8-YEAR-OLD: "No, I'm a Catholic Baptist."
The news of Art Linkletter's death May 26 revived the memory of countless exchanges with his daily quartet of kids on CBS's Art Linkletter's House Party. Likewise, a number of us who have been associated with Game Show Congress have privately been kicking ourselves for not making one of television's longest-lived pioneers one of our honorees before his passing.
Linkletter died at his home in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles after a short illness. Only two months away from his 98th birthday, not only did the Canadian orphan (born Arthur Gordon Kelly) become one of the earliest standard-setters for broadcast emcees, he incorporated games into his earliest local radio shows in the mid-1930s.
"I always played games with my audience on radio, whether it was on the street, in the studio or over the telephone," Linkletter told TVgameshows.net in a 1999 telephone interview. "It was the most foolproof way to open up people and get them to be themselves. People love to play games and whether they won or lost, you could capture that instant emotion that was the real person inside."
Linkletter broke into broadcasting in 1932 while attending college in San Diego. He considered careers in medicine and English. However, the microphone magnetized him and he never looked back.
"Radio allowed me to be a conversationalist with people from every walk of life," Linkletter said in 1999. "You have to have a curiosity about people and an ability to recognize your job is to make your guests the spotlight of your broadcast."
After toiling in local radio for a decade, Linkletter hooked up with former advertising agency executive and producer John Guedel in 1941. In an interview for Guedel's Los Angeles Times obituary in 2001, Linkletter said: "We've been partners all those years, and it was a partnership distinguished by the fact that we never had a signed contract and never had a disagreement....John and I were the perfect match for two people: we were both creative, we both had original ideas; he liked to produce, and I liked to star."
The company was officially named Guedel-Linkletter Productions but on the air, the shows were all referred to as "A John Guedel Production."
In 1942, only months after America plunged deeply into World War II, Guedel created "People Are Funny," which bore a resemblance to Ralph Edwards' "Truth or Consequences" but borrowed from a 1938 stunt show Guedel created in 1938, "Pull Over, Neighbor."
"We may have placed people in exaggerated situations to see how they would react but we never embarrassed anyone or we never hurt a single person," Linkletter said. "'People Are Funny' did exactly what the show's title indicated----demonstrated that the average person is far funnier than most entertainers."
"People Are Funny" endured for 19 years on television and radio. The show was an NBC Radio staple for 12 years before moving to television in 1954 for a seven-year run.
Toward the end of the war, Guedel and Linkletter developed a pioneering format with "Art Linkletter's House Party." For its daytime schedule, CBS Radio bought the format, which focused on multiple topics with a heavy target of women. An added segment, which became Linkletter's trademark, was a seven-minute conversation with school children from the Los Angeles area. The youngsters' frequently spontaneous comments became fodder for Linkletter's best-seller, "Kids Say the Darndest Things."
"House Party" launched in 1945 and spawned a television nighttime edition under the title "Life with Linkletter" on ABC from 1950 to 1952. CBS, looking to bolster its growing but constantly-changing daytime video lineup, moved "House Party" to television in 1952 as a 45-minute show from 2:45 to 3:30. For several years, a separate radio version continued but in 1953, "House Party" was shortened on television to a conventional half-hour from 2:30 to 3, where it remained until a significant format and title change in 1968 hastened its demise.
"We were probably the first magazine show," Linkletter told TVgameshows.net. "We were doing things about fashion, diet, exercise, marriage and family long before NBC was doing it on the 'Home' show (launched in 1954 with Arlene Francis)."
During the 1952-53 season, Linkletter produced a series of 26 fifteen-minute filmed interviews with children under the title Art Linkletter and the Kids. The show was syndicated to more than 140 local stations and continued to run well into the next decade, mostly as weekend fillers.
In 1954, Linkletter and Guedel developed a quiz adapted from Guedel's radio game, "Your Tropical Trip," emceed by Desi Arnaz. "Earn Your Vacation" only ran one summer but periodically retained a life years afterward from the barbs revived about the game from its host, Johnny Carson. "Sundays at 5 on CBS, that's when we were on," Carson once said on "The Tonight Show." "We were seen by about five people and the cats in my Aunt Sally's rooming house."
Linkletter's success with both "People" and "House Party" made him a popular choice for prime time appearances. In 1956, he co-hosted the annual Emmy Awards. He made guest appearances on variety shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Gisele MacKenzie, Maurice Chevalier, Jack Benny, Dinah Shore, John Davidson and Red Skelton. He turned up, usually as himself, on Benny's sitcom and the weekly laughfests of Lucille Ball and Bob Cummings and the '80s comedy "Small Wonder."
