Art Linkletter (17 July 1912–26 May 2010) was a radio and television talk-show pioneer, a bestselling author, a philanthropist, a successful businessman, a motivational speaker, and, by every account I have read, a true gentleman. He is often described as charming, genial, mischievous, and, perhaps above all, an eternal optimist.
Art was born Gordon Arthur Kelly in the small Canadian town of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He was abandoned by his unwed mother when Art was just a few weeks’ old. He was adopted by a couple in their 50s, an itinerant evangelist Baptist preacher and cobbler John Linkletter and his wife Mary. The family moved to California when Art was still a child, around age 5.
At 16, Art graduated from San Diego High School. Art’s father used to make Art take odd jobs to help the family, so Art became a hobo, hopping trains across the West, working where he could. He was a waiter’s assistant in Chicago, a dock worker in New Orleans, a meat packer in Minneapolis, a coupon clerk on Wall Street during the crash of 1929, and a shipboard labourer between New York and Buenos Aires.
Eventually, Art enrolled at San Diego State Teachers College, earning his bachelor’s degree in English and psychology in 1914. Art’s plan was to be an English professor.
But life, he said later, got in the way of his plans. He turned down a teaching job to be radio announcer at San Diego station KGB, a job he had worked part-time in his junior year at university. The radio job paid more than the teaching job. And radio success soon followed.
A small, innocent moment steered Art into the direction for which Art would become most famous. Art was experimenting with an early recording machine while preparing for a radio show when his 5-year-old son, Jack, came home from his first day at kindergarten. Art switched on the recording machine and asked Jack what he thought of school: ‘I ain’t going back’, Jack said, ‘I can’t read, I can’t write, and they won’t let me talk. Why go back?’ Art played the recording on his radio show Who’s Dancing Tonight?, which inspired a new radio segment on CBS radio, House Party. The program segued from radio to television in 1952, running until 1969. A popular part of the program was the segment Kids Say the Darndest Things.
Art knew he would be remembered most for his humorous interactions with children. He said the funniest response he ever got from a child was when a boy answered the question ‘What animal would you like to be?’ The child answered, ‘An octopus’ — so that he could grab the many bullies in his school and hit them with his ‘testicles’.
In 1935, Lincoln married Lois, with whom he stayed married for 75 years until Art’s death in 2010. In 1942, Art moved to Hollywood where he pioneered many ideas that became the prototype for modern game shows, talk shows, children’s shows, and reality shows.
Art and Lois had five children, three of whom predeceased Art. In 1969, Art’s 20-year-old daughter leapt out of a window to her death, a suicide Art blamed on LSD use. 35-year-old Robert died in 1980 in a car accident. And Jack, who recorded the pivotal moment that steered Art’s career, died in 2007 aged 70 of lymphoma.
Art was also a successful businessman, investing in, among other things, oil wells, lead mines, hula hoops, restaurants, a skate park, a bowling alley, television programs, manufacturing plants, Australian sheep stations, and the board game Game of Life. His Linkletter Enterprises controlled more than 70 businesses.
Art was also a successful author, publishing more than 20 books, including the bestselling Kids Say the Darndest Things (1959). With the help of schoolteacher Harold Dunn, he also wrote Kids Sure Rite Funny (1962). In 2009, I wrote to Art, introducing him to my first mass-market book Funny English Errors and Insights: Illustrated. Art responded generously and helpfully, welcoming my inclusion in the volume a few extracts from Kids Sure Rite Funny.
Art died of old age at 97. He hadn’t been diagnosed with any life-threatening disease. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink. He watched his diet. He swam, rode bikes, lifted weights, and slept eight hours a night.
In an interview in 1990, Art said ‘Life in not fair… But I’m an optimist. Even though I’ve had tragedies in my life, and I’ve seen a lot of difficult things, I am still an optimist.’ If you watch Art’s television programs and read Art’s books, you can see his optimism come through his work. I could see it come through his correspondence with me. Art’s radio and television work was rooted in the optimistic belief that people are inherently interesting and entertaining. From what I can gather, Art celebrated people — he did not treat children’s apparent blunders as failings but as signs of creativity and innocence. He didn’t mock children, he empathised with them.
I hope a similar optimism might come through The Funny Dictionary (2018). If it does, then I have to thank, in no small way, Art’s impish and gentlemanly gift for eliciting the ancient and innocent humour of children’s amusing sayings.
1. Quoted in The Jackson Sun, 28 May 2010, C3.
2. Quoted in Los Angeles Times, 28 May 2010, D16.
3. Quoted in Honolulu Advertiser, 27 May 2010, B2.
4. Quoted in The Jackson Sun, 28 May 2010, C3.
Art Linkletter, Kids Sure Rite Funny (1962).
Springfield Leader and Press, 2 December 1962.
Arizona Republic, 27 May 2010.
News-Press, 27 May 2010.
Honolulu Advertiser, 27 May 2010.
Los Angeles Times, 27 May 2010.
Jackson Sun, 28 May 2010.
Los Angeles Times, 28 May 2010.
Morning Call, 30 May 2010.
Philadelphia Inquirer, 30 May 2010.