Thanks to Dennis Rood for the video clips.
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If you grew up in the 60's, 70's or early 80's, it's likely that Cap'n Mitch and Cap'n Delta, Skipper of the Valley Queen were house hold names in your family. For over 20 years Mitch Agruss, the mild mannered king of the kiddie talk shows, graced our homes as both of these characters with his affable manner and our all-time favorite cartoons. Preceding Agruss was Skipper Stu and Captain Sacto, but no one captured our hearts with such long-standing success as did Cap'n Mitch.
To see him today is to recognize the appealing smile and humble manner. Agruss was perhaps one of the first to format a kiddie show where the attention was on the children (he only allowed six to eight children on the show and there was no live audience). It wasn't merely an accident that Agruss had a commanding, if easygoing, stage presence. Some may be surprised to know that he is a trained Shakespearean actor and has worked with and around some of the more famous actors of our time. It was this theatrical discipline, Agruss believes, that made his style of kiddie show work.
Agruss speaks fondly of his years in the 40's and 50's at Carnegie Tech Drama School in Pittsburgh, PA, and as a member of the acting company of the American Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Connecticut, as well as on national tours. He also worked with other big professional companies and performed on Broadway. "It was the most exciting period ever, " reminisces Agruss. He was directed by John Houseman and worked with the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Pernell Roberts, Fritz Weaver, Burt Lahr, and Sada Thompson - all of whom went on to big careers.
A favorite memory is the time he was doing a half-hour drama in New York City called Lights Out. "It was a four person cast, recalls Agruss "including Charlton Heston and Cara Williams. After a rehearsal one day we were walking toward Times Square (this was just weeks before Heston went to Hollywood) and Heston said 'Let's go see The Third Man'. It was a first run movie, so we got some popcorn and sat in the balcony. We were watching Orson Welles and Heston said "one of the things I want to do more than anything else in the world is work with that man'. Then, years later here I am in Sacramento watching Heston and Welles in A touch of Evil and all I can remember is him saying 'All I want to do is work with that man'."
Agruss went to drama school with the Program Director at a TV station in New Haven (WNHC) and he asked him to audition for the part of a live host for a Popeye cartoon show. Agruss got the job ("It sounded like a weekly salary, recalls Agruss") and became Captain Soloman Seawhiskers (it was a nautical theme for Agruss right from the start). There he developed the format for the show: dealing with the children with respect and having the attention on them. It was the fastest growing children's program on any of the "triangle stations" and Agruss remained on the show for two years, 1958-1960. Then, he returned to go back on a national Shakespearean tour.
In the spring of 1961, Agruss had just returned from a nationwide tour of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and had no plans. That was when a sales rep from WNHC recommended Agruss to Channel 13 in Sacramento. They were just starting up and wanted a cartoon host. All of the local stations were looking to increase their audiences by bringing attention to themselves with local personalities. The thinking was that the whole family would watch and then access into access time and prime time. The show initially taped, and then, after a few months, telecast live, went on the air in the fall of 1961. And so we were all introduced to "Cap'n Delta, Skipper of the Valley Queen."
Agruss recalls the charming setting of the show as if it were yesterday. "A wheelhouse of a riverboat took up the entire set and the backdrop was a chalk drawing of a section of the river along the Garden Highway". "People used to drive along the river looking for that part of the river so they could see the "Valley Queen"!
The show started with music and video. The kids would line up on the 'dock', walk down the gangplank (to the sound of nautical music), introduce themselves (what a thrill for these children!), ring the bell and take their seats on the 'boat'." On the boat was the treasured 'secret cargo'. One lucky child, though random selection, but was finally given free reign to utilize the format that he had developed so successfully in Connecticut.
In the first year of the show, Channel 13 accomplished what it setout to do: they dominated the children's market in ratings. Soon things changed with new ownership and personality identification was no longer the desired intent. Agruss no longer made the public appearances that had played such a big role in developing his TV personality. The change to national programming, while still in its infancy, was beginning its imminent domination of children's television programming.
"There were patterns on the show that the children liked," says Agruss. "The kids got to use the spyglass and introduce cartoons with the all-familiar "cartoon ahoy"!". And our favorite cartoons were on: Space Angel, Clutch Cargo, Mr. Magoo, The Mickey Mouse Club, Superman, and Speed Racer, to name a few.
Agruss moved on to Channel 40 in 1968 and remained successful with the format he created, but was told he had to change his name. Now we all knew and loved him as "Cap'n Mitch". Channel 40 was on early cable and Mitch got fan mail from as far away as South Dakota. "I thought I'd be there forever," says Agruss, "but the whole climate changed in terms of using local personalities to gain children viewership."
"First came regulation, then deregulation," Agruss continued, "There was concern about the commercialized influence over children's audiences that pitch people were having. Then regional and national business came in and they didn't need to invest in the local personalities. News competition came in. It lost its heart."
Today Agruss is semi-retired, involved in advertising and local theater productions at Garbeau's and B Street Theaters and California Stage. "The acting keeps my brain going," he says. "I do it to prove to myself that I can do it free from the anxiety of being in the competitive fray. In the past, building a career was critical."
"I'd love to put all of my memories into a book, but I'm not sure if anyone would be interested or if they'd even believe me," says Agruss as the interview comes to a close.
On both counts, Mitch, we would.