Editorials

TV host had gift with kids

Art Linkletter was a very nice man. I ought to know. In 1963, I was a kid on "House Party," saying the darndest things.

The CBS producers came to our school, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Santa Ana, Calif., in a procession only a little less than papal. They all shared the twinkle in the Linkletter eye, his knack for getting kids to spill. I have no idea what I said, but they must have loved it, because I got on the show.

Why? I drove Miss Blecksmith out of her mind in fourth grade, that's why. Poor woman. She couldn't shut me up. I suspect she pushed me for the show out of righteous vengeance. She knew my big mouth would delight the producers. She knew that once before the cameras, I'd say anything that bolted into my head, and that people would talk about it for years to come. She was absolutely right.

I was amazed (I was 8, remember) to get up with the moon still in the sky. I watched it as we kids rode to Los Angeles in my very first limousine. We met Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason, orbiting moons of our parents' world and thus of ours. (Red did Clem Kadiddlehopper for us.) And Art.

Art was a lovely man who knew how to talk to kids. At the preshow prep session, he hardly needed to make us comfortable. We already counted him as family. Only three channels then, so the TV family was unified as they no longer are. On the show, I talked to him as to an uncle.

I hope, oh, do I hope, no tapes survive. I told Art he had a receding hairline. I told him that in the morning, my mom's hair was in rollers, my dad "really cracked the whip" (audience now howling), and both had bad breath (audience in seizures of glee in the aisles). I said I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up and study dinosaurs. Little egghead Johnny, blahblahblah all day on national TV.

Art was laughing and dabbing his eyes. After, I even told him, "They should give me a show." He agreed. He couldn't stop laughing, and the cameras weren't even on.

He was a very good TV host. When we mumbled something rich, he repeated it for the audience. When I pointed at his forehead and said, "You have a receding hairline!" he whirled round and declared, "HE SAYS I'M GOING BALD!" And the early-1960s crowd joined him in staggering (so it seemed to me) gales of laughter.

Throughout that charmed day, Art came and went, came back. CBS treated us to a big lunch at the Farmer's Market on Third and Fairfax. Art stayed for a few minutes, spoke to each kid, recalled each one's best joke. He made each of us feel, "He sees me, only me."

Many adults are like that, but not all, and that's what makes this a dangerous world. If the entire order of adults had the Linkletter gift, could see each child -- both ways, as in "See what's special" and "Imagine himself as that child" -- this world would be closer to family.

His show seems cute and jejune today. TV as of 2010 does not often afford such ancient, innocent laughter.

Mom and Dad sat next to me in the living room as we watched the prerecorded show. I wish I were exaggerating, but they held their sides and rolled on the floor. Not just because it was Johnny. Because it was TV, and the whole world watched.

Art offered that laughter to many people for many years. Let others note the sadness in his life. What I'll always remember is what I saw in those sparkling eyes when I said, "You have a receding hairline."

Contact Timpane, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, at jt@phillynews.com.

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