The story of a local TV icon who taught a generation to sing a rainbow.
Captain Noah and his Magical Ark was the number one children’s show in Philadelphia at a time when local TV had, like, six channels. And most of the time, it was news or gameshows or otherwise boring stuff for adults. If you were a kid before the internet – before “cable” – you only had so many hours per day when there was anything even remotely interesting on TV. And whenever it was, you can be sure we were all watching.
I’m only mentioning this to illustrate just how popular Captain Noah was during his day. He had better ratings than Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street combined – an astonishing 57 share of the ratings (that is, 57% of all the TVs on at that time were tuned in). We all watched him. Every weekday from 7am to 8am, Captain Noah played little kid-friendly segments we’d check in and out of as we got ready for school.
There were crafts, songs, stories, puppets, special guests. I remember really enjoying the wildlife experts, who would show off their menageries to Capt and Mrs Noah’s wonderment. I loved the cartoons, too, even though they weren’t as good as Saturday morning (with the possible exception of Gumby). For a show aimed towards preschool and early elementary ages, it didn’t talk down to viewers and could even surprise you with a walk-on by an actual local celebrity.
Every episode would start with Captain Noah hooting his horn and scanning the horizon from the crow’s nest of his ark. Then he’d swoop down a slide (or in later years, walk down stairs) to greet his shipmate and cohost, Mrs. Noah, his real-life wife, who was also the show’s puppeteer. The couple had been married for about 10 years when they pitched the idea of a Sunday morning children’s religious program to Channel 6 ABC in 1967. This was back when they were just Carter and Patricia Merbreier, a well-known Lutheran pastor and his wife.
Carter was a Philadelphia Police Chaplain, as well, and frequently appeared on local radio to share his uplifting sensibilities. He and Pat had also produced a Palm Sunday broadcast for NBC that featured a live donkey, and had given them the idea to create a children’s show promoting traditional morals and principles. The first season of Captain Noah was sponsored by the Philadelphia Council of Churches, but Channel 6 quickly realized they had a hit and brought the show in-house. They toned down the religious angle and shifted the focus to treating all of creation with love and respect.
Captain and Mrs. Noah were on the air for 27 years, creating an indelible impression in the minds and hearts of a generation – not just in Philadelphia, but throughout the Delaware Valley and beyond (22 stations across the country carried him at one time). Inside all of us, lives the thrill of imagining your artwork broadcast on TV, while a special song plays: Send your pictures, to dear old Captain Noah…. 🎶🖼️🖍️📺🎶
And I bet that there’s not one GenXer who grew up here, who wouldn’t know exactly how to respond if someone came up to them and sung: Red and yellow, pink and green, purple and orange and blue…. 🎶🌈💖Captain Noah’s signature song is like a part of our collective DNA, a little piece of our childhood we can all share, and tap into as needed. We may have outgrown his Ark, but its gentle lessons remain a part of us.
The Magical Ark’s final sail was December 31, 1994. In 2008, the whole set including puppets, costumes, and memorabilia was installed as a permanent exhibit at the Please Touch Museum. Mrs. Noah died in 2011 at age 86; Captain Noah passed away in 2016, a week after his 90th birthday. They are buried at the cemetery of St Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Ardmore, together beneath a gravestone commemorating Captain Noah and His Magical Ark.
Fair winds and following seas!
FIVE FUN FACTS ABOUT CAPTAIN NOAH & HIS MAGICAL ARK
- Jon Stewart’s very first TV appearance was as a trumpeter with an East Orange, NJ all-kids jazz band performing on the show.
- Captain Noah’s music director was Larry Ferrari, a beloved Philly organist with his own show on Channel 6.
- The Philly Phanatic was formally introduced to the public on Captain Noah in 1978.
- Captain Noah was at first confused and then flattered that John Lennon called him Captain Fred when their paths crossed at WPHL (someone had to explain the Yellow Submarine reference).
- In 2014, Captain Noah published a book, “Exciting Adventures Behind the Scenes of a Legendary Children’s Show” which is full of great pics and anecdotes (and available on Amazon).
Get the Whole Story!
Read More in Bob McNulty’s full article, featured in April’s Local paper (which you can view here or read on Facebook), originally published August 1, 2016, updated July 30, 2020. This summary was compiled by Carolyn Fillmore, a GenXer from Delaware County and co-editor for The Local.
Read Bob’s last Local column HERE.
For more great tales from local history, follow @PhiladelphiaStoriesbyBobMcNulty on Facebook.
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