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Joel Kupperman, once-famous ‘Quiz Kid’ of radio and TV, dies at 83 of coronavirus

Joel Kupperman on "Quiz Kids" at age 6.
Joel Kupperman on "Quiz Kids" at age 6. (Bettmann Archives/Getty Images)

This story is part of “Faces of the dead,” an ongoing series exploring the lives of Americans who have died from the novel coronavirus.

In 2004, Michael Kupperman was watching an old Abbott and Costello movie on television with his father when, seemingly out of nowhere, his father said, “They gave me a dog.”

“That was literally the only time I heard him spontaneously say anything about his childhood,” Michael Kupperman said in an interview.

His father, Joel Kupperman, who died in Brooklyn on April 8 at age 83, was a longtime philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of books on ethics, moral character and Asian philosophy. He had a doctorate from the University of Cambridge in England, but his family knew never to ask about anything about his childhood.

It wasn’t until 2010, when Dr. Kupperman retired from teaching, that his son began to explore the early life his father had never discussed. He knew his father had been on radio and television in his youth, but not much more.

What he learned from research and interviews, before his father’s dementia caused all memories to vanish, was a remarkable tale of early fame, inner torment and social ostracism.

“The man I thought of as a mild-mannered and repressed professor,” Michael Kupperman said in a Talks at Google speech, “was a traumatized ex-child star.”

For about 10 years, between the era of Shirley Temple in the 1930s and before Jerry Mathers appeared on TV’s “Leave It to Beaver” in the late 1950s, Joel Kupperman may have been the most famous child in America.

From 1942 to 1952, he appeared almost every week on “Quiz Kids,” a popular radio program that later moved to television. He would put on a scholar’s cap and gown and, with a panel of other genius-level children from Chicago, answer questions about mathematics, science, history, music, literature, sports and current events.

Joel and several other Quiz Kids toured the country during World War II, challenging other bright students in other cities. They raised more than $120 million in war bonds and were greeted everywhere as celebrities and model children.

Only 5 when he first appeared on a “Quiz Kids” broadcast, Joel became the show’s best-known contestant. He eagerly thrust his hand in the air when questions were asked, then recited his answers in an endearing lisp. (His front teeth were missing in some episodes.) If he thought something needed further elucidation, he explained mathematical formulas and scientific principles in a fast, high-pitched voice.

By age 7, he was receiving 10,000 letters a week. In 1944, he played himself in a film with Donald O’Connor, “Chip Off the Old Block.” In Hollywood, he met Marlene Dietrich and Orson Welles, who tried to amuse him with magic tricks.

“He is,” Welles said of young Joel, “as unaffected, as unspoiled, as simple as Albert Einstein.”

Other film and television stars, including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers, appeared as guest hosts on “Quiz Kids.” After 10-year-old Joel answered difficult questions about history, atomic particles and mathematics, guest quizmaster Jack Benny ad-libbed, “I bet he’s 11 if he’s a day.”

Joel and the other Quiz Kids met famous athletes and political leaders.

“When kids get together, whether it’s playing football or working at school, we get along all right,” Joel reportedly told delegates to the newly formed United Nations in 1946. “Trouble seems to come when parents teach us differently.”

Joel was featured in countless newspaper and magazine articles, which invariably described him as a regular kid who happened to be brainy.

“Joel is healthy and husky, plays outdoors every minute he can and wears out a pair of shoes in three weeks,” one article said in 1947. He was described as a talented pianist who played baseball and had a dog named Lassie.

“Joel has the highest general mental development ever tested in the 25 years of child study in the Chicago public schools,” an official with the school system said the same year.

Michael Kupperman said his father’s IQ was measured at 219. If true, it would be one of the highest scores on record. (Michael Kupperman also said he never heard his father play the piano or show any interest in baseball.)

