The door-mounted bell at the Runcible Spoon, a boutique in Newport, R.I., rings as shoppers bustle in and out, perusing the selection of elegant linens, artisan tableware and imported ceramics as Bill Thomas, 62, works the register.
Most customers don’t know that Thomas, whose wife, Joan, owns and operates the store, is one of the creative minds behind a whole generation of popular children’s music.
From 1974 to 1983, he composed songs for the TV series Captain Kangaroo, the longest-running children’s program in the history of commercial network television (1955-1992). The show, which starred its soft-spoken creator, Bob Keeshan, and a menagerie of colorful characters, featured hours of feel-good, kids-world-view music written by Thomas and other composers.
“It was a great job and I loved doing it,” Thomas says. “The beauty of it was, I wasn’t restricted. I could write a song about almost anything.”
Thomas had just gotten out of the Navy in 1969 and was singing at a popular harbor pub in Newport when a friend asked him to compose music for an independent film. One of the folks involved also worked for Captain Kangaroo in New York. Coincidentally, Thomas had just finished writing a pilot for a children’s radio show with Noel Paul Stookey of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. “The producers of Captain liked the songs I had written,” Thomas says, “and they wanted me to help them update the show’s song library.”
Thomas was hired to compose songs to “fit” film footage from various archival sources about everyday things. “Originally, I’d write to whatever was on hand,” he explains. He wrote dozens of songs and married them to various movie clips, creating something entirely new in the process—“film songs” about how sunshine makes shadows, being a friend and what toys do in the dark (reassuringly, they stay where you leave them).
Little did he know that his Captain Kangaroo creations would turn out to be forerunners to content that years later would become the bread and butter of cable channels MTV and VH1. “I guess you could make the leap and say the songwriters for the show came up with some of the first music videos,” he says with a smile.
One of his favorite pieces started with footage of a boy in a yellow slicker walking through a soggy forest in the Pacific Northwest. It originally was made as an educational short film about lumber and foresting, intercut with shots of wildlife. Thomas edited the footage into a new storyline to support his song “Rainy Day Zoo,” about the joys of taking a rainy-day trip to the city zoo.
“That’s one I remember with the most admiration,” he says. “There was so much beauty and peace in it; it seemed perfect for the show.”
Thomas’ music went hand-in-hand with the tranquil, feel-good sentiments on which Keeshan insisted for the program. “There was an integrity to the show,” he says. “It wasn’t phony. Its heart was always in the right place.”
“The show represented all the best about human existence,” says former executive producer Joel Kosofsky. “There was kindness, warmth, sympathy, love and humor.”
Three of Thomas’ “film song” videos, along with a collection of other original tunes from the show, can be found on his new CD/DVD, Time Can Be So Magic: Songs from Captain Kangaroo, available at www.timecanbesomagic.com.
“Bill’s rich imagination and his concern for the child’s individual growth made his music impossible not to share,” says Stookey, who sings on the album.
Back at the store, Thomas doesn’t attract attention as a man who has created happy memories for a generation of baby boomers. “I don’t know if I’ve made any difference,” he says humbly. “But at least I’ve communicated with people on an emotional level. That’s what music is about.”