Michael Kupperman

The Golden Age of Child Prodigies

How my dad got famous, and why he hated it.

In 1943, my father was the smartest boy in the world.

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The previous year, Joel Kupperman had become a regular contestant on an NBC radio quiz program called Quiz Kids. Quiz Kids was a show where a panel of five children answered difficult questions, many sent in by listeners, and the three who scored the highest were invited back. My father, an adorable 6-year-old with a lisp who could do complicated math in his head, became a national sensation. He was rhapsodized about as a genius of the future, was quoted in newspapers and magazines pronouncing on everything from taxes to war. Female columnists joked about wanting to marry him. Poems were written in his honor, and he played himself in a movie. He was a household name.

Today a cute kid doing math might be the subject of a YouTube clip that goes viral for a week. My father remained famous for years. While writing a comics memoir, All the Answers, about his bizarre stardom, I’ve come to realize that it could only have happened at that point in history; he was uniquely poised to drop into a role that had been prepared for him by certain historical developments.

One was the discovery of children. Factors including the invention of movies, a decreasing child mortality rate, and the rise of broadcast radio in the 1920s had led to an astonishing realization for society: Children had personalities. They weren’t just imperfect adults who needed to be ignored until they could behave properly, and they were becoming increasingly less likely to just drop dead, which meant it was safer to like them. They had qualities that were appealing in their own way, the most important of which was cuteness. They could be quite funny sometimes, and were simple and direct. Quiz Kids was designed to showcase this new ideation of children, and my father was a born performer playing himself, cracking up the audience by earnestly contradicting guest stars such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Jimmy Stewart. There’s a comic book from that period called True Comics that ran a banner of their honorary child advisers every issue; my father’s name appeared next to other junior luminaries such as Shirley Temple, Roddy McDowall, and Robert Blake. He and the other Quiz Kids met and were photographed with all kinds of celebrities, politicians, and military heroes, frequently sitting on their laps. They said smart things; they said dumb things; they said adorable things. All were of equal interest.

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The other big event driving both my father’s stardom and the Quiz Kids program was World War II. Quiz Kids was first broadcast in August 1940, and America had entered the war, against a strong degree of public resistance, in December 1941. It was common knowledge by then that the worst things possible were happening to the Jews of Europe. The American people had to be encouraged to believe in the aims of the war, one of which was saving the Jews from extinction. I don’t believe it was an accident that Quiz Kids (developed and produced by Louis G. Cowan, himself Jewish and one of the guiding forces behind American WWII radio propaganda) primarily featured Jewish children like my dad. He was bright and likable. You wouldn’t want him to die. The program featured refugees and child escapees from the death camps, who described their experiences in detail. It translated “Children are adorable” into “Children need saving.” The forces that would condemn children like these to murder and cremation needed to be defeated. The star kids toured endlessly making live appearances, and by the end of the war the show had sold $120 million in war bonds. Quiz Kids made children interesting and then translated that interest into the push for victory.

After the war, Quiz Kids kept going—the focus changed to stuff like March of Dimes and teacher-of-the-year contests—but the urgency was gone, and the program’s popularity waned. The producers tried getting younger and cuter kids, but people were gradually losing interest in children. The “children are cute” market would never completely dry up, of course, but after children had been discovered, the next step was inevitable: the discovery of the teenager. This was a lot more interesting to nearly everybody. Soon teenagers had their own music, rock ’n’ roll, and they quickly came to dominate popular culture, nudging pre-adolescents out of the spotlight.

Quiz Kids lasted into the early age of television, and sadly, my father stayed on it almost until the end. He made regular appearances until he was 16 and suffered intense ridicule from his peers. In adulthood, he so regretted his fame that he sought to completely erase the experience, including hiding the winning personality that had made him famous. For him, being displayed as a child had ruined everything associated with childhood. When I asked him what he felt when he saw other people being touted as child geniuses or prodigies, his answer was succinct: “I feel sorry for them.”