Joe Franklin (1926-2015)
RIP, Joe -- an American original
Joe Franklin was, for real, an American original. He is one of the earliest childhood memories I have of media, along with people like Sandy Becker, Soupy Sales, and Ernie Kovacs. He got on radio and television and was successful by -- like the others I just mentioned -- being himself. He was proudly unscripted. His everyman qualities, eccentricities and all, endeared him to those who tuned in, and they tuned in for over 40 years starting in the 1950s.
Franklin's show was no-frills, no-bullshit. It was just Joe interviewing his guests and saying whatever came into his mind. The fact that his show walked a tightrope was part of its appeal and why it is remembered so fondly today. So was the fact that his guests were often total unknowns or even has-beens. They were often just people he thought were interesting or had interesting ideas or lives. In fact, sometimes it seemed that his guests were just people he met on the street or in a coffee shop.
None of this is to say that he didn’t also have celebrities on his shows. He did. A famous show with Bing Crosby comes to mind. There was also one with The Ramones.
Joe was so natural, down to earth, and honest that it didn’t matter that he somehow managed to mispronounce Ramones throughout the entire interview. He made people and what they had to say interesting. His guests may have been, on the surface, of no interest to his viewers, but his interviews showed that, underneath the image or the surface, everyone had a story and it was a story that people could relate to. Irreverence and oddness were always welcome. Enthusiasm counted.
Here's another excerpt from a Joe Franklin show. In 1976, my friend Michael Simmons, then a mere 21, a music journalist par excellence and a professional musician in his own right (Kinky Friedman’s band, for instance), appeared on the show. At the time he was just starting out as a country musician. Michael adds his own commentary on the appearance.
Host Joe Franklin holds up the first issue of new soccer rag and turns to Michael Simmons.Joe Franklin would never get on TV in today's corporately stifled and strangled world. The suits would say they didn't like his hair or his sport jackets, which often looked like they came from some alternate universe’s Amani Ted Baxter line of menswear. Joe Franklin would never get past the stuck-up Hollywood morons or the focus-grouped-to-death sessions. Hell, he probably didn't even go to the "right" restaurants. More's the pity.
JOE: So, young Mr. Simmons, whaddaya think? Soccer magazine? America? Hot new sport?
MICHAEL: Well, Joe, I think there’s been a huge hole in America's newsstands that will be filled with the long-overdue arrival of this magazine.
JOE: Thank. You. Michael. Simmons. America’s hottest new country singer. He opens at the Rainbow Grill on September 7th and is bound to become one of the great singing stars of the future.
(That didn’t work out either.) So long, Joe. You were the greatest Joe Franklin of all time.
Please take a look at this great New York Times obituary by James Barron.
Joe Franklin, Local Talk Show Pioneer, Dies at 88
By JAMES BARRON | January 24, 2015
Joe Franklin interviewed Debbie Reynolds at the WOR-TV studios in 1985.
Joe Franklin, who became a New York institution by presiding over one of the most compellingly low-rent television programs in history, one that even he acknowledged was an oddly long-running parade of has-beens and yet-to-bes interrupted from time to time by surprisingly famous guests, died on Saturday in a hospice in Manhattan. He was 88.
Steve Garrin, Mr. Franklin’s producer and longtime friend, said the cause was prostate cancer.
A short, pudgy performer with a sandpapery voice that bespoke old-fashioned show business razzle-dazzle, Mr. Franklin was one of local television’s most enduring personalities. He took his place behind his desk and in front of the camera day after day in the 1950s and night after night in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
In 1993, he said that he had hosted more than 300,000 guests in his more than 40 years on the air. Another way to have interviewed that many people would have been to go to Riverside, Calif., or Corpus Christi, Tex., and talk to everyone in town. He may have been exaggerating, but whatever the number was, it was impressive.
And although he never made the move from local television in New York to the slicker, bigger realms of the networks, he was recognizable enough to have been parodied by Billy Crystal on “Saturday Night Live” and mentioned on “The Simpsons.”
What came to be considered campy began as pioneering programming: the first regular program that Channel 7 had ever broadcast at noon. WJZ-TV, as the station was known then, had not been signing on until late afternoon before the premiere of “Joe Franklin — Disk Jockey” on Jan. 8, 1951.
Soon celebrities like Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby and John F. Kennedy were making their way to the dingy basement studio on West 67th Street — a room with hot lights that was “twice the size of a cab,” Mr. Franklin recalled in 2002. He booked Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Bill Cosby and Liza Minnelli as guests when they were just starting out, and hired two other young performers, Bette Midler and Barry Manilow, as his in-house singer and accompanist.
“My show was often like a zoo,” he said in 2002. “I’d mix Margaret Mead with the man who whistled through his nose, or Richard Nixon with the tap-dancing dentist.”
