Mitch Agruss, the beloved actor popularly known to Sacramentans as Cap’n Delta and Cap’n Mitch, died peacefully Saturday in Davis in the company of family and friends at age 92.
Though widely and affectionately remembered as the affable host of weekday afternoon children’s cartoon shows from the1960s, through the ’80s, Agruss had an acting career on stage and in the early days of live television drama.
He was born Mitchell Byron Agruss, June 1, 1923, in St. Louis, Mo.
“I was raised in a very tight, very close-to-the-vest Jewish family,” Agruss said in a 2006 interview.
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“We ventured beyond the security of the family just when we had to – like when we went to school. My immigrant grandmother still remembered pogroms and she had great distrust of any people not Jewish.”
After he graduated from high school, he was accepted to Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon), in Pittsburgh, which had a highly regarded theater program. His first summer home he got a call from a classmate to come work in New Hope, Pa., building sets and working crew at a summer-stock theater at the Bucks County Playhouse. He was paid $15 a week and spent $12 on room and board. It was professional theater and, even for the stagehand kids like Agruss, there were swanky parties at the homes people such as playwrights Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, where Oscar Hammerstein or band leader Paul Whiteman might be present.
It was like “walking out of a black-and-white life into a burst of living Technicolor,” Agruss said. Agruss maintained an uneasy relationship with aspects of the life he was entering and he often admitted never feeling entirely comfortable with the aggressiveness required to advance an entertainment career.
“I had a naivete about how to deal with people, which I still have,” Agruss said in the 2006 interview. “I’d rather not press what I think are personal relationships in a way that people who are professionally driven do not mind doing.”
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts in Drama from Carnegie. In 1948, he married his Carnegie Tech classmate Katharine Thompson.
“Mitch and I were married in 1948 at New Hope Pennsylvania Playhouse between the afternoon and evening performance of Thornton Wilder’s “Skin of Our Teeth,” Thompson said. “Wilder himself was in the cast with us and stood up with us at the ceremony. During the evening performance, Wilder, as the spirit character Antrobus, hit Agruss on the head and rice flew everywhere, much to the audience’s delight.”
The couple divorced in the early 1980s, though remained great friends. Their two sons are Chris, a software developer who lives in Davis, and Noah, a composer based in Los Angeles.
Agruss eventually performed in two major Broadway productions and numerous off-Broadway plays. He also worked extensively in early live television and spent five years in the acting company of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Conn. As a young actor, the people Agruss worked with were from a golden era of American Theater and entertainment. John Houseman, Moss Hart, Mel Brooks, George Balanchine, Harpo Marx, Bert Lahr, Carol Channing, and John Cassavetes are just a few of the more well known names.
Katharine Hepburn joined the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in 1957 for a production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Agruss also toured with Hepburn and the company in 1960 performing in “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” and “The Winter’s Tale.” But he wasn’t offered the upcoming fall season, so he needed work.
For two previous years in New Haven, Conn., he had hosted Popeye cartoons on a local television station as Capt. Soloman Seawhiskers. The station recommended him for a job in Sacramento at Channel 13 (KOVR). He came to Sacramento and “never looked back.” He spent five years as Cap’n Delta at Channel 13 before moving to Channel 40 in 1968, where he became Cap’n Mitch, working there until 1984. The concept for the show was his own.
“There were a lot of these shows where the host was very energetic and noisy. We decided to just have a small set set with the idea of keeping it very personal, with just a few children.”
“It was an extension of myself, but it was a character,” Agruss said. “I think people accepted it for what it was because of my training.”
Buck Busfield, who often cast Agruss later in his life at B Street Theatre, said audiences always felt the actor’s gentle persona.
“He was lovely man. An old world gentleman, a bright decent human, and that’s what came through,” Busfield said. “The bright shining light in his eyes that he had on stage, he had off stage. He had a mischievous twinkle.”
Veteran local actor Dan Harlan, who worked onstage with Agruss and became close friends with him, said Agruss never changed his approach to theater.
“He was the consummate professional,” Harlan said. “When he would take on a part, he got right down to business and his concentration was absolute. He never stopped trying to make it right always.”
Chris Agruss said he and the family were delighted when Mitch began working in Sacramento community and professional theater.
“In recent years, he also acted in several plays related to aging and death, including “Park Your Car in the Harvard Yard,” “Unforgettable,” “Leonardo,” “Endgame” and “Krapp’s Last Tape,” Chris Agruss said.
“In many ways, I think these roles helped prepare him for the final days of his own life,” Chris Agruss said.
Agruss received a Lifetime Achievement Elly Award in 2015 and also received Elly’s for his performances “Endgame” and “Krapp’s Last Tape.”
In 2003, he was named Sacramento Magazine’s Best of Sacramento, Best Kid’s Show Host. Agruss also received the Silver Circle Award from The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, San Francisco/Northern California Chapter acknowledging his contribution as a television pioneer.
Agruss accumulated a depth of memorabilia during his career. For theater buffs, it was a thrill to have him bring out programs, photos, or recently acquired videos of old television performances. Countless thousands of adults grew up with Agruss as the genial host who brought kids aboard the fictional Valley Queen. They would look through a spyglass and announce, “Cartoon, ahoy!” and the television audience would be entranced by “Clutch Cargo,” “Speed Racer” “Mr. Magoo” and “Superman.”
Son Noah knows he shared a public part of his father, but never found it difficult.
“Looking back on our lives together, I realize that my brother and I were the kids who got to have him at home every day,” Noah said. “Dad was a rare soul with countless adoring friends of all ages, and I can’t thank them enough for their outpouring of love.”
Mitch Agruss is survived by his ex-wife Katharine Thompson, of Sacramento; granddaughter Emma Agruss; sons, Christopher Agruss (wife Louise Walker) of Davis and Noah Agruss (wife Helen London) of Los Angeles; sister, Betty Ginsberg of Boca Raton, Fla.; John Bennick (Mary) of Sacramento and Paul Bennick (Pam) of Davis and their families.
Predeceased by parents Nat and Rose Agruss; and his longtime partner, Rosemary Bennick.
A memorial service has not yet been scheduled.