Every weekday afternoon of my childhood, I would skip the bus ride home and run six blocks because it was faster. I would dash inside the door, drop my coat and pencilbox on the floor and slide to a carpet burning halt in front of the television. I’d spin the giant knob to UHF-45, and plant myself two feet from the screen, elbows on rug, hands on chin. The familiar ditty on calliope organ would dance in my ears, and then I’d hear it – that familiar old sea bell, ding-ding ding-ding ding-ding. And there he was, in red jacket and white sailing cap. With a salute and a hearty, “ahoy, crewmembers!” the show would begin.
The early 1970’s was not a fun place in America. We were still struggling against the last few remnants of the “Old South”, and the last of the dead soldiers were still arriving aboard vast hospital ships. Domestically, my family life was not much different. As a small child, divorce isn’t a concept you can fully comprehend, and when the process is not a peaceful one, the whole sum of your childhood memories can often be a collection of raised voices, and heated arguments. The most vivid memory of my youth was watching the door jam drift left and right and left and right before me as my parents engaged in a tug-of-war over me, each one holding an arm. Divorce is never easy and it’s casualties are the innocence of childhood.
But the memories I have that were not soured by harsh reality, were watching my boyhood hero, Captain Chesapeake, steering his ship over the superimposed view of the Baltimore Harbor, and bopping my head to the delightful theme song that made the living room, for just a short time, sound like a carnival.
Once upon a time, long before the Fox network, the UPN network, and the WB – there was something called Independent Television; small UHF stations who had no major network of shows, and often played archaic black-and-white movies at any given hour of the day. Channel 45 in Baltimore was one such station, and it’s after-school hour was hosted by what you could probably call a regional version of Captain Kangaroo – he told corny jokes, had puppet friends, and when his ship’s bell rang, it was time for the next presentation. “Did you hear that? That was six bells, Crewmembers! And you know what that means – it’s time for Starblazers!”
Captain Chesapeake introduced me to some of the best television I have ever seen; Starblazers, Land of the Lost and Speed Racer. Later in life, I was lucky enough to intern at Channel 45, and worked with George Lewis during the last three years of his show. He was a gentle and warm man, and his greatest joy in life was meeting adults who recognized him on the street, who stopped him and said, “I grew up watching you!” – and he never grew tired of being asked to pose for a picture, or sign an autograph.
In an interview not many years ago, the director of the show, Dwight Weems, attempted to put into words the essence of Captain Chesapeake:
He just had this gift, this magical gift to be able to get inside of children, make them… make them smile, give ’em joy, make them laugh.
For the countless “crewmembers” who all desperately needed a reason to smile on a warm afternoon, thank you, George.