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Art Linkletter, broadcasting pioneer who created 'Kids Say the Darndest Things,' dies at 97

Linkletter was a radio host when he began interviewing children to get their unvarnished utterances. He went on to TV, became an author and entrepreneur, and was an advocate for senior citizens remaining active.

May 26, 2010|By Myrna Oliver and Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
  • Art Linkletter interviews 4-year-old Ronnie Glahn on his show in 1962.
Art Linkletter interviews 4-year-old Ronnie Glahn on his show in 1962. (David F. Smith / Associated…)

Art Linkletter, the radio and television talk-show pioneer who was best known for eliciting hilarious remarks from the mouths of babes and who late in life was a popular motivational speaker and author, challenging seniors to live as zestfully as he did, has died. He was 97.

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article misspelled Art Linkletter's birth name as Arthur Gordon Kelley. His last name was Kelly.
Linkletter died Wednesday at his home in Bel-Air, said his son-in-law, Art Hershey.

He was an accomplished businessman whose Linkletter Enterprises controlled more than 70 businesses. He became a well-known anti-drug crusader after a daughter committed suicide in 1969. He wrote three autobiographies, a 1988 best-seller called "Old Age Is Not for Sissies" and released the latest of more than 20 books — about making the most of life's later years — on his 94th birthday.

To many baby boomers and their parents who watched his daytime television show "House Party," Linkletter would always be the perfect straight man who could ask a grade-schooler a simple question like "What does your mommy do?" and elicit this response: "She does a little housework, then sits around all day reading the Racing Form."

That popular segment from the television show that aired from 1952 to 1970 led to his 1957 bestselling book "Kids Say the Darndest Things" and several sequels.

The idea to showcase children's unrehearsed comments came to him during a conversation with his oldest child, Jack, after the boy's first day in kindergarten.

Informed by Jack that he would never go back to school, his father asked why. Jack responded: "Because I can't read, I can't write and they won't let me talk."

Linkletter captured the exchange on an early recording machine and played the interview on his "Who's Dancing Tonight?" Sunday program broadcast from the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. An avalanche of mail arrived saying "what a wonderful thing it is to hear a little boy talking to his daddy," Linkletter told The Times in 2007. "And it struck me that there were no interviews with children as children; they were always professional children — trained, coached and written for."

The segment debuted in 1945 on the CBS radio version of "House Party." When the show segued to television in the early 1950s, he sought out spunky Los Angeles youngsters who wouldn't be intimidated by the trappings of an early TV studio. Linkletter asked local teachers to "Pick the kids you'd like to have out of the classroom for a few precious hours."

One boy's answer, when asked what animal he wished to be, provided the funniest response, Linkletter once told an interviewer. An octopus, the boy said, so that he could grab the many bullies in his school and hit them with his "testicles."

Linkletter knew "without a doubt" that he'd be remembered for his popular interactions with children.

"Everywhere I go I hear, 'Why don't you interview the kids again?' '' Linkletter told the Washington Post in 1981.

The Canadian-born Linkletter hosted "People are Funny" and the Emmy-winning "House Party" on radio and television for more than 25 years. He last regularly appeared on TV as a contributor on "Kids Say the Darndest Things," a half-hour show Bill Cosby hosted on Friday nights from 1998 to 2000.

A prolific author, Linkletter wrote at least six books featuring cute quotes from kids, but he also tackled drug abuse, salesmanship and public speaking. His 1960 autobiography was called "Confessions of a Happy Man."

With Mark Victor Hansen, co-creator of the "Chicken Soup" book series, Linkletter wrote the anti-aging book "How to Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life" (2006). During the tour for the book, Linkletter signed 400 copies in one sitting. As of 2008, he continued to lecture more than 60 times a year and run Linkletter Enterprises.

"I've been around long enough to develop some insights," Linkletter told the Orlando Sentinel in 2007, "Don't retire, become a 'seniorpreneur,' keep a positive outlook, and maintain your sense of humor."

"Retire?" he said in response to a Times reporter's question in 1988, when he paused for an interview between skiing at Vail, Colo., and scuba diving off Brisbane, Australia. "If you retire, you can't ever have a day off."

Linkletter was born Arthur Gordon Kelly in the Canadian hamlet of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, on July 17, 1912. Abandoned as an infant, he was adopted by an elderly itinerant evangelist, Fulton Linkletter, and his wife, Mary. The Linkletters moved to California when he was 3.

After graduating from high school at 16, Linkletter did odd jobs around the United States. He worked as a busboy in Chicago, a stevedore in New Orleans, a meatpacker in Minneapolis, a coupon clerk on Wall Street during the fateful crash of 1929 and a shipboard laborer between New York and Buenos Aires.

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