Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Mouths of Babes

Art Linkletter


It was in the mid-1940s, when Linkletter was in the early stages of a career which spanned 80 years, that he stumbled upon the routine for which he is best remembered. He was hosting several radio programs at the time, and as a whim, recorded a conversation he had with his young son after his first day in school. The boy was refusing to return to school the next day. Why?

"Because I can't read, I can't write, and they won't let me talk."

Linkletter played the exchange on a Sunday evening program he hosted, and received an avalanche of positive response. In 1945, interviews with children became a regular segment on his radio show House Party, and remained the most fondly remembered of all his routines. When the program transitioned to television, Art put the word out to Los Angeles school teachers that he was looking for outgoing, interesting, talkative kids who might not be intimidated by a TV studio. He wrote, "Pick the kids you'd like to have out of the classroom for a few precious hours."

Art: "What do your parents do for fun?"
Kid: "I don't know. They always lock the door."

Linkletter's early life was not an easy one. Abandoned as an infant, he was adopted by an elderly couple, and left home at the age of 16, hopping freight trains as a hobo to cross the country, looking for work. He landed in San Diego, where he snagged his first job in radio while attending the college which would become San Diego State. His easygoing style and likable nature made him a natural for radio and the early decades of television.

Art: "What does your mommy do?"
Kid: "She does a little housework, then sits around all day reading the Racing Form."

His various programs made good use of his improvisational skills, and House Party, People Are Funny, and Kids Say the Darndest Things were never scripted. They were part game show and part interview show, and often included stunts perpetrated on unsuspecting civilians; Linkletter was fond of saying he inadvertently invented Reality TV.

The suicide of his daughter in 1969 was blamed on her use of LSD, and Art became an energetic anti-drug crusader. An emotional conversation with his daughter resulted in the spoken word recording, We Love You, Call Collect, released shortly after Diane Linkletter's death; it won a Grammy.

Art: "What do you think would make a perfect husband, Karen?"
Karen: "A man that provides a lot of money, loves horses, and will let you have 22 kids and doesn't put up a fight."
Art: "And what do you think you'll be when you grow up?"
Karen: "A nun."

Throughout his life, he displayed a shrewd business sense. He was hired to host the grand opening of Disneyland in 1955, and the notorious skinflint Walt Disney refused to pay him more than union scale. In exchange for working for a pittance, Art negotiated a deal in which his business enterprise would have exclusive rights over the park's camera and film concessions for a full decade. He made a mint.

But it was surely the interviews with the children for which Art Linkletter will be best remembered. The routine was revived in 1998, with Bill Cosby hosting an updated Kids Say the Darndest Things, for which Art made contribution.

Art: "What kind of animal would you like to be?"
Kid: "An octopus. Then I could grab all the bullies at school and hit them with my testicles."

Despite much personal tragedy (he outlived three of his five children), Art Linkletter maintained a sunny disposition and optimistic, life-loving outlook. In his later years, Linkletter became an avid activist for the aged, urging the country's oldsters to make the most of their latter years. He practiced what he preached, writing several books on the subject and conducting lecture tours right up until his death last week at the age of 97.