Cap’n Mitch lives on in our small-screen memories

Shown in late 2006 at age 83, Mitch Agruss was a serious actor on the East Coast, working with such legends as Katharine Hepburn and Mel Brooks.
Shown in late 2006 at age 83, Mitch Agruss was a serious actor on the East Coast, working with such legends as Katharine Hepburn and Mel Brooks. Sacramento Bee file

He was the unofficial baby sitter for generations of latchkey kids, a humble host in a yachting cap whose tranquil voice could take the edge off even the harshest sugar high.

His real name was Mitch Agruss, but in family rooms and schoolyards around Sacramento, he was best known as Cap’n Mitch, the embodiment of after-school TV on Channel 40, with a catchphrase of “cartoon ahoy.”

The bearded gentleman who once introduced shows such as “Dr. Shrinker” and “Star Blazers” died Nov. 14 at 92, but for those who grew up locally in the late 1960s through ’80s, Agruss forever will live on in small-screen memories, a reason to keep the rabbit ears adjusted just right.

The native of St. Louis started his regional run as a children’s TV host in the early 1960s at Channel 13 (KOVR), as the nautically themed Cap’n Delta. But it was as Cap’n Mitch, a character who was a fixture of Channel 40 from 1968 through 1984 (also re-created at Channel 58), that he solidified his leadership skills, projecting a persona that exuded warmth, affability and even empathy.

As dependable as a class-change bell, but a lot more fun, Cap’n Mitch’s show ran in those golden hours after school, often before Mom and Dad got home from work, when nothing felt better than unwinding from a day of long division with a tall glass of Hi-C and “Electra Woman and Dyna Girl” on the solid state.

“He made me feel safe,” said Matias Bombal, a longtime Sacramento TV and radio host, who once worked with Agruss at Channel 58. “He was a nonconfrontational TV personality, and even in the 1970s there weren’t that many soft-spoken people on TV. I really connected to this as a kid.”

Unlike many children’s TV hosts of today who seem to come off shrink-wrapped from the same assembly line, Cap’n Mitch was an authentic, mellowing force, a gentle steward who often stood in contrast to the pre-trigger-warning programming he introduced. (Chongo from “Danger Island” likely would file an anti-discrimination lawsuit today.)

Agruss assumed a captain’s role for much of his TV career. Before settling in Sacramento, he teed up “Popeye” cartoons in New Haven, Conn., as the affable Capt. Soloman Seawhiskers. For his Sacramento debut at KOVR, Agruss transformed into Cap’n Delta, and established himself as a Pied Piper-like figure for Sacramento schoolkids.

A dedicated thespian who performed in Broadway plays – he worked with Harpo Marx, Katharine Hepburn and Mel Brooks earlier in his career – Agruss didn’t have any background as an ocean-sailing seaman, nor did he serve in the Navy. His sons, Christopher and Noah, said his captain’s mien was a riff on a popular theme for children’s TV hosts at the time, including Captain Kangaroo and “Captain Sacto” of the ’50s and ’60s, played by Harry Martin on KCRA.

“He loved the role and the dealings he had with kids,” Noah Agruss said. “But he wasn’t Cap’n Mitch’ when he came home. He was just a really great guy. He really touched a lot of lives in a positive way. If you knew him, you loved him.”

Though he personified the calming notion of “inside voices,” Agruss was greeted like a rock star when he visited local schools to tape segments for his show. When word spread on the playground that Cap’n Mitch was coming for a visit – even if just to broadcast a class playing a pitch-slippery version of “Hot Cross Buns” on recorders – it may as well have been “Ultraman” himself making a star appearance.

“When he was at the height of his Cap’n Mitch celebrity, there were a lot of people coming up for autographs at restaurants,” Chris Agruss said. “He relished that, I know. But at home I noticed that my mom and dad used to talk about theater a lot. By the time he retired, he went back to theater. I think that was his real calling.”

That may be the case, but when performing as Cap’n Mitch, Agruss never gave off the impression that he was phoning it in or wanting to be elsewhere. To kids watching the program, he was a different kind of adult – one who loved entertainment of all kinds and understood its magical, transportive powers. But what he really brought to the airwaves was an essential decency that continues to resonate with fans today.

Many of us raised on Cap’n Mitch now have children of our own, and these kids have an almost unlimited number of electronic entertainment options before homework calls. But back in the days before cable TV, Cap’n Mitch pretty much had cornered the market on weekday cartoons, gently presiding over a captive audience looking for escapist TV or the chance to engage in “TV Powww!” – a voice-activated video game played over the telephone with all the 8-bit action televised live.

Cap’n Mitch, we thank you for taking so many of us on this wonderful TV voyage, and wish you the smoothest of sailing on your next adventure.

“Cartoon ahoy.”

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias