Thou shalt not steal

By Karen Zautyk

Sometimes I wonder why my parents did not put me up for adoption.

Readers might recall that the sentence above is the same one that opened my last column a month ago. In December, I wrote about my father’s heartfelt attempt to answer my childhood question about whether Santa Claus was real — and my inexcusable, angry reaction when I did not get a definitive “yes” or “no.”

I also offered a long-overdue apology, which I hope Daddy read. (They get The Observer in heaven, don’t they?)

Anyway, writing about that incident brought to mind another childhood transgression — against both my parents — and one to which I never confessed.

Until now.

Back in the 1950s, super-popular TV star Arthur Godfrey hosted a mid-morning weekday variety show with a format similar to what the late-night programs would adopt: performances by singers, comics, etc., followed by lots of chatting between them and the host. My mother watched it daily, as did I when I had a day off from school.

Godfrey would also occasionally sponsor contests for viewers. One of these involved an early version of “Kids Say the Darndest Things” (although that wasn’t its title; I don’t remember its title.)  Anyway, people were invited to send the host letters citing clever/humorous/cute comments their children had made.

Those judged to be the funniest were read on the air, and the family would win some sort of prize.

One morning, when my mother was in the kitchen, out of TV earshot, and I was watching the show alone, Godfrey announced that week’s winner. Some little boy had asked his parents if he could go with them to the local racetrack the next day.

“No,” said the father. “You are too young.” And the son replied, “But Arthur Godfrey said the 3-year-olds are running.”

Peals of laughter from the audience.

That evening at dinner — with no other intent than to make them laugh — I asked my parents if they would take me to a racetrack, and I got the same “you are too young” answer, and I responded, “But Arthur Godfrey said the 3-year-olds are running.”

Peals of laughter from Mommy and Daddy. And daughter omitted the fact that she had stolen the material.

Neither could she admit it when Daddy then said, “That is so funny. You know what we should do? Send it in to Arthur Godfrey.”

I was mortified! But too cowardly to confess that I had stolen the joke.

So Daddy wrote a letter about his little girl’s brilliant comment and mailed it — and I spent at least two weeks in holy terror — certain that Godfrey would personally write back (or even phone), either accusing my parents of plagiarism (although I did not know the word at that time) or warning them that their child was a little anecdote thief who needed to be closely monitored. Worse, he might
even reveal my crime on TV, condemning my parents and me. By name.

Finally, a large, obviously mass-produced, postcard arrived. I vividly recall it was bordered in red and bore Godfrey’s photo and contained a thank-you for the submission and a generic rejection.

I had escaped with my comedy reputation intact! We had all escaped national notoriety.

And I never told my parents the truth.

As in the prior column, I now apologize to them.

But not to Godfrey. He lost my respect when he fired Julius LaRosa. On air.

Confused younger readers can find that story in some ancient-TV-history book.

Karen Zautyk | Observer Correspondent