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Remembering Joe Franklin

nullI can’t accept the idea that Joe Franklin is gone. He seemed
ageless, as much a part of the New York scene as the Brooklyn Bridge. If you
didn’t grow up in the New York City area his name might not resonate; unless
you remember Billy Crystal’s hilarious (and accurate) portrayal of Joe on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s. Crystal’s
affectionate impression was based on a lifetime of watching Joe. He was a
fixture on local television from 1950 to 1993, hosting a daily talk show that was
strangely endearing. Originally called Joe
Franklin’s Memory Lane,
it featured old movie clips and records from his
enormous collection, along with an array of studio guests. Having started out
on radio in his teens, Joe was a smooth talker and a master spieler, but he
also had an amazing knack for making gaffes and never realizing what he’d said.

He used to boast that future stars, from Barbra Streisand to
Liza Minnelli, made their TV debuts on his program, but what made it unique was
the unpredictable mix of people he had on his panels, and the way he insisted
that they engage with one another. I remember the day he had director Frank
Capra, musician Artie Shaw, and the owner of a local Greek restaurant on together.
After awkwardly asking the great filmmaker why he hadn’t used Shaw’s wife
Evelyn Keyes in any of his movies, he insisted that Capra shoot a scene for his
next film at the Acropolis Restaurant on Eighth Avenue! Another time, the city Traffic
Commissioner was sitting next to Buddy Rogers, who was there to promote a Mary
Pickford film series. “Commissioner,” said Joe with a straight face, “I want
you to make all the streets in the city ‘one way’ so every car will go to the
Beacon Theater for the Mary Pickford festival.”

Joe built up unknowns, wannabes,
and used-to-bes with the same enthusiasm he summoned when genuine stars stopped
by. I know this first-hand because I made my television debut on his “live” morning
show when I was 16. I met Joe the night I attended Raymond Rohauer’s tribute to
Ginger Rogers at the Huntington Hartford Museum. I was pretty nervy back then and
pressed a copy of my Film Fan Monthly
magazine into his hands as we were exiting the auditorium. Joe told me to call
him the following Tuesday at 3pm and he would book me on his program. I did as instructed
and he came through as promised.

null

But having watched his show for so many years, I knew that
when I turned up he would have no memory of my name or the magazine I’d given
him. Many was the time I’d seen him introduce an unknown like me and expect him,
on cue, to blurt out his name and save Joe the trouble. Most of them would sit
there for an awkward moment. That wasn’t going to be me.

My friend Chris Steinbrunner, who worked as the film buyer at
Joe’s station, WOR, told me that I shouldn’t expect Joe to show up until
seconds before air time. Sure enough, as I stood in the reception room at 1440
Broadway, surrounded by other guests for that day’s 90-minute show, various
publicists and handlers started pacing nervously and wondering where our host
could be as a gigantic clock on the wall ticked away the minutes to 10:30. True
to Chris’ prediction, Joe calmly strode in at 10:29, greeted one and all, made
his way into the studio as his opening theme music (“Twelfth Street Rag”) was
playing, and clipped a microphone to his tie just as the final image in his
main-title montage dissolved to him behind his desk.

Since Joe hadn’t ever written my name down, let alone the
name of my fanzine, I was ready when my moment came and introduced myself to
the television audience. I returned many times over the years, and each
appearance was memorable in its own way. He gave every guest a generous plug
for whatever he or she was promoting, but in return you had to pay close
attention. One day Joe started out by mourning the people who had lost their
lives in a tragic plane crash a few days earlier, including some recent guests.
He turned to me and said, “Leonard, what do you think about these airline
crashes?”

One time he called me at home on a Sunday evening and asked
if I was free later on. I hesitated to answer, because with Joe this could lead
to a supermarket opening or an appearance at a Chinese restaurant. Instead, he
brought me along for a late-night appearance on The Candy Jones Show on WMCA Radio. That night he told New York’s
night owls that of all the people he’d introduced on his television show, he
was proudest of me. I am certain he never made that particular statement again.
Later, a listener phoned in to ask if Joe knew the name of the leading man in
an early talkie. It was a very obscure title, but without missing a beat Joe
responded, “It might be Conrad
Nagel.” My wife and I adopted that as an all-purpose catchphrase when we don’t
know the answer to any question, and we think of Joe whenever we utter it.

After his television show expired, Joe remained active on
New York radio for a number of years. Over the course of time, it was
inevitable that he would turn up, playing himself, in New York-centric movies
like George Gallo’s 29th Street
and Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose.
In 1997 Joshua Brown made a wonderful documentary called 50,000,000 Joe Franklin Fans Can’t Be Wrong. It captures Joe in all
his glory: in his famously cluttered office, dealing with his many hangers-on,
meeting fans, and broadcasting to the world. You can find it, in sections, on
YouTube, along with many excerpts of Joe’s television shows. They all make me
smile, but I’m especially happy to revisit his interview with Bing Crosby, in
which Joe’s love of nostalgia meets its match, and segments from his trip to
Hollywood for his 40th anniversary special, in which Bob Hope says,
with real fondness, “Joe, you’re a legend.”

