In the mid-1960s, the Philadelphia Council of Churches sent word out to its members that they had some TV air time to fill, and does anyone have any ideas for a show?
Carter Merbreier, a Lutheran minister from North Philadelphia, was the only one who responded.
“We went to the Union League for lunch,” said Lew Klein, then a producer at WPVI-TV (6ABC). “We had oysters and a couple of cocktails, and concocted the character of Captain Noah.”
The resulting “Captain Noah’s Magical Ark” was an hour-long kid’s show that broadcast live every weekday morning for 27 years, hosted by Merbreier and his wife, Pat. The bestowed wholesome entertainment, moral wisdom, and “The Rainbow Song” upon generations of children until they retired the show in 1994.
This week, Merbreier, 90, passed away from cancer.
He and Pat hosted the mix of animal puppets, cartoons, history lessons, and guests, including Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Jon Stewart, and the first appearance of the Phillie Phanatic. The sports mascot made its public debut on the Ark.
“He communicated so well with kids, and he had a wonderful way of having guests that also appealed,” said Klein. “He had guests every show. There was always somebody, from cowboys to fire people to police people, zoo people, circus people. He had guests who appealed.”
Merbreier never forgot his religious vocation while a TV host. He used the show to pass on moral lessons to generations of children. He welcomed basketball player Charles Barkley on the show many times, in spite of the athlete’s famous reluctance being considered a role model.
“Somebody wrote, can’t you find anybody better than Charles Barkley?” said The Captain in a 2013 interview. “I said, ‘Not who would talk to children about falling down, getting up, and starting over again. We tried to get Jesus of Nazareth, but he wasn’t available.'”
Due to the evolving television landscape, with changing demands from the networks and advertisers, the regional children’s television format doesn’t really exist anymore. By 1994, the Captain was helming a ship that had already sailed. He and Pat retired.
In 2011, Pat died. Merbreier’s remaining five years were rough. Suffering from declining health and depression, he lived a reclusive life in a retirement residence near Valley Forge.
“He had a wonderful, wonderful life. He loved every day. Had a great sense of humor. He was on the top of the world,” said Klein, who stayed in touch with his old friend after the show folded. “To see his life turn into something that was very depressive leads me to think he was really ready.”