By LANCE ARMSTRONG
During an interview for this series, Mitch Agruss spoke about a topic that so many locals fondly remember – his time entertaining youngsters on the Cap’n Mitch show.
Agruss said that the show, which first aired in 1968, presented a “perfect match” between himself and Channel 40.
“The owner-manager was in synch with what I was doing,” Agruss said. “It was a good mix and it lasted for quite a while. I had a wonderful time with Channel 40. (On the set), it was my cargo room, kind of below decks kind of place. It was the same idea and I had chests with presents and I had things hanging from the ceilings.
“I carefully formatted (the show), so that there was time to have a few words with each child in between the cartoons, in between the commercials, so they had something to look forward to. The interesting thing was when they came on, they were so used to, from viewing (the show), the pattern of activity that that’s what they wanted to do. This is where they wanted to say hi to their schoolmates, this is where they wanted to say hi to their mom and dad, here’s where they wanted to talk about this and that, here’s where the surprise presents came out. And they would be the ones who introduced the cartoons, they were the ones who held the spyglass that looked for where the cartoon was, and they would spy it and they would see it. Those were the little theatrical patterns that I would do with the kids.”
In speaking about the featured segments of his show, which aired in the afternoons and at times in the mornings, Agruss said, “There was Popeye, Warner Brothers’ cartoons, Bugs Bunny and all that kind of stuff. And there were half-hour sequences like ‘The Cisco Kid’ and things of that nature. The Mickey Mouse Club was one of the elements and the Hanna-Barbera cartoons. All the cartoon packages came by one time or another sailing their way through. It never ceased. It was an endless flow of film entertainment.”
Agruss noted that there were many people who thought that working with children on his show was something of a challenge.
“There is this kind of standard idea of ‘What did you do with all those little kids? Wasn’t that a mess or something?’ It wasn’t. The kids were extremely well behaved as long as you kept their parents out of sight. If the parents were there, the kids were scared a little bit. If the children could see their parents when they were on air, they were not as free spirited. I learned early on, keep your parents in a separate room and they can watch from there. Let them not feel they had to check with mom and dad before they said it. And that made all the difference in the world with the kids.”
In addition to his commitment to Channel 40, Agruss also became involved with another children’s program in 1969.
In returning to the topic of the Cap’n Mitch show, Agruss described the program’s short-lived television game show known as “TV Powww!”
“(‘TV Powww!’, which had its Channel 40 debut in 1980) was an interactive program, where (pre-selected) children (contestants) at home could play with me live on television, and they could play games like tennis. They would activate, (via a telephone) from home, their participation in the game. It was a video game and they would say, ‘pow,’ and then when they said, ‘pow’,’ it launched whatever they were shooting, like a tennis ball or a pong (ball) or something. It was like ping pong, and they would try (to) win some prizes.”
Agruss recalled that his role at Channel 40 eventually changed.
“I was at Channel 40 from 1968 (to) well out until the middle 1980s, until that management changed,” Agruss said. “The last year or two or so that I worked at Channel 40, I did my show away from the station on remotes. We would take the cameras out and I would visit schools and events and shopping centers and we would record my programs on site. We would go to Cal Expo, we would go down to the shopping center in Modesto, we would go to the State Fair, all over the place. We’re talking about 1984, 1985 and 1986 at Channel 40. They built me a breakaway boat that we could set up, so I could have kids come and sit on the boat with me in schools and at shopping centers and things like that (during the road show program, which was known as ‘Anchors Away.’)”
In about 1988, Agruss began his last stint as a children’s cartoon host for the fairly new TV station, Channel 58, which is now affiliated with KCRA Channel 3.
“I did a little program there for a year or two, pretty much the same way,” Agruss said. “I was called Cap’n Mitch and I had a sidekick called Delta Dog. It was just somebody in a big suit, which was just something to play off with, like I had a big, friend pet. (The program) was doing okay, but once again, management changed. And as the managements changed, my fortunes changed. So, after 30 years, it was time to say so long to that.”
Agruss said that his departure from the kiddie shows was timely, as he was presented with the opportunity to return to his roots.
“B Street Theatre opened up and I became a member of that company,” Agruss said. “I’ve done 10, 12, 13 shows with them, and I did work at Garbeau’s theater and I’ve done plays at the California Stage and the Actors’ Workshop of Sacramento. And that’s really my life for the last 20 or more years, which, of course, is at the heart of what I do and what I care about the most. And that’s been fine. And I picked up a couple of Elly awards, which is soothing to the ego. But I haven’t done much (in live theater), since I (had) what they say, ‘Too many birthdays.’”
Despite the many years that Agruss has been away from his role as a children’s cartoon host, he noted that his shows continue to have lasting memories for many adults who were children during those eras.
“I’ve had people come up to me who have children of their own and so forth and talk to me about their visits and do I have a copy of the show and things like that, which I don’t. They say they remember when they were on (the show) or they remember a friend of theirs who was on (the show) and they won a prize or somebody says, ‘I saw you when you went to visit this school or that event.’ Or people just say, ‘Hi, I remember you from television,’ which surprises me even until now that people can say something like that. People also remember my voice, which is very interesting to me.”
And after being asked what element of the show is most memorable to him, Agruss said, “My main memory is the children were just great.”