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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

Eventually, he enrolled in what is now San Diego State University, intending to become an English professor. In his junior year, Linkletter was hired as an announcer at San Diego radio station KGB. After earning his bachelor's degree in 1934, Linkletter turned down a teaching job to stick with announcing — it paid more.

Radio success came quickly. He was named program director of the California International Exposition in San Diego in 1935, radio director of the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936 and took the same job a year later at the San Francisco World's Fair.

In 1942, Linkletter moved to Hollywood, where he excelled in creating and starring in audience-participation shows. Working with partner John Guedel, who had created "People Are Funny," Linkletter pioneered zany stunts and interviews that became the prototype for radio and television's now-familiar game shows, children's shows, talk shows and reality shows.

"I have to laugh at all of the stuff they're talking about as if realism was just invented, sending people out to do crazy real things with no script and no rehearsal," Linkletter told CNN's Larry King in 2003. "We'd rig a fake contest, have the winner go up to San Francisco with her husband. And while they were gone, we'd steal their house. When they came back, we had them search for the house."

He sent show participants out to give away money or invest in the stock market to prove that "People Are Funny." The show aired on NBC radio beginning in 1942 and on TV from 1954 to 1961.

Shorter-running TV programs included the prime-time "Life with Linkletter" on ABC (1950-52) and "Hollywood Talent Scouts" on CBS (1965-66).

In 1955, Linkletter served as the primary host of Disneyland's opening-day ceremonies. When his good friend Walt Disney said he could only pay him union scale, Linkletter asked for and received exclusive rights to the camera and film concession at Disneyland for a decade.

Although Linkletter appeared in two movies, "People Are Funny" (1946) with Jack Haley and Rudy Vallee and "Champagne for Caesar" (1950) with Ronald Colmanand Vincent Price, Linkletter assessed his strength not as an actor but as a chatty, amiable conversationalist.

"I always wanted to be a star," he once said. "I had no talent. But the most important talent you can have in television is to be liked. People liked me.

"Secondly, I sincerely and truly liked people, and I was curious about their answers. Even the jerks — I wanted to know what made them such jerks."

Linkletter became a wealthy businessman, investing in hula hoops and delving into oil wells, lead mines, manufacturing plants, restaurants, television production, real estate, construction, mobile storage units and even a bowling alley, a skating rink and a charm school.

As Linkletter accumulated great wealth, the poor-boy-made-good became a generous philanthropist.

As he aged, Linkletter also worked to help other seniors, serving as president of the UCLA Center on Aging, national spokesman for the senior lobbying group now known as USA Next and board chairman of the John Douglas French Alzheimer's Foundation.

In 2003, he was one of three grand marshals in the Rose Parade.

Linkletter weathered private tragedy with the early deaths of two of his five adult children.

He became a national spokesman on drug abuse after his youngest child, Diane, leaped to her death from her Hollywood apartment in 1969 at age 20, a suicide the family blamed on LSD use. He and his daughter won a Grammy for their spoken-word recording "We Love You, Call Collect," an emotional father-daughter conversation recorded not long before her death.

His second son, Robert, was killed at 35 in a 1980 car crash.

His eldest son, Jack, who followed his father into broadcasting and worked in the family business empire, died at 70 of lymphoma in 2007.

Linkletter served on the President's National Advisory Council for Drug Abuse Prevention and was president of the National Coordinating Council on Drug Abuse Education and Information.

The nonagenarian told anyone who asked that he watched his diet, swam or biked and lifted weights five times a week and slept eight hours a night. He skied until he was 92.

He also gave credit for his vigor and longevity to his wife, the former Lois Foerster, whom he married in 1935.

"I have a good marriage, which reduces a great deal of stress," Linkletter told the Associated Press in 2006.

"But a lot of it's what happens between your ears," he often said. "By changing the attitude inside your mind, you can change the outside of your life. You got to be curious."

He was so optimistic about his own future that he had signed a contract to lecture in Washington, D.C., on his 100th birthday on July 17, 2012.

In addition to his wife, Linkletter is survived by daughters Dawn Griffin and Sharon Linkletter; seven grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.

Oliver is a former Times staff writer.

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