In 1949, as Joel was entering adolescence, “Quiz Kids” made its debut on national television. He stayed on the show until 1952, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 16. Between radio and TV, he had appeared on about 400 episodes of the show. He made $75 a week.

He finished high school and enrolled at the University of Chicago, where everyone knew his reputation and, thanks to television, his face. Socially awkward, famous and just 16, he faced constant taunts from other students.

“Being a bright child among your peers was not the very best way to grow up in America,” he told the New York Times in 1982, in one of his few interviews. “Children on the ‘Quiz Kids’ were put in the position of looking as if they knew more than their peers did. Even if you tried to be likable, you felt resentment. I felt I suffered from it.”

By 1956, he had received two bachelor’s degrees from Chicago and a master’s degree in mathematics. He found a new subject to study, he later said, when he “wandered in, as an undergraduate, to a seminar on Chinese philosophy.”

A sympathetic professor, understanding how he could not escape being a Quiz Kid in the United States, told him, “You need to get out of the country.”

Except for a brief appearance on a quiz show after college, Joel stepped away from television, Chicago and almost everything else about his past. He spent several years studying at Cambridge, eventually receiving a PhD in philosophy and emerging as Dr. Kupperman.

In 1960, he joined the faculty at the University of Connecticut, where he became an esteemed but cautiously reserved professor of philosophy.

Joel Jay Kupperman was born May 18, 1936, in Chicago. His father was an engineer with the city water department and skilled at mathematics.

His mother was a homemaker who became, in effect, her son’s manager and publicist. She was present at every radio and television broadcast and accompanied her son to Hollywood.

“Even in the 1940s,” Michael Kupperman told the Guardian newspaper in 2018, “when everybody was extraordinarily polite about each other, she was referred to openly in the press as the most stage-mothery of all stage mothers.”

When Joel was 5, he — or someone writing on his behalf — sent a letter to the producers of “Quiz Kids.”

“I can add faster than my mother and the man at the store,” the letter said. “I like to fall asleep by counting 6 plus 6 equals 12 — 12 plus 12 equals 24 — 24 plus 24 equals 48 until I get up into the thousands and then I am asleep.”

The radio program “Quiz Kids” was developed in 1940 by Chicago publicist Louis G. Cowan, who later became president of CBS. He also created “The $64,000 Question,” which was tainted by a cheating scandal and was the target of congressional investigations in the late 1950s.

Charles Van Doren, central figure in 1950s quiz-show scandal, dies at 93

“Quiz Kids” went off the air in 1953, except for a short revival in 1956, and was not implicated in the game-show scandals that came afterward.

In 1964, Dr. Kupperman married Karen Ordahl, who became a history professor at New York University. One of the things he found attractive about her, their son said, was that she had never heard of “Quiz Kids.”

After his retirement, Dr. Kupperman finally consented to speak to his son about his childhood, but even before he was diagnosed with dementia in 2012, he had repressed almost all of his memories about the show.

At his parents’ house in Storrs, Conn., Michael Kupperman found five scrapbooks, meticulously kept by his grandmother, that had never been thrown away. They documented every broadcast schedule, photograph and celebrity encounter of Joel Kupperman’s life as a Quiz Kid.

Michael Kupperman, a cartoonist and illustrator, used the scrapbooks and other research to chronicle his father’s life in an acclaimed 2018 graphic memoir, “All the Answers.”

Dr. Kupperman died at a nursing facility in Brooklyn. The immediate cause of death, his son said, was believed to be covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

In addition to his wife and son, survivors include another child, Charlie Kupperman of San Francisco; a sister, Harriet Moss, who was briefly a Quiz Kid in her youth, of Palo Alto, Calif.; and a grandson.

Dr. Kupperman published 10 books and dozens of academic papers and, in 2006, was named a distinguished professor at the University of Connecticut.

“Any moment when someone views his or her life and thinks ‘mission accomplished’ is a dangerous one,” Dr. Kupperman said at the time. “I have a strong sense of my own imperfections.”

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