JOE FRANKLIN 1926-2015
By ADAM BUCKMAN
Joe Franklin is gone, and so is his world.
I knew Joe for 25 years — meeting him for the first time in April 1989, when I spent two raucous days interviewing him and soaking up the carnival atmosphere of his office at 42nd Street and Broadway.
A year ago, he interviewed me for his Bloomberg Radio series, which he was still doing up until his death this past Saturday at age 88.
I appeared on Joe’s TV show on June 11, 1993, during his final week on the air — my first and only appearance on “The Joe Franklin Show.” My fellow guests were jazz critic Chip Deffaa (a New York Post colleague) and a doo-wop singing group — Kenny Vance and the Planotones. They sang an a cappella version of “Life Is But a Dream” that was one of the most sublime performances of any kind that I have ever witnessed.
Whenever I was in the vicinity of Joe’s most recent office at 43rd Street and 8th Avenue (which wasn’t often), I used to love to stop in and see him, for he was almost always there. For some reason, I found his presence there reassuring — a great constant in a changing world.
I last spoke to Joe about four weeks ago. He called to finalize an arrangement for another interview, which now won’t be happening. And he won’t be in his office either.
In my book, “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television,” I wrote about my first encounter with Joe Franklin and his world back in 1989. Here it is, from Chapter Two (following a section about Walter Cronkite):
If I learned about broadcasting from watching Walter Cronkite, then Joe Franklin taught me about show business.
But it wasn’t the show business of dollars and cents. It was the show business of aspiration, of ordinary people with high hopes and dubious talents, the people Joe called his wannabes and never-weres.
These were the people who crammed into a tiny office he occupied at 42nd Street and Broadway, in a red brick office building a century old, with great arched windows overlooking Times Square and corridors that echoed with the opening and closing of oak doors made heavy with brass hardware and frosted glass. From behind the doors and down the scuffed marble hallways came the far-off tinkling of pianos and the sounds of voices raised in song. This building, now long demolished, was the domain of music teachers, vocal coaches and talent agents – a real-life version of A.J. Liebling’s “Jollity Building” and Woody Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose.”
And in 1989, this magical place was still there. And Joe Franklin, a roly-poly little man with a perpetual grin, held court in an office busy with the comings-and-goings of his wannabes and never-weres. Franklin, then 60 years-old (or so he insisted), had been the host of one TV talk show or another in New York City since this form of television show had been invented.
He even claimed to have invented it in 1951, though this claim, like so much of what Joe told me over the two days I spent in his office interviewing him in April 1989, could likely never be confirmed (or if it could be confirmed, I lacked the resources, ingenuity or energy required to confirm it).
Joe’s story never wavered. A native of the Bronx, he drifted into the radio business at a young age, working first as a teen-aged go-fer for an AM station, WNEW, and then, eventually, becoming a writer for various radio personalities and their shows. He claimed he was only 15 when he began writing intros to Kate Smith records for a show called “Kate Smith Sings” and also for an Eddie Cantor show on NBC called “Ask Eddie Cantor” – “sponsored by Phillip Morris,” he noted.
“I would make up the questions that people allegedly had written to [Cantor] that were mostly answerable by old records,” Joe said, but it was the phrase “sponsored by” that really captured my imagination, for here was a guy who’d been around so long that his brain still classified long-forgotten radio shows by the companies that sponsored them, reflecting a process for buying broadcast commercial time – “sponsorship” – that had largely been abandoned in the radio and TV businesses by the late 1950s.
In 1951, Joe claimed, the managers of a fledgling New York television station – WJZ-TV (now WABC) – were trying to figure out how to fill the daytime hours where they had no programs. So they asked Joe, who was by then a radio personality, to come up with something, and he suggested a show in which he and a guest would sit in chairs and have a conversation.
Joe merrily told me this story, though heaven knows if it was true: “They said, ‘Joe, if we give you an hour a day, what would you do?’ So I said, ‘How about if I do a show of people talking nose to nose, eyeball to eyeball?’ They said, ‘Joe, you can’t give them talk. The word is television, you have to give them vision’.”
Nearly 40 years later, Franklin was still on TV, though in 1989, he was on WWOR/Ch. 9. By then, “The Joe Franklin Show” had been a middle-of-the-night staple of New York City life for so long that no one bothered anymore to try and refute Joe’s claims that he was the longest-running talk-show host in the history of television or that he had interviewed more than 150,000 people in his career.
In retrospect, the latter claim was easily refutable. All you really had to do was a little simple arithmetic and you’d come up with a figure far lower, though still in the tens of thousands. Moreover, it became crystal clear from the two days I spent in the presence of Joe Franklin that it was doubtful that he or anyone else had been conscientious enough to keep a running tally of his guests over the years.
