W C Fields' famous warning to those in show business against being upstaged by children never reached Art Linkletter. For 30 years Linkletter, who has died aged 97, was a mainstay of American daytime television and radio, with two shows, People Are Funny and Art Linkletter's House Party, running simultaneously. In an era where a woman's place was still in the home, Linkletter was the perfect housewife's companion, an American Terry Wogan offering up friendly reassurance and unthreatening humour.
His essential amiability was the key to his crowning glory, the segment of House Party where he interviewed five children. Crouched at their level, Linkletter worked them with leading questions, and, as he put it, received "the pure unvarnished truth" in return, truth whose embarrassments he greeted with a perfectly pitched knowing double-take.
"What's your father's biggest complaint?" he would ask. "Mom's always asking for money." "And what's your mother's?" would come the innocent reply. "Dad never gives her any." Famously, when he asked one boy what his parents did for fun, the reply was, "I don't know, they always lock the door." It was reality television in the days before adults were forced into the children's roles.
Linkletter collected these interviews in a book, Kids Say The Darndest Things (1957), which, illustrated by the Peanuts creator George Schulz, spent two years on the bestseller list and became a franchise, spawning more books, a song by Tammy Wynette, a musical, a revival hosted by Bill Cosby from 1998-2000 and even a British show, imaginatively retitled Kids Say The Funniest Things, hosted by Michael Barrymore.
Despite being an archetype of Middle America, Linkletter was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 1912 as Gordon Arthur Kelly. Abandoned by his parents, he was adopted by the Linkletters, who had lost two children of their own. His father was a cobbler and evangelical preacher, who had Art playing triangle on street corners as a toddler.
The family moved to San Diego when Linkletter was five, and as he recalled in his book Confessions Of A Happy Man (1961), he began working at odd jobs almost immediately. A bright student, he finished high school at 16 and then spent two years "seeing the world", travelling with hobos, spending time as a seaman and even working in a Wall Street office as the stock market crashed.
He returned to San Diego and graduated from the local state university in 1934, but by then he had already started working in radio, which led to his doing live broadcasts from big regional fairs – by his count, more than 9,000 of them. It was here he learned his interviewing techniques and developed the skill of making entertainment out of the minutiae of his audience's lives.
He was successful in local radio in San Francisco, but floundered in Los Angeles until he hooked up with the producer John Guedel, who would go on to create an adult version of the Linkletter kids' interviews with You Bet Your Life for Groucho Marx, as well as the most anodyne of 1950s American sitcoms, Ozzie And Harriet. They made a demo of an audience participation show, called it People Are Funny, and it began on NBC radio in 1942. It featured Linkletter sending out members of the audience on stunts, as well as a segment where he went through a lady's handbag, wringing humour from the contents. The show ran on radio until 1960, while its television version lasted from 1954 to 1961.
In 1945, with working women returning to the home, Linkletter sold a second programme, House Party, to CBS, and sparked by the children's interviews it was even more successful, staying on radio until 1967 and on television from 1952 to 1969. The show eventually fell victim to the changing times of the Sixties, but the era brought tragedy to Linkletter's family, as his daughter Diane committed suicide; he attributed her death to an LSD trip. Ironically, he had recorded a spoken-word record against drug use, called "We Love You Call Collect", with Diane's rebuttal, "Dear Mom And Dad" on the other side. Released after her death, it became a hit, and won a Grammy. He became a drug advisor to President Richard Nixon, and a fervent campaigner against drug abuse.
Linkletter never had comic success outside his chosen format, but he was a shrewd businessman, particularly in real estate, and in constant demand as a pitchman. In recent years he was the face of USA Next, a conservative group set up to counteract the American Association of Retired Persons' opposition to privatising social security.
He produced many books, including a second autobiography, I Didn't Do It Alone (1980), the inspirational Old Age Is For Sissies (1990) and many volumes of self-help. Having been master of ceremonies at the launch of the original Disneyland in 1953, he was the guest of honour to celebrate its 50th anniversary. He received a lifetime achievement Emmy in 2003.
Linkletter, who suffered a mild stroke in 2008, died at home in Bel Air. He is survived by his wife Lois Foerster, a fellow student he married in 1935, and two daughters. Besides Diane, he outlived two sons: Robert, who died in a car crash, and his eldest son Jack, a television host who died in 2007, aged 70, of cancer. He is also survived by many of the estimated 30,000 children he interviewed on air. When Bill Cosby hosted a tribute to him, and revealed that everyone in the audience was a former Linkletter interviewee, he broke into a glowing smile. "Wonderful," he said.
Gordon Arthur Kelly (Arthur Gordon Linkletter), radio and television presenter: born Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan 17 July 1912; married 1935 Lois Foerster (one daughter deceased and two sons deceased); died Bel Air, California 26 May 2010.