrayed by Cosmo Allegretti.
The show became very popular, and around 1957, Keeshan, as the Captain, started doing concerts around the country at different venues where he would interact with orchestras and read to children. In mid-1963, the members of the Friends of the Community Symphony, led by Mary Baxter, arranged to bring Captain Kangaroo to the Binghamton area. Arrangements were made with Wallenberg to provide music for the concert. Musical pieces by Rossini, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev and others filled the bill.
Finally, Saturday, Oct. 26, 1963 arrived, and two afternoon shows — one at 1:30 and one at 3:30 — took place at West Junior. The thousands in attendance at the two shows were entertained with the music and the tone of the shows. Even usually strict and stern Wallenberg got into the spirit, by having children help look for the Captain under the chairs of the violinsts and behind the musical instruments. Finally, the Captain appeared to the cheers of the audience.
He had help with his performance by six “Binghamton Friends of Bunny Rabbit” who wore bunny ears. Eventually after interacting with some of the musicians — and Keeshan admitted he could not play any of them — he began to read stories.
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Somehow, and on purpose, he mixed up the stories of Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This allowed the children in the auditorium to help Captain Kangaroo out with the correct stories, much to the children’s delight. Keeshan drew pictures to illustrate what the orchestra was thinking and had a magic easel that was loaned by Bunny Rabbit. Finally, the Bunny Friends presented to Captain Kangaroo a giant carrot.
It was all a fun and enjoyable way to spend a Saturday afternoon and brought well-earned money into the coffers of the symphony. But much more than that, it was a providing an indelible memory to those children, and the parents who shelled out the few dollars to create a lifelong memory for both those in attendance and for Bob Keeshan, who realized how much Captain Kangaroo meant to the people of the Binghamton region.
Gerald Smith is a former Broome County historian. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.