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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Corporations Buying and Selling Captain Kangaroo

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

In the 1990's we would like to believe that the idea of people being "owned" by others is an outdated idea, a despicable practice ended by the Emancipation Proclamation over a hundred and thirty years ago. In the legal jungle of media copyrights and trademarks, however, this is not the case.

A tidbit in the recently mentioned that Bob Keeshan would love to launch a new version of his classic kids' show, Captain Kangaroo. The time is certainly right for a kinder and gentler kids' show, what with Mighty Morphins and violent cartoons clogging up the airwaves of children's television. Keeshan has sponsors and TV stations already all lined up.

The only problem is that Keeshan doesn't "own" Captain Kangaroo. A giant conglomerate called ICM does. And THEY may want a younger Captain Kangaroo.

Although people cannot be bought and sold anymore, characters can. This is true whether the character has been portrayed by a number of people (Tarzan, Superman, James Bond) or by only one person (Captain Kangaroo, Davy Crockett, the Lone Ranger).

Maybe you remember the court case a few years ago where the company that owned the rights to the Lone Ranger sued Clayton Moore, the actor who had portrayed him on TV. Moore was still dressing up in the outfit, donning the classic mask, and appearing at supermarkets and shopping centers. The owners were, in fact, unveiling a "new" Lone Ranger who was younger and trimmer, and so they went to court to get Clayton Moore to stop appearing as their trademarked character.

It was an interesting case. On the one side, Clayton Moore -- the man who had portrayed the character on TV all through the 1950's. More than that, though, he had BECOME the character (at least for some of us). I can still hear his voice, still hear the faultless diction, still see him in my mind's eye. In many respects, he WAS the Lone Ranger. On the other side was a company which owned the character. Legally, at least.

The company won and Clayton Moore lost. The court ruled that the character was theirs, not his -- no matter how long he had portrayed him. If they wanted to bring out a new version of the fictional crime-fighter, that was their right. The court did what no outlaw was ever able to do -- strip the Lone Ranger of his mask. Moore was prohibited from appearing in the Lone Ranger's costume and mask. (By the way, he now makes appearances just as before, only wearing dark sunglasses instead of the mask. It's close, but not the same.).

You know, sometimes the heart and the head are torn in opposite directions. I guess it's a result of the complexities of our times. Clayton Moore is, was, and forever shall be the Lone Ranger in my mind, just as Keeshan will always be Captain Kangaroo, James Arness will always be Matt Dillon, and Fess Parker always Davy Crockett. They crafted their characters so well that they became what they portrayed. For me, at least, and sometimes even for them.

Yet all media has a commercial purpose. Those who live by commercial purposes shall die by commercial purposes (or something like that). Captain Kangaroo and the Lone Ranger are, after all, just fictional characters, and they were marketed, bought and sold like detergent in their heyday. They were commercial entities themselves, used to buy and sell other products.

They were portrayed once by very talented actors who now don't want to let go of that "person" they created, who just don't trust the portrayal of someone they defined to anyone else.

But in the media world, we realize (as Keeshan and Moore must, too) that people ARE bought and sold. Fictional characters are commodities, and if they were charming or represented good or were the icons of a previous generation, well -- that was just their job. The actors did their job well and made lots of money for themselves, their sponsors and their creators.

That's show biz.

At least that's what my head says.

If not my heart.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.