Friday, May 28, 2010
Art Linkletter, TV Host, Dies at 97
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Art Linkletter, the genial host who parlayed his talent for the ad-libbed interview into two of television’s longest-running shows, “People Are Funny” and “House Party,” in the 1950s and 1960s, died on Wednesday at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. He was 97.
The death was confirmed by Art Hershey, a son-in-law.
From his early days as an announcer on local radio and a roving broadcaster at state fairs, Mr. Linkletter showed a talent for ingratiating himself with his subjects and getting them to open up, often with hilarious results.
He was particularly adept at putting small children at ease, which he did regularly on a segment of “House Party,” a reliably amusing question-and-answer session that provided the material for his best-selling book “Kids Say the Darndest Things!”
Television critics and intellectuals found the Linkletter persona bland and his popularity unfathomable. “There is nothing greatly impressive, one way or the other, about his appearance, mannerisms, or his small talk,” one newspaper critic wrote. Another referred to his “imperishable banality.”
Millions of Americans disagreed. They responded to his wholesome, friendly manner and upbeat appeal. Women, who made up three-quarters of the audience for “House Party,” which was broadcast in the afternoon, loved his easy, enthusiastic way with children.
“I know enough about a lot of things to be interesting, but I’m not interested enough in any one thing to be boring,” Mr. Linkletter told The New York Post in 1965. “I’m like everybody’s next-door neighbor, only a little bit smarter.”
He was also genuinely curious to know what was going on in the heads of the people he interviewed. “You have to listen,” he said. “A lot of guys can talk.”
Gordon Arthur Kelly was born on July 17, 1912, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Before he was a month old he was abandoned by his parents and adopted by Fulton John and Mary Metzler Linkletter, a middle-age couple whose two children had died. It was not until he was 12, while rummaging through his father’s desk, that he discovered he was adopted.
In his autobiography, “Confessions of a Happy Man,” Mr. Linkletter recalled his adoptive father, a one-legged cobbler and itinerant evangelist, as “a strange, uncompromising man whose main interest in life was the Bible.” The family prayed and performed on street corners, with Art playing the triangle.
By the time Art was 5 the family had moved to an unpaved adobe section of San Diego. As a child he took on any job he could find. At one point he sorted through lemons left abandoned in piles outside a packing plant, cleaned them off and sold them for 6 cents a dozen.
After graduating from high school at 16, Mr. Linkletter decided to see the world. With $10 in his pocket, he rode freight trains and hitchhiked around the country, working here and there as a meatpacker, a harvester and a busboy in a roadhouse.
“Among other things, I learned to chisel rides on freight trains, outwit the road bulls, cook stew with the bindlestiffs and never to argue with a gun,” he later recalled. A fast typist, he found work in a Wall Street bank just in time to watch the stock market crash in 1929. He also shipped out to Hawaii and Rio de Janeiro as a merchant seaman.
After returning to California, he entered San Diego State Teachers College (now San Diego State University) with plans of becoming an English teacher. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1934, but in his last year he was hired to do spot announcements by a local radio station, KGB, a job that led to radio work at the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego and at similar fairs in Dallas and San Francisco.
With microphone in hand and countless programming hours to fill, Mr. Linkletter relied on ad-libbing, stunts and audience participation to get attention and keep listeners entertained. He was once lowered from a skyscraper in a boatswain’s chair, interviewing office workers on every floor as he descended. “It was the forced feeding of a young and growing M.C.,” he later said of his more than 9,000 fair broadcasts.
In 1936 he married Lois Foerster, a college student in San Diego, who survives him. The couple had five children: Jack, who followed his father into television and died of lymphoma in 2007; Dawn, of Sedona, Ariz.; Robert, who died in a car accident in 1980; Sharon, of Calabasas, Calif.; and Diane, who committed suicide in 1969, an event that spurred her father into becoming a crusader against drug use. There are 7 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Linkletter quickly established himself on local radio in San Francisco, but floundered when he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s. A radio show picked up by Shell Oil, “Shell Goes to a Party,” was canceled after Mr. Linkletter, reporting on a nighttime beach party, fell over some driftwood and lost his microphone.
He did have one piece of radio luck. With John Guedel, who would go on to create the quiz show “You Bet Your Life” and the comedy “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” Mr. Linkletter made an audition tape for an audience-participation show, with contests and gags, that would rely on his ability to ad-lib and coax humorous material from virtually anyone. Mr. Guedel came up with the name “People Are Funny,” and NBC put it on the air in 1942. Enormously popular, it ran on radio until 1960. The television version, which made its debut in 1954, ran until 1961.
Working without a script, Mr. Linkletter sent audience volunteers on silly assignments outside the studio with instructions to report back on their experience. One man was handed a $1,000 bill and told to buy chewing gum. Another was given $15,000 to invest in the stock market. Mr. Linkletter mingled with the audience, asking questions, setting up gags and handing out prizes like a yard of hot dogs or five feet of dollar bills.
On one show Mr. Linkletter spotted a woman’s enormous purse and began rummaging through it, announcing each item in turn: a can opener, a can of snuff, a losing racetrack ticket and a photograph of Herbert Hoover. The handbag bit became a staple of the show. More ingeniously, Mr. Linkletter set a dozen balls adrift in the Pacific, announcing a $1,000 prize for the first person to find one. Two years later a resident of the Marshall Islands claimed the money.
“House Party,” which ran five days a week on radio from 1945 to 1967 and on television from 1952 to 1969, was a looser version of “People Are Funny,” with beauty tips and cooking demonstrations filling time between Mr. Linkletter’s audience-chatter sessions. The highlight of the show was a segment in which five children between the ages of 5 and 10 sat down to be interviewed by Mr. Linkletter, who sat at eye level with his little subjects and, time and time again, made their parents wish television had never been invented.
After one boy revealed that his father was a policeman who arrested lots of burglars, Mr. Linkletter asked if his mother ever worried about the risks. “Naw, she thinks it’s great,” he answered. “He brings home rings and bracelets and jewelry almost every week.”
Mr. Linkletter assembled replies like that in “Kids Say the Darndest Things!,” illustrated by Charles M. Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts,” and its sequel, “Kids Still Say the Darndest Things.”
In 1969 Mr. Linkletter’s daughter Diane leapt to her death from her sixth-story apartment. Her father said that LSD had contributed to her death, and although an autopsy showed no signs of the drug in her body, the personal tragedy became a national event, suggesting to many Americans that drugs and the counterculture were making inroads even into seemingly model families like the Linkletters.
Mr. Linkletter, rather than retreating from the attention, became a crusader against drug use and an adviser to President Richard M. Nixon on drug policy, although, in 1972, he announced that he had changed his position on marijuana. After much thought and study he had concluded that the drug was relatively harmless and that law-enforcement officials should spend their time concentrating on hard drugs.
Much in demand as a public speaker and a fund-raiser for Republican candidates, Mr. Linkletter spent his subsequent years on lecture tours, appearing in commercials and tending to his far-flung business interests, including oil wells and toys. (One of his companies manufactured a version of the Hula-Hoop.)
A former college athlete, he remained remarkably healthy well into his 90s and the ideal front man for the United Seniors Association (renamed USA Next), a conservative organization formed in opposition to AARP and dedicated largely to privatizing Social Security. In keeping with his new role as a prominent elder American, Mr. Linkletter wrote “Old Age Is Not for Sissies.”
When he was well into his 80s and still going strong, someone asked him the secret of longevity. “You live between your ears,” he replied. “You can’t turn back the clock, but you can rewind it.”