Linkletter also took a few turns as a serious actor. He appeared as George Washington in a 1955 edition of the Sunday syndicated religious series "The Christophers." In 1957, he made the first of four starring guest shots on Ronald Reagan's "General Electric Theatre." Perhaps his most celebrated role was in "The Bible Man," an episode of Dick Powell's "Zane Grey Theatre" in 1961 on CBS. Teaming with his son Jack, who was following in his father's footsteps as an emcee, Linkletter portrayed a widowed minister whose son (Jack) blamed his father for his mother's death. The episode was heavily promoted on "House Party," highlighted by a scene where the Linkletters became intensely angry with each other. At a climatic point, Art slapped Jack in the face. The two told amusing stories on "House Party" about the buildup in the sequence. The episode was the highest-rated of the final first-run season of "Zane Grey."
In 1959, Guedel and Linkletter developed a prime time game show for CBS, "We Pay Your Bills." Created as a celebrity panel show with civilian contestants (a la "What's My Line?" and "To Tell the Truth"), "We Pay Your Bills" was designed as a five-day-a-week vehicle with a prime time option for Arthur Godfrey as host after Godfrey gave up his daytime variety show for CBS. The network never found a slot for the game and Godfrey signed to host the first season of CBS's "Candid Camera." The concept was revived in 1964 with Richard Deacon, June Lockhart and Sam Levenson as panelists. Again, pitched as a possible midseason prime time replacement, the game was played weekly for two months on "House Party" before being abandoned.
During the long history of House Party, Pillsbury was a primary sponsor of half of the show. Art and his announcer Jack Slattery were both effective spokespersons for the company's popular baking products. In 1959, CBS began televising the finals of the annual Pillsbury Bake-Off live in Linkletter's regular slot with Art both producing and hosting.
In 1960-61, NBC deposited People Are Funny in its kiss of death slot Sunday evenings at 6:30. However, the network----which made more than one quiet pass at attempting to spirit away "House Party" for its daytime lineup----brought Linkletter back. He was signed to do a pair of two-week stints hosting "The Tonight Show" during the six-month interregnum after Jack Paar left the late-night talker before Johnny Carson assumed the reins. NBC had an underlying motive. Linkletter's CBS contract was up at the end of 1962. NBC executives were reportedly willing to give Linkletter a full daytime hour in the 2-to-3 time slot to make the move. CBS quickly moved to extend its deal with Linkletter for seven more years at a significant salary increase. Merv Griffin ultimately was handed the afternoon hour and was canceled after 39 weeks after failing to unseat House Party and Password.
Linkletter was a popular face as a guest on network game shows. He made six appearances on What's My Line? as both a guest panelist and mystery guest. In one of the series' most spontaneously funny moments, Linkletter ---who had written a new children's book in 1965---was succeeding handsomely at fooling the panel. Finally, Bennett Cerf zeroed in on the kids' book status. "Are you Henry Morgan?," confidently asked Cerf. The audience, host John Daly and Linkletter roared. Morgan, indeed, had concurrently penned a book for children which had gained notoriety.
Linkletter also turned up on I've Got a Secret, About Faces, Stump the Stars, The Celebrity Game, It Takes Two (with wife Lois), the original Hollywood Squares (including once as the Center Square) and The New Hollywood Squares with John Davidson.
At midseason 1963, NBC made a decision to move The Price Is Right from its sagging Monday night slot to Fridays. The network called on Linkletter for a prime time variation on People Are Funny that included hidden camera elements (a la Candid Camera) with a studio audience and celebrity panelists attempting to guess the outcomes. The Art Linkletter Show never had a chance for one primary reason-----its time slot opposition was The Andy Griffith Show. "You and my wife, the people in the audience and about 25 family members are the only people who remember that show," Linkletter told us in 1999. "The network wanted my name in the title but when you call something 'The Art Linkletter Show' that makes people think it's a comedy or a variety show. Then, a couple of months into the show, we changed the format. It was the old story of being rushed on the air, in an impossible time slot and not enough time to properly develop the show."
Two summers later, Linkletter was back in prime time. CBS owned the title and format to Talent Scouts, which was Arthur Godfrey's biggest evening hit in the 1950s and was television's number one show in the 1951-52 season. After Scouts had run its course with the Ol' Redhead, CBS felt the program had plenty of life as a straight variety show, rather than the audience-vote contest of the Godfrey years. Sam Levenson, Jim Backus and Merv Griffin rotated as emcees of Talent Scouts over three summers and Rudy Vallee helmed a similarly-structured On Broadway Tonight in the summer of 1964. In June 1965, Art Linkletter's Hollywood Talent Scouts took over as the summer stand-in for The Red Skelton Hour. The hour was the highest-rated summer series on CBS and earned a midseason berth for a 39-week run the following December.