In fact, no one seemed to keep a tally of anything associated with Joe Franklin, who would answer questions by producing staggering figures off the top of his head – data that was impossible for a single journalist to confirm, and Joe likely knew it.
His office was famous for its Collyer brothers-like clutter. A small space, it was piled floor to ceiling with newspapers and magazines, movie posters and film cans, lobby cards, sheet music, books and records – 78s and 33s. You’d look around and ask, Hey, Joe, how many records would you say you have in this office? And he wouldn’t have an answer to such a specific question, so he’d come up with some other response you couldn’t prove.
About “half a million” stored all over town, he’d answer, along with 10,000 old movies and 200,000 copies of the Memphis newspapers from the day Elvis Presley died, and heaven knew what else. “I have warehouses all over the city – six or seven,” he’d say, describing plans for books, videocassettes of the old films and reissues of the old records – a veritable empire of nostalgia that he seemed to hope would give him a way of thinning out his massive collections and earn him millions in the process, though it was doubtful any of these plans would ever come to fruition.
Amid piles so precarious they seemed in danger of toppling and crushing him to death, Joe sat in one of the few spaces available for sitting, taking phone calls from a black dial phone that rang constantly, and hosting a continual parade of colorful, threadbare visitors. On the two days I spent there, these included an elderly man who said he was a marriage broker, and a tall, white-haired man wearing a tweed jacket who walked in carrying an old, weather-beaten tennis racket under one arm and, without saying hello, launched into a sonorous impersonation of Franklin Roosevelt. This man, introduced to me only as “Ellsworth,” said he had inherited millions of dollars from a long-dead aunt, and then pridefully informed me that the racket he was holding once belonged to Rudy Vallee, with whom Ellsworth played tennis. “This was Rudy’s personal tennis racket!” Ellsworth bellowed. “I’ve got four of his rackets – I love ’em!”
Another man – short, wiry and gray-haired – who said he lived in a walkup apartment in one of the blocks in the West 40s just east of Times Square, pulled an old frosted light bulb out of his pocket and claimed to own hundreds more that he had collected from a Times Square dumpster. They were lightbulbs from the original “zipper,” he said – the famed, lighted sign that once encircled One Times Square, the building at the foot of Times Square at 42nd Street (from which the ball drops on New Year’s Eve), around which the day’s news headlines once blazed and moved 24 hours a day. He said he salvaged the bulbs from a dumpster late one night in the wee hours of the morning after the old zipper had been dismantled and its pieces discarded in preparation for its replacement by a more modern version. Now, this man wanted to sell each bulb as a souvenir and had come to Joe Franklin’s office to seek advice, encouragement or a chance at publicity.
It’s entirely likely that he received advice and maybe even encouragement from Joe, but he probably received no publicity. Many came and many called, but few were chosen to actually appear on “The Joe Franklin Show.” The phone would ring and an assistant would answer and tell Joe who’s calling and Joe would invariably say something like, “Tell him I’ll give him good news in about a half an hour.” Or Joe would answer the phone himself, speak a few words into the receiver and say, “Call back about 5 o’clock,” or, “I’m going to call you back in one hour – very important!” or, “Call me in 15 minutes, very important – I’ll have good news for you.”
I asked Joe if he ever remembered to call any of them back or ever had the good news he promised them. Without hesitating, he answered candidly, “No, I tell everybody the same thing.
“We get maybe a thousand calls a week from people who want to be on TV, and I just don’t know how to say no [but] I don’t put them on [the show],” he said. He then tried to explain to me that the callers needed to be told no for their own good, even though it seemed more for Joe’s good than theirs.
“Can I tell you something?” Joe asked me. “Most of them have a need to be turned down, they have a need to be rejected. If I put them on – like I’ll say, ‘What’s your qualification? What’s your background?’ Do they want to talk about finance or romance or sex or therapy or nutrition? I say, ‘What’s your qualification?’ They have none [and] if I would put them on, they wouldn’t respect me. They’d say to themselves, ‘If Joe put me on his show, then he’s hit the pits, he’s hit the rockbottom!’ They have a need to be rejected, most of them.”
Searching in vain, in this pile or that, for a clipping or magazine cover he insisted on showing me, his patter continued. “I was honored by the Meditation Society – millions of adherents!” he reported with a laugh, finding some long lost citation and briefly waving it in the air.
He talked of the talk show hosts who have come and gone since his career began (“400,” he estimated, another piece of data that suddenly arrived out of thin air) and the opportunities that come his way everyday. “I can be on radio seven days a week, four hours a day,” he claimed. “I have at any time six radio stations pursuing me …”
He tossed around the names of celebrities with the same abandon. He met George M. Cohan and Jack Benny, he said, but gave no details. He listed a handful of notables he interviewed years earlier on shows whose tapes were lost long ago – Elvis Presley, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan.
