America lost one of its good guys last week when the affable and genial Art Linkletter passed away at the age of 97.
Art was the host of two of television’s longest-running programs, “House Party” and “People are Funny.” Like millions of Americans, I have terrific memories of watching him talk and laugh with young children. Being a child myself back in the 1960s, I could relate to the kids appearing on his show. In fact, I can remember thinking they looked and thought and sounded a lot like me. Because they did.
In some ways, Art’s interest in what those children cared about validated my own quiet and private thoughts, hopes, fears and dreams. From my perspective, he had all the qualities of a good father, something that I was desperately missing. He was a good listener, appeared to genuinely care and like his guests, enjoyed a good laugh and often spoke lovingly of his own wife and five children.
So, was his knack for connecting with youngsters why so many tuned in for so long?
Art once speculated on the source of his popularity. He said, only half-jokingly, “I stand fearlessly for small dogs, the American flag, motherhood and the Bible.” Long-time listeners of Focus on the Family will remember hearing Art talk about his Christian testimony on our daily radio program. To this day it remains one of our most popular and most requested programs of all time, which is why we’re re-airing it today, Thursday, and Friday.
Art Linkletter lived a long and wildly fascinating life. He was born Gordon Arthur Kelly, but was abandoned when he was just one-month old. He was adopted by Fulton John and Mary Metzler Linkletter, an older couple in their 50s whose own children had tragically died.
Art’s new father, Fulton, was a one-legged itinerant evangelist, a street preacher. The small family was poor and barely got by, living in church basements and other borrowed housing, entirely reliant on the generosity of others. As a five-year-old he played a triangle on street corners to attract passers-by to his father’s preaching.
After graduating from high school and with just $10 in his pocket, Art set off to explore the world. He rode freight trains and steamer ships and worked as a meatpacker and busboy. He eventually returned to the United States and graduated with a degree in English from San Diego State Teachers College (now San Diego State University), intending to teach school.
A surprise call from a program director at radio station KGB in San Diego (he was working in the campus cafeteria washing dishes and making salads) changed the course of his life. Hired to do some spot-announcing, Art became intrigued by the emerging power and influence of radio. But he had a problem. He said, “I don’t act. I can’t sing. I can’t play a musical instrument, and I don’t tell funny stories.”
Would he quit and give up? Hardly. “I heard a couple of guys in Dallas, Texas, on CBS, our network, do a crazy thing. They took a microphone out on the street. And that was the beginning of the reality shows, because they didn’t know who they were going to talk to, what they were going to say. There were no prizes. There was no production. Who are you? Where are you going? What do you think? When I saw that, I knew what I should do.”
How did he get the idea to talk with children and make them the focal point of his show? “I was a listener,” he reflected, “and I was interested in people. I liked people. And especially liked kids.” To hear Art tell the story, his future swung on the hinges of a single conversation with his five-year-old son. He was at home one day testing out a new tape recorder:
My son, Jack, came home. Just came home from his first day of school. So I called him over to the thing (a new tape recorder) . . . and I said, “Jack, tell me what you did today.”
He said, “I went to school.”
“For the first day?”
“Yes, first day.”
“Well, how did you like it?”
He says, “I ain’t going back.”
I said, “You’re not going back? Why?”
“Well,” he says, “I can’t read, I can’t write, and they won’t let me talk.”
And I took that record down, and played it on a Sunday night, “Who’s Dancing?” I said “You’ll never guess who was dancing.” I put this on. Letters came from around San Francisco and Oakland saying, “What a wonderful thing, a father talking to his son about things that he thinks. He’s not a professional. He’s not rehearsed, nothing he’s written for him. The kid isn’t playing a violin while riding a unicycle at the age of 6. He’s just a kid.”
Art’s life was not all sweetness and light. Though married for 74 years to Lois Foerster, their daughter, Diane, struggled with drugs (LSD) and committed suicide in 1969. In 1980 their son, Robert, died in a car accident. Their oldest son, Jack, died of cancer in 2007.
After his daughter’s tragic death, he received a call from his friend, the famed preacher and author, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale:
[He] said, “I know what you’re going through. A minister tries to console, comfort and sympathize, and explain why a loving, kind God would permit somebody in a wonderful family, a nice family to have this happen.”
“But Art,” he said, “He may have some other plan. He may have a plan for you. I said, “What do you mean a plan for me?”
He said, “You are accepted by the American family as a part of them. Why don’t you start a private personal crusade to convince parents that they are in the front line trenches and the epidemic of drug abuse that is rapidly descending upon this country.”
And I talked it over with my wife and we decided it was a very tough thing to do to go out and talk about it and I knew very little about it but I learned a lot, went around with some very good people and I began to lecture here and there on drug abuse.
And I found out that all of this radio stuff and all of this television stuff was just a preparation for me being a lecturer. I enjoyed lecturing more than all radio and TV…I just kind of slowly got out of everything else, and I, then I began to get offers of helping other people.”
Art once said the secret to his success could be summed up in a single word: Yes. He was willing to say ‘yes’ when presented with opportunities and invitations to serve and help others. He allowed the Holy Spirit to guide and direct his endeavors. He was willing to commit to things; he was willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of a cause greater than himself. He said yes.
What a guy. What a life. I never had a chance to meet him, but know I will some day on the other side of the veil.
I’m sure you’ll enjoy these two special programs.