Art Linkletter, the king of daytime television during the 1950s and 1960s, died Wednesday. One of the first radio hosts to successfully translate his shows to TV, Linkletter jumped into the new medium in 1952 when he moved Art Linkletter's House Party to CBS television. For most of the next 17 years, it was the most on of the most popular shows on the daytime air. Audience members were invited up on stage to chat or engage in contests.
The most memorable segment, Kids Say The Darndest Things, featured live interviews with children. They volunteered family gossip ("Our pussycat has got some kittens and I didn’t even know she was married!"), mused about their power fantasies ("I’d like to be king of the United States and have two special maids: The Easter Bunny and Santa Claus") and answered Linkletter's gentle questions with addled non-sequiturs.
Linkletter, asking a child how his parents met: What was your father doing?
Kid: "He was a bartender."
And your mother?
"She was attending a PTA meeting."
Another Linkletter radio show, People Are Funny, moved to NBC's primetime schedule in 1954 and stayed there until 1961. It not only let audience members participate in the studio (typical challenge: recite your Social Security number in five seconds or get hit in the face with a pie) but sent them outside to pull pranks on the unsuspecting -- trying to cash a check written on a 40-pound watermelon, or even just give money away, which usually provoked a paranoid response response from the victim.
Linkletter is remembered rather waspishly today by many Baby Boomers for a gag-me-with-an-axe record he released in 1969, a spoken-word plea to a fictional runaway daughter called We Love You -- Call Collect. The flip side featured a reply from his real-life daughter, Diane. The recording languished, unreleased, until Diane -- a troubled LSD user -- herself jumped to her death from her sixth-floor Hollywood apartment. Capitol Records rushed the record out and it reached No. 42 on the Billboard charts, which Time magazine cited as proof that "delight in other people's anguish has reached new levels of callousness -- and depressing commercial success."
Accurate though that may have been, Linkletter had a light, lively touch that's notably missing from today's daytime television. And his People Are Funny stunts were clearly the inspiration for both Dave Lettermen's Stupid Human Tricks and Jay Leno's Jaywalking. Linkletter may have influenced TV in more subtle ways, too. Original Saturday Night Live cast member Laraine Newman still has a recording of her appearance at age 4 in a Kids Say The Darndest Thingssegment. When Linkletter asked why her twin brother hadn't come to the show with her, Newman helpfully explained: "Oh, he’s sick. His eyes were about to fall out from watching television."