In February 1966, Art Linkletter's House Party became CBS's first daytime series to permanently convert to color. However, a year later, some ominous signs began to float concerning the future of the network's oldest non-dramatic daytime show.
CBS daytime programmer Fred Silverman opted to lop off Password, which combined with House Party and To Tell the Truth as a strong tripleheader at mid-afternoon. Allen Ludden's venerable word game was slowly losing its time slot to ABC's younger-skewing The Newlywed Game. Linkletter and Guedel lobbied heavily to expand House Party to a full hour from 2 to 3. Silverman was more interested in developing new daytime drama Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, loosely based on the mid-fifties hit movie. Linkletter was miffed when the new soap's ratings fell below those of Password (and never reached hit status during its six-year run).
In the summer of 1968, Silverman made a decision that sealed the fate of House Party. The young programmer wanted to take the network out of the 15-minute soap opera business and expanded the veteran Search for Tomorrow (the only show on CBS daytime older than Linkletter's) and The Guiding Light to 30 minutes each. The Guiding Light was moved to Linkletter's traditional 2:30 p.m. slot.
Armed with data suggesting Linkletter's audience had grown old, Silverman dispatched House Party to 4 p.m. in a 25-minute format---only he demanded significant changes. Published reports at the time suggest Linkletter, then 56, was told to add a variety of younger regulars to give the show a fresh look. Silverman also wanted Linkletter to take the show out of the studio more, a la the format of PM Magazine in syndication a decade later. Linkletter balked at some of the requested changes but compromised on others. He brought his son Jack, a semiregular on House Party earlier in the decade, back and introduced his 19-year-old daughter Diane as a so-called "roving reporter" on younger Hollywood and popular culture. The half-hour was renamed The Linkletter Show.
In the later time slot, Linkletter became the first of a long line of CBS 4:00 shows that suffered the fate of weaker affiliate clearances. Particularly in the East, a number of affiliates were anxious to get an earlier start on potentially more profitable syndicated offerings. In at least 20 markets, The Linkletter Show was either dropped altogether or delayed until the following morning.
Linkletter faced the final season of NBC's The Match Game and ABC's young-skewing Dark Shadows as his time slot opponents. The Linkletter Show fell to second in the ratings behind Match Game but both shows trailed the Gothic soap in coveted younger demographics.
By the following March, looking for a slot to plant repeats of CBS's megahit Gomer Pyle, USMC, Silverman gave Linkletter the news. After 17 years as a CBS daytime pioneer, Linkletter's daily half-hour would end in early September 1969. Ironically, The Match Game was unceremoniously dumped by a new NBC daytime chief programmer the same month.
One month after the series ended, Art's life was changed far more dramatically than any series cancellation could create. The morning of October 4, 1969, 20-year-old Diane Linkletter leaped from the sixth-floor window of her apartment in Shoreham Towers in Los Angeles and plunged to her death. In interviews with The Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press, Art----whose career and personal life had been free from controversy or tragedy----said Diane was the one of his five children who was a free spirit and rebellious. He was aware of her experimentation with recreational drugs which were becoming an increasing part of the California youth culture. Art suspected Diane's decision to jump to her death was from the influence of an LSD trip. Yet, the coroner's report revealed no trace of drugs in Diane's system. More than 40 years later, conspiracy theories----many of which have been amplified in the internet era----continue to abound as to what led to Diane Linkletter's suicide.
Most industry observers felt Linkletter may have tossed in the towel on television had NBC not called late in 1969. The Peacock Network was experiencing the equivalent of a crash after an energy drink's strength runs out. The loss of Let's Make a Deal to ABC in December 1968 led to a sudden collapse of its post-noon lineup.
Less than three months after losing his daughter and only 15 weeks after NBC stunningly pulled the plug on both You Don't Say! and The Match Game from its afternoon lineup, Art cranked up the engine again under his original television title of Life with Linkletter. Art would only agree to the deal under three conditions: a significant budget increase over his final season on CBS, the add-on of his son Jack as co-host and a guarantee of no less than 39 weeks. NBC agreed.
Unfortunately, the competitive landscape had changed. NBC, looking for an alternative to the gap left by the loss of Deal a year earlier at 1:30 in the East and 12 noon on the Pacific Coast, sent Linkletter head-on against Monty Hall and the venerable As the World Turns. Hall, armed with mounds of publicity generated over his bitter contract dispute with NBC, was given a promotional whirlwind in the late fall of 1968 unprecedented in daytime television history. Let's Make a Deal quickly overtook World Turns in the Nielsens and sent ABC's daytime fortunes soaring both before and after the half-hour on the trading floor. NBC's attempt at a weak soap opera (Hidden Faces) and the game show You're Putting Me On failed miserably.