He was indeed…one of a kind.

 

           

 

16 comments

  1. Bruce Crawford says:

    Great article Leonard, as always. I remember when you gave me Joe’s phone contact and what I time we had talking for 2 hours or more. He was quite a character indeed.

  2. Billy Frolick says:

    Great piece, Leonard. Joe Franklin was such a part of my childhood. His show aired five nights a week, but never at a set time; it was simply after, as he liked to say, "the late-night sporting event or movie." In 1972, I saw Johnny Weissmuller (an early film Tarzan), on temporary leave from a mental hospital, challenge 7-time Olympic gold medalist Mark Spitz to a swimming race. Because he never did a monologue or walk out to his desk on camera, my older brother convinced me, when I was eight years old, that Joe had no legs. It was only when he did a commercial for Martin Paints (one of his regular sponsors) a few years later, standing and holding a gigantic discount card, that I realized I’d been had.
    The TIMES obit left out:
    • Joe appeared in MANHATTAN, on a TV. Woody Allen comments to Mariel Hemingway that "it looks like his hairpiece was lowered onto his head by helicopter.
    • In his autobiography, Joe claimed to have slept with Marilyn Monroe.
    • Sarah Silverman’s contribution to THE ARISTOCRATS includes the line, "Joe Franklin raped me."
    • Joe sued cartoonist Drew Friedman for an illustration of Joe engaged in jailhouse anal sex.

  3. Ira Rosenstein says:

    He was a one of a Kind !

  4. D fujinaka says:

    Great shot of you with Joe Franklin. Leonard, love your tie.

  5. Kerr Lockhart says:

    "It Might Be Conrad Nagel" is a great title for Something.

  6. Jay says:

    I thought Uncle Floyd’s "Joe Frankfurter" parody was even better than Billy Crystal’s! Sadly, there are no examples of it on Youtube. I used to enjoy Joe’s late late night WOR-AM show for many years down here in Philadelphia. I’m sad to see him go.

  7. Stephen says:

    I didn’t grow up with Joe, I think I learned of him either through a reference in National Lampoon or a Drew Friedman comic strip, but I enjoyed reading about his pack rat tendencies years later when he was responsible for saving hundreds of hours of transcription discs of old-time Yiddish radio shows, which became the start of NPR’s wonderful Yiddish Radio Project. Joe was a mensch in every sense of the word.

  8. Vince Giordano says:

    Leonard, I loved your post on Mr. Franklin ! Joe Franklin was an important part of my life. He loved and honored the great vaudevillians, crooners, big bands, silent and early talkie film stars, sheet music, old records at a time when most folks would just say: "that’s old stuff…forget it !’ He was one of the guiding lights that helped shape my career. I was lucky to be able to tell him how he inspired me many times…we lost a great man.

  9. Nat Segaloff says:

    When I was a publicist in New York, Joe was the savior who would graciously book newbies that bigger shows turned down because our clients were, well, newbies. You’re right about his Mad Lib-style guest line-up, but he was never boring and always made his guests look and fell like stars, even if they weren’t. And I do believe that he (along with Bill Everson) was among the first to make the case for rescuing and preserving our film heritage. Your touching remembrance is a marvelous send-off.

  10. Norm says:

    I agree LM has captured the moment with great prose/ eloquence/love. Nevet met the man but he certsinly embraced the New York pulse

  11. Richard Horgan says:

    Fun to look up Conrad Nagel. Timing wise, right smack dab in the middle of Franklin’s early years, Nagel was awarded three – count ’em, three – stars simultaneously on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

  12. Max Fraley says:

    1957-58 I ventured from a small town in Indiana to Columbia University on Manhattan Island. Our 18" GE TV quickly tuned to Joe’s program on a regular basis. Joe Franklin’s entertainment connections and a young Howard Cosell’s sports wire enabled me to secure a myriad of memories that are "priceless". Thanks Leonard for reviving some "past lane" treasures.

  13. lois says:

    nice tribute. great photo.

  14. Bob Lindstrom says:

    Leonard, in a career of inspired writing, this column is among your most dextrous and admirable. You have perfectly captured the reasons that those of us who were fond of Franklin loved him equally for his warts and his wins. A delicate balance, perfectly achieved in this piece.

  15. Clu says:

    What struck me about this article was that picture of Leonard at 16. You have to post some more.

  16. vincent says:

    When I visited the NYC area in the ’80s and’90s, I’d regularly see Joe around Times Square and briefly chat with him — he always was engaging. I’m certain his good friend, Sally Kirkland — like Joe, a charming eccentric (and I mean that in a positive sense) — is devastated by his loss, as am I.

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