Mr. Franklin claimed a perfect attendance record: He said he never missed a show. Bob Diamond, his director for the last 18 years of his television career, said that there were a few times in the days of live broadcasts when the show had to start without Mr. Franklin. But Mr. Franklin always got there eventually.
And he always seemed to have a gimmick. He celebrated his 40th anniversary on television by interviewing himself, using a split-screen arrangement. “I got a few questions I’m planning to surprise myself with,” he said before he began.
Had he asked himself, he could have told viewers that he was born Joe Fortgang in the Bronx. He explained in his memoir, “Up Late With Joe Franklin,” written with R. J. Marx, that his press materials had long said that he had been born in 1928, “but I’m going to come clean and admit that my real birth date was March 9, 1926.” He was the son of Martin and Anna Fortgang; his father was a paper-and-twine dealer who had gone to Public School 158 with James Cagney.
By the time he was 21, he had a new name, a radio career, a publicist and a too-good-to-be-true biography invented, he wrote in “Up Late,” by a publicist. In that book, he denied an anecdote that appeared in many newspaper articles about him: He had met George M. Cohan in Central Park when he was a teenager. That led to a dinner invitation from Mr. Cohan, who let him pick a recording from his collection and take it home — or so the story went. It never happened, Mr. Franklin wrote in “Up Late.”
But a real invitation to pick records was his big break. He had been the writer for the singer Kate Smith’s 1940s variety program, which featured guests like Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Edward G. Robinson — “all my childhood heroes” — when the radio personality Martin Block hired him to choose the records played on Block’s “Make-Believe Ballroom” on WNEW. Block arranged for Mr. Franklin to go on the air with a program called “Vaudeville Isn’t Dead.” After stops at several other stations in the 1950s, Mr. Franklin settled in at WOR in the mid-60s with his “Memory Lane” program — “that big late-night stroll for nostalgiacs and memorabiliacs,” as he described it.
He was both. He owned a shoe of Greta Garbo’s, a violin of Jack Benny’s and a ukulele of Arthur Godfrey’s — not to mention 12,500 pieces of sheet music and 10,000 silent movies. His office was several rooms of uncataloged clutter, first in Times Square, later at Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street. “You know, I was a slob,” he said in 2002.
Mr. Franklin met his wife when she applied for a job as his secretary. Soon they were being mentioned in gossip columns. “Dorothy Kilgallen wrote that we were ‘waxing amorous,’ ” he wrote in “Up Late.” “Walter Winchell queried in his column, ‘What radio voice with initial J. F. seen ‘round town with model Lois Meriden?’ ” Soon, too, she was accompanying him to the studio for his 6:30 a.m. broadcast. “Lois made faces at me through the control room window, wiggling her ears and her nose,” Mr. Franklin wrote in “Up Late.”
They were married on a television show called “Bride and Groom.” Off camera, he wrote in 1995, “things weren’t going right — it’s been like that for 40 years.” He added, “Lois is happy, I’m happy, I live in New York, she lives in Florida.”
After his television show was canceled in 1993, Mr. Franklin repeatedly tried to cash in on his fame and his collection of memorabilia. In 2000, he lent his name to a 160-seat restaurant on Eighth Avenue at 45th Street. Eventually it became a chain restaurant with “Joe Franklin’s Comedy Club” in the back; later the restaurant and the comedy club closed. And in 2002, he sold some of his memorabilia at auction.
He continued to do a late-night radio show, on the Bloomberg Radio Network, almost to the end. Mr. Garrin said Mr. Franklin’s Tuesday show was the first scheduled broadcast he had missed in more than 60 years.
His survivors include his son, Bradley Franklin; a sister, Margaret Kestenbaum; two grandchildren; and his longtime companion, Jodi Fritz.
On television, Mr. Franklin did not like to rehearse, and he never used cue cards or prompters. The opening monologue and the questions were all in his head.
“I was the only guy who never had a preproduction meeting,” Mr. Franklin said in 2002. “You don’t rehearse your dinner conversation. I’m not saying I was right, but I lasted 43 years.”
Ashley Southall contributed reporting.
POSTSCRIPT: LIVE FROM YOUR LIVING ROOM
As I said, Joe Franklin is one of my earliest media memories. His early sets, as you can see in the Times photo with Debbie Reynolds, were literally a living room with an interview desk. I used to imagine how cool it would be to have an interview desk in the 1960s living room of the house I grew up in. I fantasized about interviewing my parents' friends, relatives and neighbors, often using incriminating gossip that was going around. Joe Franklin was inspirational!
It appears that the Seinfeld people were having the same sort of inspiration when they created the "Merv Griffin Show" episode from Season 9 (written by Bruce Eric Kaplan), where Kramer finds the discarded Merv Griffin set and sets it up in his living room.
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