I was a precocious eight years old, attending third grade at Vanalden Elementary in the heart of working-class Reseda, California. Our teacher, Mrs. Carlmark, picked four of us from the class of 30, two boys and two girls, each representing a different "type" that fit the CBS personality profile. In remembering back to these events, I remain unsure why I was chosen, except that the teacher often referred to me as "her dear creature." (No, I never found out what she meant by that.). As for the others, Ronelle Seveland fit the "talkative and personable" profile; Jon Lee was known even then, as the best athlete in the class; Judy Gaines was very polite and very smart. At least that is how I remember them forty years later.
Our "Gang of Four":
Front row: Ronelle Seveland and Judy Gaines; Back row: Gary Mussell and Jon Lee
The year was 1957, seven months before Sputnik. Television, like American society itself, was still black and white. It was the Ozzie and Harriet era when Gunsmoke, Lucy, and Ed Sullivan dominated the evening lineup. But during the day, Art Linkletter and his House Party was king. Beginning on CBS radio at the start of the decade, the amiable Linkletter had pioneered the half-hour daytime entertainment and information format. The first fifteen minutes was a soufflé of guests, discussing light topics of interest to the mostly-housewife audience that the show attracted. The second half of the show consisted of the host interviewing four school children and eliciting humorous replies to Art's seemingly innocent questions. The kids came from a different school each day, from somewhere in the Los Angeles school district, and they generally ranged in age from six to 11. The viewing public loved the format and they loved Art playing straight man to the kids, who, as Linkletter often noted, always said "the darndest things."
Air date was Tuesday, April 2, about two weeks after we were chosen. When the big day arrived, we were driven by limousine from school to CBS Television City at Beverly and Fairfax, about an hour and a half away. A lady from Art's staff named Miss Dorothea Fitzgerald accompanied us on the trip. Since this was technically a school day for us, she was our "teacher" for the day, acting as guide and chaperone while away from our home school. I found an article about her in TV Guide Magazine about a year after our appearance. I saved it all these years, and the picture at left is representative of our limousine ride (the kids pictured are not us.)
I recall she began asking us a lot of personal questions in the car, such as "how would you describe your mother to me" and "what do you want to be when you grow up," etc. She wrote our answers down on little 3x5 cards as we replied. I did not realize until later that this was the first step in getting us prepared for the show.
In those days, the web of Los Angeles freeways did not yet extend into the San Fernando Valley, so the trip was made by surface street, through the curvaceous Sepulveda pass that separates our Valley on the north from the older, West Side of the city. Our first adventure occurred half way through the pass, as Judy threw up her breakfast all over us in the back seat. Actually, I escaped any staining., but we had to stop while the driver cleaned up the mess, and Judy's parents were called to bring a replacement dress for the telecast.
When we finally arrived, we were given an abbreviated tour of the studio (we were behind because we arrived late.) Then I remember being taken to a conference room where we all sat around a table. After a few minutes, Art's warmup announcer, Jack Slattery, came in and went through the 3x5 cards collected by Miss Fitzgerald. He asked many of the questions a second time, and we repeated the answers we had given in the car. I remember him being very nice and I got his autograph.
He left and then a few minutes later Art himself came in. I remember him being much more business-like than Slattery, and he once again asked some of the questions on the cards, and we, in turn, repeated our answers. By now, after three rounds,, we had a pretty good idea of what he would be asking us on the show. Of course, by knowing our answers in advance, Linkletter could act as straight-man, gluing the responses into a funny theme. (Not that he knew all the answers that were coming. This was live TV, and one of the charms of the show was sometimes the kids would blurt out something totally unexpected.)
