Influenced By The Captain
By Ron Ciancutti
Cosmo Allegretti died July 26, 2013, in Phoenix, Ariz. He was 86. Most people won’t know him by name. Allegretti was a jack-of-all-trades on the infamous Captain Kangaroo Show that ran for nearly 30 years, beginning in October 1955.
Allegretti first worked on the show as a set painter, but was soon making and voicing puppets. Crouching behind sets, he commanded the hand puppets Mr. Bunny Rabbit and Mr. Moose, antagonists to the Captain’s straight-man character played by Bob Keeshan. Bunny Rabbit was a mute trickster who nabbed carrots from the pockets of Captain’s coat. “He was awkward, like a child,” Allegretti said. “Small children empathized with him. And he would always get the best of the Captain, and they loved that.”
Unlike Bunny Rabbit, Mr. Moose was outspoken. He cracked jokes in a falsetto voice and set the Captain up for regular showers of Ping-Pong balls. Allegretti also played Dancing Bear in a full-sized costume and inanimate objects, like Grandfather Clock and the Magic Drawing Board. In later years, we finally saw his face as Dennis the Apprentice.
Allegretti said he was pleased that Captain Kangaroo had a calmer sensibility than most children’s television. “Keeshan was looking to go against the grain, to do a quiet, gentle show when the others were loud,” he said. “Captain Kangaroo was a visit, not a show.”
The Comedic Timing Of Ping-Pong Balls
Personally, I recall Mr. Moose’s timing with those Ping-Pong ball drops. Often, in a knock-knock joke, Mr. Moose would trick the Captain into saying a line that would initiate the drop. As the balls fell, the Captain would do a slow burn (ala Johnny Carson) and look into the camera, dismayed that he’d been suckered again as the balls bounced all around him and Mr. Moose snickered.
That used to kill me. It was a so simple, so pure. But remember—I was around 4 or 5 years old and was essentially learning comedic timing through those characters. Every second of the show, however, was not filled with attention-getting noise. Rather, the silence drew me in.
I recall the Captain endorsed Schwinn bicycles. After the Ping-Pong ball shower, he would saunter stage right to a red Schwinn bike and begin a “commercial spot.” He talked about the quality of Schwinn bikes while the camera focused on the sturdy handlebars and gears. The red metallic paint beamed in the studio lights. The Captain was making a sale. Sometimes Mr. Moose chimed in (Allegretti ad-libbing from offstage). “Do they make bicycles for moose?” The old Captain didn’t miss a beat. “Well, we’re going to have to ask them, Mr. Moose. Our friends at Schwinn can do most anything.” A long, silent pause followed, and the Mr. Moose voice offstage added, “I’d need a big basket to carry Ping-Pong balls.” Oh, how I would crack up as the Captain contained his smile. I learned a lot about composure and style in those moments.
Through A Child’s Eyes
Skits with the Magic Drawing Board also had the same style, but Allegretti pulled this off without words because the board only responded by drawing or writing a letter of the alphabet. So, for example, if the Captain said something sad, a big frown appeared on the board. But sometimes the Captain used conjecture, so the board responded with a caricature that was immediately recognizable to the Captain but slowly understood by the children. “Did you draw a light bulb because our friends watching are so bright, Magic Drawing Board?” After a long pause, a slow drawing of a smile would appear. “I thought so,” the Captain said. “You are so bright.” This was an example of the power of understatement and a true lesson for me as well.
The communication between the Captain and Allegretti was so seamless because their interest was purely dedicated to serving the children and making them happy. Individuals like these gentle souls are the ones we should be modeling ourselves after in the parks and recreation business. Certainly puppeteers and camp leaders know and understand these methods, but on a grander scale all people in the business of public service should understand that they are under the constant scrutiny of children.
The abilities and mild manner of Allegretti have stayed with me all these years. Only when I learned of his passing did I discover he had been the talent and spirit behind ALL of these characters that I grew up watching and learning from. And look at the influence he had on me. Imagine the impact you as a park and rec professional may have on the hundreds of people you serve. From the swimming instructors to the tractor driver waving to the kids passing by in Mom’s car—think about, improve, and take seriously the message you convey. Cosmo Allegretti certainly did and lived to the ripe age of 86 knowing he had made a difference for millions of children.
Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .