Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Art Linkletter Says the Damndest Things!

Art Linkletter's "House Party," where kids said the darnedest things.

The Public Arts: Art Linkletter Says the Damndest Things! Author(s): Patrick D. Hazard and Mary Hazard Source: The English Journal, Vol. 49, No. 3, English Today: Eight NCTE Convention Addresses (Mar., 1960), pp. 197-200 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English

Amid the excitement of the television quiz scandals another sort of television rigging goes unobserved--a fixing more insidious in its operation and more serious in its implications. Public anger aroused by the quiz show exposes is directed at having been played the fool. The real scandal, of course, is not that a contestant be paid $64,000 for an answer he did not know, but that anyone be paid $64,000 for any answer-prompted or spontaneous--and that millions of viewers should be satisfied that the intellectual has thereby come into his own. The real scandal is the illusion of the intellectual created by the network, agency, audience, and participant.

Television and the compliant squealing audience have created another illusion: the television world of children-a world of frenetic activity, perpetual din, adult innuendo, and children's home permanents. The child is exploited in many ways to create this nightmare world: the curried child performer appears on adult programs; real live children attend a nursery "school" whose curriculum is largely brand-name toys for Mommy to buy-today!; rows of dutiful "Hey, Kids!" sit watching hard-sell commercials punctuated only briefly by the vulgar antics of an unfunny clown and some unimaginative puppets.

Having been thus shouted, cajoled, seduced, and bribed into his role as amplifier for adult pitchmen, the child is fit for nothing more demanding in his non-working hours than crude old cartoons and new slapstick shorts. Having looked on all this horror, he is on holidays treated to a classic cleaned up for television so that he need not look on life-like emotion such as family contention (fairy tales) or a real death from causes other than gun-shot wounds (Little Women). A Captain Kangaroo or a Mr. Wizard suggest what might be done for children's TV with quiet common sense, adult restraint, and a speaking acquaintance with a live child, but each Captain Kangaroo is overwhelmed by fifty Captain Videos and every Mr. Wizard is overrun by hordes of Mighty Mice.

Art Linkletter, however, has his own satellite for the television world of children: Art Linkletter's secret world of kids. He has recently presented two exhibitions of this arcane world for the uninitiated: the first, a television program on NBC, "The Secret World of Kids" (October 27, 9:30-10:30 p.m.), which was largely a visual aid to the second presentation, his book of the same title, published on the same day by Bernard Geis Associates ($3.50).

The television show was purportedly a running feud between Linkletter's "abiding faith in kids" and Vincent Price's faith in chimpanzees. Price's faith in kids was shaken onstage when Tom Sawyer (played by Mickey Rooney's son, Teddy) whitewashed Price's "Blue Boy" canvas. Price was further exasperated that Tom did not enjoy his library of children's books: "Did you ever try to explain a children's classic to a child raised in front of a TV set?"

The scene adjourned to "Aunt Polly's Place" where Tom Sawyer, Private Eye, observed a ten-year-old cabaret dancer executing bumps and grinds (did she wear a toy girdle?) while belting out "Blues in the Night" in a Theresa Brewer hiccough. Dialogue of the Spillane-Webb school followed, adapted to ten-year-old interests such as seduction and fast living.

Ed Wynn narrated cute captions for a baby's thoughts as we plodded through his nursery routine in the next sequence. Short shots of Price and the chimp kept us posted on the simian progress with the TV stereotype of culture: violin, ballet, and easel painting.

Finally, the "part where we live dangerously, proving that kids say the darndest things." Five children played Mr. Bones to Linkletter's Mr. Interlocutor. He set them up with questions about their genealogy ("Where did you get that flaming carrot-top?"), their love life ("How are you on kissing?" thrusting a beefy cheek at the little girl), and their parents' love life ("How did your parents meet?") Linkletter's naive surprise at the forthcoming double entendres was hardly less simulated than the prurient tittering in the audience. Most of the children were cooperative Pinocchios to Linkletter's wooden-headed Geppetto, but not all had cute responses every time. After all, did you ever try to teach a children's classic to a kid raised in front of a TV set?

Mrs. Hannah Nixon, mother of the Vice President, suffered an interview with Linkletter as her son beamed behind her on a TV monitor. Mrs. Nixon's dismayed reaction at discovering him on the set behind her will win no Emmys. Nor will the cosmic cliches exchanged about child rearing endanger the suburban vote for Nixon.

The last shot of the Chimp showed him at work translating Linkletter's book into foreign languages. He apparently does not spend his time before the TV set and Linkletter.

The Book

The book presents the same rigged world of the child, television model, but with the added dimension of Linkletter's philosophy. This embraces such bromides as "life is a complicated business, and the sooner kids realize it the better." And no matter if one bromide contradicts another; Linkletter's digestion is strong. Within four pages of each other, the best cure for a spoiled kid is a new baby (p. 62) and mother should understand that her suddenly unruly angel is just jealous of the new baby (p. 66). There is even a soporific to soothe the incompatible bromides: "Your American youngster may know less Latin and, [sic] be hazy about higher mathematics and get lost in the maze of philosophy. But he has the toughness of mind and the capability for compromise and the ability to get along with people that enable him to swim, not sink, in our highly competitive society."

Having thus written off philosophy, Mr. Linkletter can yet consider himself a writer. Always the psychologist, he traces his "ear for words and their rhythm" to his childhood forced encounters with the Bible. The author's foreword dispels any doubts about his literary abilities: "Here's hoping the following words of wisdom don't wind up as trash in your basket. If they do, I'll never forgive myself. Or you!"

Unrepentant, we can dismiss Linkletter as man of letters. There remains his self-image as Link, Everykid's Homey Adviser. (Linkletter apologizes for such fancy terms as "psychologist.") He promises that in this book he is "going to talk about the secret world of kids as he sees it every day through the most wonderful window in the world-the eyes of a child." He adjusts his smoked bifocals for a better peep through the wrong end of a telescope.

His first exhibit is the world of his own five children. We are told the competitive drive of each, his attitude toward money and success, his ability to stick to a hobby, and his ability to get along with people. We are told that the Linkletters transferred their children from a school with high standards to one less demanding so that they might "achieve success more easily and find out what it tasted like." We are told, in the only reference to art and music in the book, about the world of the child, that one son is "artistic like his mother." He plays a rock and roll guitar, and he built a fort out of colored marshmallows, mirrors, and tiny flags. (A microcosm of the Linkletter world?)

Linkletter's generalizations about psychology include a disclaimer about the harmfulness of toy guns (his own Link Research Corporation works closely with the Mattel toy company-makers of some of the most offensive war toys whose commercials approach hysteria during the Christmas shopping season from roughly mid-July to December). Several pages are given to a righteous attack on the child psychologists who, says Linkletter, made a whole generation of parents afraid of their kids-the same kids whose brassiness, encouraged by Linkletter, makes his program possible and popular. Unlike most entertainers who fear controversy, the outspoken Linkletter comes out four-square for spanking and against high school kids owning cars.

The bulk of the book contains examples of the questions he uses to prime children so that he may better understand them: "What does your Dad do for fun?" "What do people do when they get married?" "What did your mother tell you not to say?" "What has happened at your house that's funny, something about your mother and father?" When European children had the decency to register shock at his prying, Linkletter was forced to abandon a projected "Kids Say the Darndest Things All Over the World."

This defeat prompted an impartial comparison of American and European children. He concedes that we Americans sometimes go too far with our business of being a good sport, but it would be hard to "introduce the goose-step mentality into this country"--unless it had a rock and roll beat. American kids are "less regimented, in school and in the home, they are more individualistic." Some of them occasionally clean their white bucks.

Yes, American kids can be relied upon to turn their parental boudoir into an isolation booth, with prompting from Linkletter, but The Secret World of Kids is still a well-kept secret. Art Linkletter is not even in the same galaxy.

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