Just before the show began, we were taken to our chairs on the stage-right side of the set. We were told to be very, very quiet until our segment began. I recall the audience area consisted of bleacher-type seats, and our parents were in the first row directly in front of us. Jack Slattery fielded questions from the audience and generally got everyone excited as show time approached. I remember about fifteen seconds before the show started, he asked everyone to turn around and meet the person behind them. When the audience did this, all anyone saw was the back of the person behind them, causing a great roar of laughter as people realized the practical joke. This is what the television audience saw when the show opened, and it gave the appearance of everyone having fun.
I have no idea who was the featured guest on the show during that first fifteen minutes. As I recall it was some cook showing Art how to prepare a recipe, but I may be wrong. Since Art and his guest were on the stage-left side of the stage, we could not see or hear much of anything.
Then, after Mr. Slattery did a live commercial, our moment came.
I went first, and I was so giddy I kept giggling and getting tongue-tied as Art asked those same questions we had reviewed three times before. My answers were fairly benign until he asked if there was anything my mother had told me not to say. My mom had told me "not to let any skeletons out of the closet." When Art asked for an example, I said "My mom is going to have a baby but my father doesn't know." (In reality, the test had just come back that they were going to have a fourth child and she just hadn't told him yet, but the way it was said, it certainly sounded scandalous!)
Ronelle, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up responded "A pregnant ally cat." Art quickly covered the microphone (you could not say the "p" word on television in those days) And he responded "We seem to keep going back to that same old...." getting another laugh from the audience. Art then asked who she wanted to marry and she pointed to Jon, who was sitting on her left. Art then asked for Jon's response and he cried out, "I want to be a bachelor; I don't want to get married." (Another big audience laugh.)
The last to be interviewed was Judy Gaines, who gave sweet and polite answers --until the last question. In response to what she wanted to do when she grew up, she said "A writer of fairy stories." Art then asked what she would write if he was her Prince Charming and asked her to marry him.
"Oh no, she laughed matter-of-factly, "You're much too old." That response (and Art's reaction to it) provoked the biggest laugh of the day.
And that was it; our fifteen minutes of fame were up. As gifts for appearing on the show, all of us got a Hammond globe of the world. The boys got an Unger wood-burning kit and the girls got little sewing machines, (remember, there were stereotypical sexist roles in the 1950's.) The school was awarded a movie projector as a gift. We were driven to a nice restaurant down the street across from Farmer's Market and treated to lunch. All except Judy, that is, whose nervous stomach meant she was restricted to broth and toast.
We returned to school just before it was time to go home. I remember the four of us in front of the class describing our experience, and we remained playground celebrities for a few weeks more, then things returned to normal. (Within a few years, very few classmates recalled that we had been on television at all.)
A few weeks later, a 78-speed record arrived at my house of our performance. My mom played it occasionally for relatives and friends, but I have not seen (or heard) it probably in 20 years. The Salvation Army got the wood-burning kit a few years later, but I kept the globe well into my teens.
In early 1997, Art (now in his mid-80's) appeared on a local television show to announce a "reunion" telecast. He said he was looking for any of his "kids" who had appeared on the show between 1950 (when the show was still only on radio) and 1967 (when House Party finally closed its doors.) When I called, I was told the kinescope of our appearance no longer existed (video tape was not used until the early 1960's.) Still, I joined 300 other grown "Linkletter Kids" at the taping in May. It was at the same CBS studio where we had our moment of fame so long ago. In the audience, we found ourselves sharing many common experiences, although none of us had ever met before. It was a little eerie hearing so many near-identical stories. Art made a special appearance at the close of the taping, and afterwards many of us went on stage to shake his hand and to say hello. I was surprised just how emotional a moment it was for everyone.
In the two decades since our appearance on House Party, we four "celebrity" kids drifted apart, as classmates usually do. Jon has a successful career announcing volleyball tournaments for ESPN. Judy worked for the Boston Globe as a feature reporter for many years. Ronelle moved away a few years after the show, and I have lost track of her entirely. I wish her and the others fond memories of our days as "Linkletter Kids." And a fond thank you, too, Mrs. Carlmark, wherever you are.