top of page

You could learn a lot from a talking glove in the 1970s!

Young boy, young girl, and Big Bird doll.

Long before Millenials met Jambi the Genie and Captain Carl in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, GenXers were learning words, numbers, and good citizenship from a bunch of talking gloves. Let’s talk about educational television of the 1970s, including Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, The Electric Company, and ZOOM.

And before you comment, I haven’t forgotten Schoolhouse Rock. We’ll pull into Conjunction Junction in a separate post.

He wanted to expose children to television programming that wasn’t “filled with bigotry, animal cruelty, racial prejudices, and antisemitism.”

We’ll start with the earliest of the shows, Captain Kangaroo. This show ran from 1955 to 1984. It was the brainchild of former Marine Bob Keeshan, who had played Clarabell the Clown on The Howdy Doody Show in the late 1940s. He wanted to expose children to television programming that wasn’t “filled with bigotry, animal cruelty, racial prejudices, and antisemitism.” That was a fantastic goal for a show that began around the same time as the Civil Rights Movement.

I watched the show in the early 1970s. Keeshan portrayed Captain Kangaroo as a grandfatherly figure. The most memorable characters on the show included Mr. Bunny Rabbit, Dancing Bear, the Grandfather Clock, and Mr. Green Jeans. And, of course, it featured Mr. Moose, one of three* famous television moose (Mooses? Meese?). One of the show’s recurring gags was Mr. Moose sharing corny jokes with the captain before dropping a load of ping-pong balls on his head.

Fun Fact: Keeshan’s grandson left a picture of his grandfather on top of Mt. Everest as a tribute to him.

*Bullwinkle and Morty (from Northern Exposure) were the other two moose.

Next up is Sesame Street, which began in 1969 and still airs today.

Unlike Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street did not have a singular host. Instead, it featured a racially and ethnically diverse human cast interacting with the Muppets created by Jim Henson. These interactions occurred on a set that looked like a city neighborhood. Celebrity guests popped up occasionally. The show also featured animation, short films, and music. And the children in the cast were not actors but just untrained kids.

Sesame Street has tackled death, racism, adoption, HIV, and other challenging but essential subjects.

Sad Fact: The State Commission of Mississippi voted not to air Sesame Street due to its integrated cast of children. That was in 1970! Ironically, Jim Henson spent his childhood in Mississippi.

During its run, Sesame Street has tackled death, racism, adoption, HIV, and other challenging but essential subjects. And in between those conversations, it’s provided laughter and entertainment.

Most of us have a favorite Sesame Street character. Here are a few you might remember fondly: Ernie, Bert, Kermit, Grover, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Count von Count, Gladys the Cow, and Mr. Snuffleupagus, plus humans Gordon, Luis, Maria, Bob, and Mr. Hooper. Does anyone remember the Mad Painter, a character in short film clips who would paint numbers anywhere, including a bald man’s head? The Mad Painter was also Mr. Bentley from The Jeffersons!

And here’s an earworm from Sesame Street: Mah Nà Mah Nà! You’re welcome.

Hey, you guys!!!

Hey, you guys!!! You’ll recognize that phrase from the show’s intro if you watched The Electric CompanyThe Electric Company aired from 1971 to 1977.

Like Sesame Street, it had a diverse cast, including actors who were famous or would become famous. That includes Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno, and Bill Cosby (later accused of and, for a while, incarcerated for multiple sexual assaults).

The Electric Company had a funky vibe, from characters like Freeman’s Easy Reader to its theme song. The latter was a groovy little tune that championed metaphorical power and light for kids.

The Electric Company was so cool that it created an animated homage to the monolith scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey and riffed on TV programs that were popular at the time, such as The Six Million Dollar Man. Spider-Man made appearances in segments called Spidey Super Stories.

Unlike the other programs, ZOOM featured a cast of children.

Another show that was popular in the seventies was ZOOM. It was on the air from 1972 to 1978. I can still hear the spacy music that played at the beginning as “WGBH Boston Presents” appeared on the screen.

Unlike the other programs, ZOOM featured a cast of children. This unscripted show often created segments based on viewer suggestions. The kids sang, danced, told jokes, performed experiments, recited poetry, and participated in ZOOM raps. At that time, the word “rap” was slang for a conversation, so these moments showed the kids sitting around having real chats. ZOOM was unique because it allowed children to have a voice.

He was also a complex and imperfect person.

Now for the GOAT, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, which aired from 1968 until 2001. Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania, created this program. I love this show because Mr. Rogers didn’t speak down to children. He was warm, kind, and authentic. However, he was also a complex and imperfect person.

One of the show’s highlights was the Neighborhood of Make-Believe visits where the human characters, like Lady Aberlin, would talk to the residents of King Friday’s kingdom, including X the Owl, Daniel Tiger, Henrietta Pussycat (meow meow), the Platypus family, and Lady Elaine Fairchilde. Did Lady Elaine ever scare you, or was it just me? She was hideous.

The other human characters included Chef Brockett, Bob Brown, Mr. McFeely (Speedy Delivery!), and Officer Clemmons. In a groundbreaking television moment, Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons shared a foot bath in a little plastic pool. It was noteworthy because, as late as the 1960s, rules in parts of America prohibited Black people from being in the same swimming pools as white people.

However, the gentleman who played Officer Clemmons did face one issue with Fred Rogers. The actor François Clemmons was a closeted gay man, and Mr. Rogers told him that he should stay in the closet if he wanted to remain on the show. He even advised him to marry a woman, which Clemmons did. The marriage did not last.

Clemmons and Rogers remained friends, and eventually, Mr. Rogers learned to accept and support his friend for who he was. In fact, he became a supporter of a gay-friendly Pittsburgh church. 

So, pull on your sneakers and a sweater, and make the most of a beautiful day!

Fun Fact: George Romero, creator of Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, got his start making short film segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood!

One of my New Jersey dormmates asked if it was a hillbilly program.

Those are the biggies in children’s television programming, but I want to mention another show. When I was a first-year college student at UVA, my friends and I sat around one night talking about the shows we liked as little kids. Everyone was throwing out titles left and right, including all the programs I listed above. At one point, I said, “What about Hodgepodge Lodge? I loved that show!”

Everyone looked at me like I had grown a second head. No one had heard of it. One of my New Jersey dormmates asked if it was a hillbilly program. They had never seen Miss Jean or her little cabin!

Produced in Maryland for public television, Hodgepodge Lodge aired on stations along the East Coast from 1970 to 1977. The show’s creators designed it to promote a love of nature. If you’ve never heard of it or fondly remember it, you can find episodes on YouTube.

I hope you enjoyed my take on GenX children’s television. If you like this newsletter, subscribe, share, and tell your friends about it. I plan to publish one article each week.

Blame sea monkeys and X-ray glasses!

Coming up next week: Why is GenX cynical? Blame sea monkeys and X-ray glasses!

bottom of page