“I had Charlie Chaplin once on my radio show and I asked him, ‘Mr. Chaplin, what about all these people who sit frame-by-frame analyzing your movies and they find all the Freudian implications, all the shadings, like every time [the little tramp character] kicks the fat man’s behind, he’s supposed to be knocking the establishment and they go on and on … ?’ You know what? He swore to me that he had nothing in mind when he made those movies except to make people laugh.”
The stories bubbled out of him, including one yarn about a trip he made to NBC Studios in Burbank, Calif., to appear on Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” show. Joe said the appearance was set up to help promote a book Joe had written (he claims to have written dozens of books, a claim that is, for the most part, true). According to Joe, he wound up on the Snyder show after Johnny Carson turned him down.
So, on the way to Snyder’s studio, Joe Franklin bumps into Johnny Carson in a hallway, or so said Joe. “I wrote a book and they sent the book to Johnny Carson and [the publishing company publicist] got the memo: Johnny passed,” Joe said. “So they sent it to Tom Snyder. So I go out there – they sent me the airfare and everything – I go out to the studio in Burbank, and who do I meet in the hallway? Johnny Carson. He says, ‘Joe, what the hell are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m going on “The Tomorrow show”.’ ‘ “Tomorrow Show”? Why not my show?’ ‘Johnny, we sent you the book, we got the word that you passed!’ He started screaming! He never saw the book! His face, his composure … he started to shriek. I ran away!”
Joe then told a tale of Tom Snyder, apparently the only memory of Snyder that Joe brought home to New York that was worth remembering. “I’ll never forget what he said once during the intermission,” Joe said of Snyder. “He yells out to the audience, you know, while they’re playing the commercial, he says, ‘What does a guy with a 14-inch cock have for breakfast? Well, this morning I had Wheaties, two bananas … !’ ” And Joe laughed and laughed at the memory of it all.
Joe Franklin seemed to have perfected the art of feigning a very convincing modesty while at the same time ceaselessly promoting himself and his place in broadcasting history, a lofty position he defined without hesitation or noticeable guile. He’d suddenly adopt a serious expression on his face and say things like, “My program is the reason for living for many, many people,” or, “You want to know what they tell kids in TV school? What their homework is if they wanna be a talk-show host? Watch Joe Franklin, study his technique. I am sort of the role model for talk-show hosts around the country.”
David Letterman was one of them, Joe said, crediting himself with talk-show innovations large and small. “Whatever is Letterman-esque now was originally Franklin-esque,” he said. “I used to do a thing called ‘Mayhem in the A.M.’ where I would have a spoon player or sword swallower or a dancing dentist or somebody who whistles with his mouth closed, and all kinds of oddball things, which is exactly what David does now.”
Hey, who knows? TV through the years has rarely been uniquely innovative, except perhaps in the beginning, though most of the earliest experiments in television programming had their antecedents in radio and live theater. The next big thing has always been based somewhat on the big thing or things that came before. Maybe Joe Franklin was the first talk-show host to welcome a dancing dentist or a closed-mouth whistler, or maybe he wasn’t. Who’s to say? The actual truth of Joe’s claims didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was still around to utter them, and he was still important enough to gather people around him who were willing to listen to him and believe him – in his case, a never-ending parade of threadbare wannabes and never-weres, and a young reporter who absorbed the show business tales of Joe Franklin faster than a dry sponge soaks up water.
But the most interesting thing he said to me, the thing that underlay everything else – all the patter, all the name-dropping, all the insincerity, all the casual boasting and cheerful promises of good news that he never intended to fulfill – was something he said when we talked about Billy Crystal, who had famously impersonated Joe on “Saturday Night Live” five years earlier. “You’ve seen Billy Crystal doing me, right?” Joe asked me. “Billy Crystal knows he’s doing a spoof of a spoof because I’m putting everybody on. My whole life is a satire.”
Putting everybody on. Joe Franklin had just dug straight to the core of what show business is: An industry in which everyone, in one way or another, is putting everyone else on. Outrageous claims, baseless boasts, the bald-faced taking of credit for innovations large and small – in many ways, this was the essence of the television business as I came to know it as a journalist. Joe’s inadvertent definition of show business reminded me of a story a friend of mine once told me, a friend who at a very young age, in his early 20s, worked as an assistant to a Hollywood producer named Edgar Scherick. This friend had typed up a letter on the producer’s letterhead and prepared it for the producer’s signature in the space following the word “Sincerely.” When Scherick saw the word, he had my friend retype the letter and use a different sign-off. Why? Because, Scherick said, “ ‘Sincerely’ doesn’t sound sincere.” It was another great metaphor for show business – a world where sincerity is insincere and everybody knows it.
[Excerpted from “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” by Adam Buckman. Copyright Adam Buckman 2014 All Rights Reserved.]
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Contact Adam Buckman: firstname.lastname@example.org