Peggy Bendel


Cats Magazine/April 1997

  Time-out For Cats
My conversation with Bob Keeshan was the prelude to a day filled with meetings for the 69-year-old Captain Kangaroo, the longest-running character in television history. The winner of several Emmy, Peabody and Gabriel awards, as well as a respected storyteller, lecturer and children's advocate, Keeshan had barely recovered from a four month media tour. He no sooner finished promoting his book of memoirs, covering 50 years in children's programming, than it was time to take one of his regular 15 trips a year to the West Coast.

Keeshan seemed delighted to skip the usual show hiz questions, fielded all too often during the media tour, and talk about his three cats. Obviously, they are dear to him. "People who have children are always amazed at how different one is from the other," he observed. "That certainly is true of me. I have three children and six grandchilden, and each one is very different from the other. I find that's also true with cats. They have their own personalities and their own backgrounds. They act in very different ways and react differently to various situations."

Home for Keeshan and his pets is Norwich, Vt. He moved there four years ago from suburban Long Island.
"All of my cats acclimated very well," he says, referring to the relocation. "They had no problem. In fact, I think they love Vermont because there's so much room for them to roam about the woods. They had plenty of space to roam in Long Island, but here I have acres and acres of territory for them, so they do love it."

Keeshan acquired each of his cats at different times, adopting them as homeless strays. "My oldest is Wheelock Cat, named after the first president and founder of Dartmouth College," explains Keeshan. He says Wheelock is about 11 or 12 years old and in magnificent health. Describing Wheelock's personality, Keeshan dubs him "the cool cat."

"Nothing fazes him. He just takes things as they go," says Keeshan about the red, striped feline he calls a ginger cat. "He's dominant, but not in any obvious way. It doesn't really show, but I know he's the dominant one among the three."

The second cat, a black one, is a few years younger than Wheelock. "He's called Purr Cat," says Keeshan, noting this cat was named by his adult children and his grandchildren. "That’s a natural name for him. This cat purrs all the time. He's a very, very affectionate cat and an absolute sweetheart."

Obliging Purr Cat gets along with everyone, except dog Roughy. "Roughy's a very nice, quiet, sweet dog, and two of the cats -- the youngest and the oldest -- get along with her very well," Keeshan says. "Purr Cat just never took to Roughy. They get along in the sense they don't fight or anything. It's just that they're not that close. They keep their distance."

In contrast, the third 6-year-old cat adored the dog from the moment Keeshan brought the cat home from an animal shelter. "She's called Puppy because when she was a kitten -- she was about 10 weeks old when we got her, maybe even younger -- the dog simply treated her like a puppy, and the kitten regarded the dog as her mother," recalls Keeshan, adding, "They still snuggle together."

White with black spots, Puppy certainly has the look for the locale. "She's colored like the typical Vermont cow," says Keeshan, amused. "You could call her a Vermont cow cat."

Run Of The Place
Keeshan allows his cats free-run of his home, inside and out. "In the morning, I feed them outside on the front porch," he says about their daily routine. "An hour later, I'll open the door and those that want to come in, come in, and those that do not may come back an hour or two later, or three hours later, whatever."

Keeshan describes the cats as "outdoor cats" because they're allowed to spend as much time as they like outside. The cats curtail their outdoor adventures during the frosty Vermont winters -- they spend most of their time indoors. When asked how the cats behave during this 'confining season,' Keeshan says rather than being territorial, each simply goes to his or her favorite spot.

"I can almost always tell you where I'll find each cat at any given time," he says. "When they first come in, they each pick a hot air vent and sit on it to get themselves thoroughly warm. Then they'll go to their respective places. Wheelock goes to the chair in the kitchen where he can be found almost 24 hours a day. Purr Cat likes a high stool in the kitchen, or he might go over to the window and sit on the back of a chair and stare out the window."

Puppy, the diminutive female, prefers to find odd places to sleep. "If I've done some laundry and I've put the laundry bag on top of the dryer, she'll find it and curl up on that," says Keeshan. "If I've received a delivery and there's a box sitting around, I can look in the box, and she'll have crawled inside. She's a cat who'll be very, very aloof at times and then incredibly affectionate at other times."

Fact Inspires Fiction
Given Keeshan's sincere enjoyment and appreciation of his own cats, it's no surprise he would feel moved by a chance encounter with a tiny stray kitten while traveling. As a result, he's written his third child's fiction book, entitled "Itty Bitty Kitty." It's the first in a series to be published by Fairview Press of Minneapolis, Minn.

"The series is based on fact," says Keeshan, who has completed five books about the kittenish character to date. "Very often I travel out of La Guardia or JFK airports in New York. To get from Vermont to those places, I'll come down the day before and stay overnight. But I hate Manhattan, so I stay in a hotel in Westchester County, the Rye Town Hilton."


