Art Linkletter seemed to be on TV all the time when I was a child. In those black and white, pre-school days, he was the kindly man in the business suit talking to kids in the hours after Friendly Giant and before the soaps.
A friend who reads this blog (that is a friend) emailed his memories of Linkletter, who died Wednesday at 97. "I always thought that he was the kindest, most unassuming TV personality, just a down-to-earth, decent man," the friend wrote. (Pat McConvey wishes to remain anonymous.) "I can recall the start of People Are Funny when the animated, individual letters of the show's title would march across the screen, while the announcer would say, 'People...' then wait for the word, 'Are...' wait for the word, 'Funny' and the word would come across."
Linkletter was a natural broadcaster, cut from the same cloth as Friendly Giant Bob Homme, Captain Kangaroo's calm and soothing Bob Keeshan, Dick Clark, guys like Letterman and Regis today. He could wing it on TV and you could listen to him all day. He just had a winning way of putting you at ease.
Got to meet him a few times. The first was on the 35th anniversay of the opening of Disneyland, in July of 1990. Linkletter, Bob Cummings and some guy named Ronald Reagan hosted the theme park's opening day TV special in 1955 and the entertainment company--then in all its Michael Eisner glory--brought all three back for a lavish anniversary bash. Cummings--ageless for many years--was in rough shape and died soon after. Reagan was out of office less than two years. Linkletter, who was a close pal of Walt Disney, looked and sounded as smooth and professional as he did in the early '60s.
Outside on a riser contructed in front of the town square train station, the place swarming with security, Disney pulled out all the stops and gave Reagan a 21-gun salute. Trouble is they didn't tell him. When the guns started booming out at the Anaheim, Calif., theme park, everybody on the dias flinched and ducked, including Mickey and Donald. Reagan, standing next to Linkletter, crisply ad-libbed, "They missed."
About five years ago, CBS invited Linkletter to one of their crowded press tour partys. Word filtered through the room that, if you were tired of talking to Brad Garrett or Ray Romano or whoever, TV legend Linkletter was sitting in the corner.
He was as sharp as a tack. Those of us who started shouting were promptly told his hearing was perfectly fine. He was full of stories about the old days, including his Canadian roots. (Linkletter was born in Moose Jaw, Sask.) I'll try and dig the tape out when I get back from this road trip and post a little of that encounter.
The last time I spoke with him was in 2007. Linkletter, who wrote many books, was available for phoners while promoting his last effort, "How to Make the Rest of Your Life The Best of Your Life." I took the opportunity to quiz him on an urban legend I wanted to check out for my book. The story went that one of those innocent kids he interviewed on House Party blurted the darndest thing about his mom, that when dad was away, junior used to sleep im mom's bed--except when "Uncle" Steve slept over. Whoops.
It really happened, Linkletter confirmed. Kids say the darndest things.
I can't really think of anyone on TV like Linkletter today. (Tom Bergeron--maybe--has a hint of that everyman appeal.) He projected trust, optimism, confidence. He was America at mid century, before Dallas, before Vietnam, before Watergate. People are still funny, just not as sunny without the nice man in the grey suit.