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


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.

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.