Art Linkletter, TV Host Who Interviewed Children, Dies at 97

Art Linkletter, the genial radio and television host who spent more than two decades interviewing children and getting them to say “the darndest things,” has died. He was 97.

He died today at his home in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles, the Associated Press reported, citing his son-in-law, Art Hershey.

Linkletter gained fame as a sympathetic interviewer on “House Party,” a daytime variety show that aired on CBS radio and TV from 1945 to 1969. In the show’s best-known segment, “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” Linkletter would draw amusing answers from schoolchildren by asking who did the housework at home, or whom they wanted to marry.

He capitalized on the popularity of the routine through a series of books, including “Kids Say the Darndest Things” (1957), which topped the best-seller list for two straight years. CBS revived the concept and title for a primetime show in 1998, with Bill Cosby as host and Linkletter as a contributor.

Linkletter also hosted the NBC program “People Are Funny,” which ran from 1954 to 1961. The show put ordinary people into extraordinary situations to capture their varying reactions. Some critics now call it one of television’s first reality shows.

A family tragedy turned him into one of the most visible spokesmen for the anti-drug movement in the 1970s. His 20-year-old daughter, Diane, died after jumping out of her kitchen window in 1969, and Linkletter publicly blamed her death on LSD.

When an autopsy found no drugs in her system, Linkletter insisted her suicide was caused by damage from prior LSD use. He was appointed to President Richard Nixon’s advisory council on drug abuse, wrote a book, “Drugs at My Doorstep” (1973) and appeared on talk shows to warn parents about LSD.

Young and Old

Linkletter said his first radio interview with a child was in 1943 with his son Jack, then 5. Asked about his first day at school, Jack said he wasn’t going back.

“I said, why not? He says, ‘Well, I can’t read and I can’t write and they won’t let me talk.’”

More than 25 years of such interviews followed. “Kids under 10 and people over 70” were best on the show, Linkletter said. “The old people don’t care, and the kids don’t know what they’re saying,” he said.

Asked what’s good about aging, Linkletter gave the answer he once got from a 100-year-old woman: “There’s so little peer pressure.’”

Looking far younger than his years, Linkletter accepted a Daytime Emmy award for lifetime achievement at Radio City Music Hall in New York in 2003, his third Emmy. It came more than three decades after he left daily broadcasting to concentrate on his many business and civic interests.

Long Active

In 2006, at 94, he was still at work, in one case breaking ground at a large-scale solar-energy project in Boulder City, Nevada, for a company in which he was an investor and paid spokesman. He delivered about 70 speeches a year. A celebrity-speakers agency listed his fee as $15,000 per event.

He was a spokesman for everything from Milton Bradley’s Game of Life in the 1960s -- a product from which he long received royalties -- to the American Leprosy Missions in 2000. He served as chairman of the UCLA Center on Aging and as a spokesman for USA Next, an association for senior citizens that promotes itself as a conservative alternative to AARP.

In 1958, Linkletter was one of the original investors in the hula hoop, the once-hot toy marketed by Wham-O. Among other investments, he also owned motels and a million-acre sheep ranch in Australia.

Proud Senior

Asked by CNN’s Larry King in a TV interview in 2000 whether people were surprised he was still alive, Linkletter responded with a mix of pride and self-deprecating humor:

“They’re more surprised to learn that at 88 I travel 200,000 miles a year, speak 70 times a year, have four, five businesses I run, surf, ski, and I look at girls. I can’t remember why, but I look at them.”

Having started with little money, Linkletter gained a keen eye for business. His friend Walt Disney in 1955 asked him to open Disneyland but balked at paying the scale fee ($200) for a brief appearance. So Linkletter proposed he instead receive a 10-year concession to sell film and cameras at the park. Disney accepted what turned into an extremely profitable arrangement -- for Linkletter.

Fifty years later, Linkletter was back at Disneyland to host the golden anniversary celebration. The other co-hosts from 1955, Ronald Reagan and Bob Cummings, were not.

“They’re all dead,” Linkletter told the San Diego Union- Tribune. “I’m the guy at Disneyland who was there, who opened it, started it, got it going. And I’m the only one left.”

Moose Jaw

Born Gordon Arthur Kelly on July 17, 1912, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada, he never knew his natural parents. His name was changed to that of his adoptive parents, Fulton and Mary Linkletter, a couple in their mid-40s who “had lost a baby and were given to wandering,” the broadcaster wrote later.

The elder Linkletter was an itinerant preacher who moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, where he ran a five-and-dime store; two years later it failed and he took the family to California.

In San Diego, “Reverend John” mended soles at his shoe repair shop and, Art noted years later, saved souls as a street- corner preacher.

As a youth, Art was forced to read difficult Bible passages aloud at home, a task that he said honed his on-air ability to read copy unrehearsed.

Itch to Travel

He finished high school in 1928. Not yet 16, with an itch to travel and short of money, Linkletter began riding freight trains with hobos. He roamed the country for 18 months. He was a busboy in Chicago, worked as a meatpacker in Minneapolis and was clerking on Wall Street when the stock market crashed in 1929. A shipboard job took him from New York to Buenos Aires, before he returned to San Diego to enroll in a tuition-free college.

At San Diego State University, Linkletter was a student leader and made the men’s swimming and basketball teams. In his sophomore year, he wrote a musical comedy that led to a part-time local radio job with a San Diego station, KGB.

He saw little future for himself in radio until he heard about a Dallas station that did man-on-the-street interviews.

“They took a microphone on a long cord out the window,” said Linkletter, “and I said that’s what I can do, talk to people.”

About that time he met Lois Foerster, and the two were married on Thanksgiving Day 1935.

He worked in Dallas and San Francisco for six years as a freelance announcer and master of ceremonies. Then, moving to Hollywood, he formed a partnership with producer John Guedel that lasted a half-century.

First Production

Their first production, “People Are Funny,” made its radio debut in 1942 and moved to television in 1954. CBS Radio began airing “House Party” in 1945. The network expanded it to television in 1952. It ran until 1969 on CBS before NBC picked it up for one final season.

Guedel and Linkletter Productions also created such other shows as “You Bet Your Life” for Groucho Marx and “Earn Your Vacation,” which starred Johnny Carson.

Linkletter wrote more than two dozen books, many based on his radio and TV interviews; the Library of Congress listed some 300 recordings of his interviews on tapes, DVDs and other media. He won a Grammy Award in 1970 for best spoken word recording for “We Love You Call Collect,” which he recorded with Diane shortly before her death.

In his book “Women Are My Favorite People,” Linkletter credited a sense of humor and his wife for a happy marriage that lasted more than seven decades.

If a discussion started escalating into an argument, Linkletter said he would break the tension by saying, “Honey, this is getting serious. If it gets much more serious, I’ll have to kill you.”

Linkletter’s son Robert died in an auto accident in 1980 at age 35. Jack Linkletter, who followed his father into broadcasting, died in 2007 at age 70. The cause was lymphoma. He and his wife also had daughters Dawn Griffin and Sharon Hershey.

In 2006, when he was 94, Linkletter published his 28th book: “How to Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life.”

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