Keeshan is a familiar guest at this hotel because he stays there 80 to 100 nights a year. Last fall, he noticed a little kitten was sitting by the hotel's front door. "Now, this is not a Manhattan hotel, but it's a busy place," says Keeshan, who was concerned about the tiny cat's welfare in the midst of all the pedestrian and vehicular traffic. "She was young, probably two months at the most. She'd already been weaned, but she wasn't very big."

Keeshan asked the parking valet about the kitten and learned she had simply come out of the nearby woods several days ago. The hotel staff cared for her and liked her very much.

"In the following weeks, when I would visit the hotel, I might find the kitten at the front door, inside by the front desk or even in the dining room," says Keeshan. "Sometimes you would see her just walking around the lobby. They have a fireplace in the lobby, and she liked to sit there, too. It was kind of cute. The hotel staff kept her for about six or seven weeks, then one of the staff actually adopted her and took her home."
The episode reminded Keeshan of "Eloise At The Plaza," a children's book in which a little girl has many charming adventures in a cosmopolitan hotel. "So I wrote the story of this cat who wanders away from her home, a very curious cat who finds a hole in the fence and starts walking off," says Keeshan. "Cats generally have a pretty good sense of direction, but the weather turns, she encounters various animals, and because of the many distractions, she loses her way."

The kitten eventually finds her way to a fine hotel where various employees protect her from the hotel manager who tolerates no animals in his facility. "Itty Bitty Kitty," the first installment in the series, has an unresolved ending. One can't help but wonder, does the kitten ever find her way home?

Keeshan reveals, "She doesn't return home, but what she does do in one of the future books, 'Itty Bitty Christmas,' is have her family visit her for the holidays. She asks a bluebird to invite them and lead them to the hotel. Of course, the hotel staff knows the manager won't tolerate one cat, much less a family of felines, but they do find a place downstairs, close to the warm boiler room, where Itty Bitty Kitty is reunited with her mother and her siblings."
Keeshan also hints, "She may well go back to her family at some time in the future and visit them. That story hasn't been written yet."

Keeshan dedicated "Itty Bitty Kitty" to colleague Ruth Mary Manecke. "Ruth Mary produced 'the Captain.' I worked with her for 40 years," he says. "She's a zoologist and supplied all the animals for 'Captain' in the 37 years it was on the air. When I told her the story about Itty Bitty Kitty, she said, 'Oh, that's just a natural for a story. It would be a wonderful story to tell.' She made the link for me and encouraged me to write the books."

Animals & The Captain
According to statistics compiled about the Captain Kangaroo Show, Manecke booked more than 2,000 species to appear with Captain Kangaroo. He says many of those animals were cats.
"We've had every conceivable kind of cat on the program, hundreds, thousands of cats on my show over the years," says Keeshan. "In addition to domestic cats, we had lions, cougars and Siberian tigers. On one location shoot, we had a Siberian tiger in a whale boat, and one of the song writers composed 'Me and My Pussy Cat' to go with that."

Although time naturally has blurred distinctions among the more than 10,000 episodes of 'Captain,' Keeshan does recall one notable feline guest. "I remember specifically one cat, a cougar," he says. "Ruth Mary was so good at giving me advice. She said, 'Now don't turn your back on a cougar. That's just an invitation to trouble.' I heard her, but I didn't take it that seriously. I did turn my back while I was talking to my audience, and the cougar reached up with his paw and got a hold of my wig, and was ready to pull the wig off. Ruth Mary said that was one time she really thought she'd have to go on set before the camera and grab him. The moment she was about to do that, I was able to reach around and the cat crawled into my arms."

Having just spent months answering questions about the children's show that dominated his television life, Keeshan is looking forward to returning home to his animals in Vermont. "With all the traveling that I do, I won't board my animals," he insists. "I have a friend who either comes in herself once a day or she has her daughter do it. That's the absolute service -- to have someone you can count on. She's a woman who loves animals, and it's a nice arrangement."

After All...
Summing up his feelings about his cats, Keeshan was philosophical. "People who own cats regard them in a very special way. Cats generate very strong feelings." Noting that cats are wonderful companions, this accomplished storyteller can't resist relating one of his favorite tales.
"You've heard of the Chinese emperor who came back as a cat?," he asks rhetorically. "He did so because the life he lived as a cat was far superior to the one he lived as an emperor, surrounded by servants."
Musing about the regal nature of cats and their knack for having mankind serve them rather than the other way around, the Captain reveals the punch line of the story, "And that's why your cat looks at you the way he does."