Linkletter was equally left in the lurch. Despite an attempt to do more filmed features out of the studio, Life with Linkletter had a stiffer approach than the livelier House Party. Never rising above a 19 percent share of the audience, the NBC Linkletter half-hour quietly died in September of 1970. TV Guide reported: "Linkletter appears to be indifferent to the cancellation. He is far more interested in his new focus as a celebrity leader in the campaign against drug abuse."
Linkletter increasingly became more of a nostalgic figure after the NBC series. He occasionally returned for guest shots with Lucille Ball and Johnny Carson and did Dean Martin's celebrity roast for Monty Hall in 1973. He appeared on the occasional game show, including (with his wife Lois) Vin Scully's It Takes Two and Hollywood Squares.
Also in 1974, Linkletter showed his intense knowledge of the drug culture on a well-remembered edition of Tom Snyder's Tomorrow on NBC. Linkletter had been appointed to a Presidential panel on drugs and their impact on society. After Art rattled off specifics of the adverse effects of more than a dozen recreational drugs, Snyder was stunned. "Art, you really know this stuff.....you're not like most of these celebrities who just want to attach their names to a campaign against drug abuse," Snyder told him. "When you lose a daughter to drugs, you either wallow in pity, or you make up your mind to try to do something about it, as meager as that may be," Linkletter said.
Arguably his most pointed appearance came on Hall's 1975 ABC's Wide World of Entertainment special, "That Great American Game Show." Joining Bob Barker and Mark Goodson in a roundtable discussion near the end of the show, Linkletter was asked about a Time magazine story which depicted game shows as "mindless entertainment" and "bubble gum for housewives." Said Linkletter: "It's long past time for the editors of Time magazine to get off of their ivory towers and recognize there's an America out there outside of their offices in New York and Washington. I've spent 30 years entertaining audiences and I can tell the people at Time, they're anything but mindless." The crowd in Hall's studio roared its approval.
In the spring of 1978, Linkletter made amends with CBS and agreed to appear on its 50th anniversary celebration, CBS: On the Air. He narrated a brief segment recalling the network's highlights in daytime television.
Linkletter also became a much-demanded lecturer and fundraiser. He committed himself to raising money for the launch and continuation of Christian and Jewish schools throughout the country. In 1999 in Jackson, Tn., Linkletter said: "Our Christian and Jewish schools are teaching value systems to our children that public schools often won't allow today. I'll go anywhere to help them."
In 1980, the Linkletters were awakened to news of a second family tragedy. Their son Robert was killed in an automobile accident.
In the nineties, Linkletter made two returns to television. In 1992, he showed up with a 13-week series on Nostalgia Television, The Art Linkletter Show. Touting the positive side of aging on cruise ships, in senior citizens centers and on travel tours, Art did the cable series largely as a companion piece to his best-seller, "Old Age Is Not for Sissies."
In late 1997, Linkletter licensed the rights to the title "Kids Say the Darndest Things" to CBS and LMNO Productions. With Bill Cosby under a CBS contract for a new Cosby sitcom, the network sought Linkletter's okay for Cosby to host an updated Kids Say with a format similar to the old House Party kids segment. Slated for Friday nights at 8, CBS and Cosby both suggested dipping into the House Party archives and bringing Linkletter back for periodic trips into nostalgia. Art's segments became so popular that he appeared on two out of every three broadcasts. Kids Say the Darndest Things, the only television version under that title, was a modest success in its two-and-a-half year run. Cable's Nick at Nite later briefly aired reruns of the Cosby edition.
Jack Linkletter, who emceed two game shows (Haggis Baggis and The Rebus Game), the ABC prime time folk music series Hootenanny, two magazine shows (CBS's On the Go and NBC's Here's Hollywood) and The Miss Universe Pageant (in 1964 and 1965), ended his national television career after being tapped to host NBC's big-budget New York-based midday talk/magazine show America Alive in 1978. The overproduced attempt by producer Woody Fraser to replicate the format of Good Morning America on another network failed miserably. America Alive lost 35 percent of the rating of its predecessors, Sanford and Son reruns and The Gong Show. Jack returned to California and became a real estate agent. In the '90s, he took over management of his father's company, properties and his entertainment and speaking ventures. Jack died Dec. 18, 2007, of lymphoma. He was 70.
Shortly before Art's death, he was interviewed for "When the World Breaks," a documentary by director Hans Fjellestad. The film, a portrayal of The Great Depression and the survival of the arts during times of crises, is making the rounds of assorted U.S. and international film festivals. Linkletter was joined by such colleagues as Monty Hall, Hugh Downs and Phyllis Diller in the picture.
Art Linkletter is survived by his wife of 74 years, the former Lois Foerster; two daughters, Dawn and Sharon; seven grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren.
Coming soon on ensuing pages will be closer looks at the most significant individual shows of Linkletter.
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