Saturday, May 29, 2010

Death of An Art-ist's House Party

Art Linkletter, the friendly and whimsical, everyman host of the early, ad-libbed TV interview shows of the 1950s and 1960s, “People Are Funny” and “House Party,” died a few days ago at 97. Linkletter had a modest talent of ingratiating himself with his subjects and getting them to open up, often with funny and touching results. He was the consummate businessman of the American twentieth-century, complete with modest beginnings that he worked hard at anything to overcome. He recalls an astute yet simple early non high-def time in television history, when he premiered much of what was to come in television, only Art did it in a much more humane and respectful yet entertaining way.

His long-popular CBS "House Party" had a remarkable run of 17 years, from 1952 to 1969 (with a final year on NBC), through the era of the settled-in, buttoned-down Eisenhower cold-war style of Fifties conservatism to the end of high-flying, free-flowing, psychedelically-radical JFK/LBJ Sixties. On the show, he featured a popular segment in which he put small fry at ease, by never talking down to them. He mined and questioned their young alert minds for infinitely clever answers, that provided the jewel-like material for his best-selling, Charles Schulz-illustrated book, “Kids Say the Darndest Things!” Only Cosby and Letterman could later compare with Art's ability to make comfortable his children guests.

In "People Are Funny," the philosophically-simple title of the stunt-oriented, audience-participation prime-time show he hosted on radio and then television from 1943-61, he had a small-d, democratic respect for and delight in ordinary human nature. This was in stark contract to Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" segments, which generally make their subjects look vapid and stupid.

Linkletter hosted a forerunner of the now-trite "reality television," to help prove his belief that normal, everyday people were inherently interesting and entertaining. In one segment of "People are Funny," he gave small amounts of money to people who could keep random callers on the telephone line for three minutes on any selected topic. The calls, an amateur forerunner of "Whose Line Is It Anyway," were often a remarkable display of everyday finesse, patience, friendliness, and the desire not to be rude--all admirable traits that often are missing today from our everyday discourse.

While critics and snobby intellectuals found him "bland," "trite,"and "vanilla," millions of viewers saw into his talents, and responded with loyalty to his wholesome, friendly, clever, and upbeat nature. Women with time on their hands, made up much of his audience for the daily afternoon “House Party.” They found him to be the curious, wise-cracking next door attractive neighbor that they pined for, while husbands found him to be the friendly, safe neighbor who they waved to as they went off to work, leaving their wives in his relatively non-threatening hands. Linkletter was genuinely curious to know what was going on in the hearts and minds of the people he interviewed, and in his loyal distaff audience.

Linkletter was born Gordon Arthur Kelly on July 17, 1912, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He was abandoned by his parents at less than month old and adopted by Fulton John and Mary Metzler Linkletter, a middle-age couple whose two children had died. In his autobiography, “Confessions of a Happy Man,” Mr. Linkletter recalled his adoptive father, a one-legged cobbler and itinerant evangelist, as “a strange, uncompromising man whose main interest in life was the Bible.” By Art's fifth birthday, the Linkletters moved to an unpaved poverty-driven, adobe section of San Diego, and Art took any job he could find--including sorting through and cleaning lemons from an abandoned packing plant, and selling them for 6 cents a dozen. The family prayed and performed on street corners, with Art obediently playing the triangle. At 12, Linkletter discovered his roots while rummaging through his father’s desk, and he was impatient to learn more about the world outside of neighborhood.

After graduating high school at 16, the independent Mr. Linkletter took off to see the world with $10 in his pocket, riding freight trains and hitchhiking, while working here and there as a meatpacker, harvester, and a busboy in a roadhouse. “Among other things, I learned to chisel rides on freight trains, outwit the road bulls, cook stew with the bindlestiffs and never to argue with a gun.” He found work in a Wall Street bank as a quick and facile typist, just in time for the stock market crash in 29. He sailed off to Hawaii and Rio de Janeiro as a merchant seaman, and returned to enter San Diego State Teachers College (now San Diego State University) hoping to be an English teacher.

He got a bachelor’s degree in 1934, but in his senior year, did wanderlust took him to spot announcing at local radio station, KGB, and this led to radio work at the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego and at fairs in Dallas and San Francisco. With microphone in hand and hours to fill, Mr. Linkletter ad-libbed, performed stunts and went out into audience to attract attention and keep listeners entertained, ala Steve Allen and David Letterman. He was once lowered from a skyscraper in a boatswain’s chair, interviewing office workers on every floor as he descended. “It was the forced feeding of a young and growing M.C.,” who stayed on for more than 9,000 broadcasts.

Linkletter was in Hollywood but not of it. Unlike many of his neighbors, he was the exemplary family man - married 74 years - with a passel of kids of his own. One of them, Jack, who died in 2007, also became a TV host and was the original inspiration for his kid-terviews. Another, Diane, notoriously jumped to her death from a window, in 1969, at the age of 20, a suicide her father attributed to LSD. This turned Linkletter into an anti-drug crusader, which made him, for a while, a figure of counterculture ridicule.

Even after he retired from full-time broadcasting, Linkletter flitted in and out of television, as a pitchman or guest or talking head, a proponent of proactive aging, for which he was a kind of poster oldster. He briefly returned as a regular contributor to Cosby's late-'90s franchising of the old "House Party" segment, "Kids Say the Darndest Things."

One of his early TV gambits was to inventory and announce with often hilarious precision, the contents of an audience-member's purse--an exercise in exploring human commonality and variety, and a businessman's cheap dodge to get a laugh at a stranger's expense. His showman's trust in the beauty of humble detail, his interest in small things to make large points, are among his common-man, radical elements that always appealed to me. He was an early pioneer of the television culture, at a time when we would pay enough attention to be awed by unique nature of the common place.

It is a shame that TV now reflects our easily distracted, short attention-span nature, that does not pay much attention to the details of what is right around us. We would rather listen now to our i-pods and talk mindlessly on our cell phones and be cut off from the reality of what is in front of our eyes and ears. We could use a lot more of Linkletter's modest methods of entertainment that were simple yet visionary, that were common place yet exceptional, and that skimmed the surface of life but ran deeply into our hearts and minds.

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