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Art Linkletter, host of TV's 'House Party' and 'People Are Funny,' dies at 97

By T. Rees Shapiro
Thursday, May 27, 2010; B06

Art Linkletter, 97, an Emmy Award-winning television show host best known for his candid, chuckle-inducing interviews with kids who said "the darndest things" live on-air, died May 26 at his home in Los Angeles.

His son-in-law, Art Hershey, confirmed the death but declined to give a cause.

Mr. Linkletter was a veteran radio host in California with an affable personality and unpretentious delivery, and he became one of the few radio voices to transition smoothly to television. He emerged from the process as one of the medium's first big stars.

His greatest legacy was the concept of allowing children to provide the spontaneous humor for a show, instead of professional entertainers with memorized lines.

On his daytime TV variety program "House Party," which aired from 1952 to 1970, Mr. Linkletter asked children simple questions. He asked one boy: "What do your parents do for fun?"

"I don't know," the boy replied. "They always lock the door."

In all, Mr. Linkletter interviewed more than 27,000 children, and the segment was later reprised in 1998 as a full-length show on CBS hosted by Bill Cosby called "Kids Say the Darndest Things." Looking back, Mr. Linkletter said he wanted kids to just be kids but in doing so unintentionally "invented reality TV."

Adopted as an infant, Mr. Linkletter was raised by a family so poor that he once said, "the Depression made no mark on me." He used his popularity and industry connections to become very wealthy.

He owned a million-acre ranch in western Australia where he raised sheep. He had an oil field, was an early investor in the Hula Hoop and, through a close relationship with Walt Disney, had a contract for the exclusive rights to film concession stands at Disneyland.

In his prime, Mr. Linkletter hosted two long-running and extraordinarily popular comedy shows on competing networks. In the evening, he hosted NBC's audience participation program "People Are Funny" (1954 to 1961). Contestants selected from the studio audience were challenged to participate in embarrassingly zany stunts, such as trying to cash a check for a lot of money -- a check that had been written on the skin of a watermelon.

The goal was to prove that "anyone" could be funny or else risk a pie thrown in the face.

In 1944, he began hosting "House Party," which aired in the afternoons on CBS radio. Mr. Linkletter's conversational style played well for a live audience, and in 1952 the show switched to a television broadcast. The show featured a variety of segments and reports from more than 35 departments, including popular news of the day and beauty and fashion tips.

The show is best remembered for a closing segment in which Mr. Linkletter spoke with a small group of children and asked them questions about their lives.

He asked one girl: "What do you think would make a perfect husband, 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," Karen said.

"And what do you think you'll be when you grow up?"

"A nun."

His book, "Kids Say the Darndest Things" (1957), a compilation of funny moments and quotations from his years on the set, sat atop the New York Times bestseller list for two years. In a reprint, Mr. Linkletter wrote, "Children under ten and women over seventy give the best interviews for the identical reason: they speak the plain unvarnished truth."

Mr. Linkletter was born Gordon Arthur Kelly on July 17, 1912, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He was adopted as an infant by an older couple and was an only child.

Mr. Linkletter left home at age 16 and traveled by freight train, living as a hobo. He made his way to New York, where he worked on Wall Street as a typist at an investment bank. After the stock market crashed in 1929, he was fired and headed to California.

He entered the radio industry in the early 1930s, working on a campus station while attending what is now San Diego State University. A manager from the local radio station, KGB, was impressed and offered Mr. Linkletter a job. He took it and worked his way up to being the station's program director while completing his degree, which he received in 1934.

In 1935, Mr. Linkletter married Lois Foerster, and they had five children. Mr. Linkletter outlived three. His son, Jack, died in 2007 of lymphoma. Another son, Robert, died in a car crash in 1980.

His daughter, Diane, leapt out an apartment window in 1969 at age 20. Mr. Linkletter said she had been scarred by a bad LSD trip. She died just months after she and Mr. Linkletter had collaborated to record "We Love You, Call Collect," an anti-drug album aimed at youngsters. The album won the Grammy Award for best spoken word recording of 1970.

Mr. Linkletter used the tragedy as an opportunity to speak out against drugs. He was appointed to President Richard M. Nixon's National Advisory Council for Drug Abuse Prevention.

Besides his wife of Bel Air, Calif., survivors include two daughters, Dawn Griffin of Sedona, Ariz., and Sharon Linkletter of Calabasas, Calif.; seven grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.

In 2003, Mr. Linkletter was awarded a lifetime achievement daytime Emmy. Besides his best-known shows, he also hosted "Hollywood Talent Scouts," a variety show on CBS in the mid-1960s that featured young singers, actors and comedians seeking their big break.

In 1998, Mr. Linkletter joined Cosby to co-host the first episode of "Kids Say the Darndest Things." At the end of the show, Cosby revealed that the entire studio audience was composed of adults who had appeared on Mr. Linkletter's "House Party" as children.

In an interview with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation, Mr. Linkletter said the moment was one of the happiest in his life: "It was like going to an orphanage, and they said, 'These are all your children.' "

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