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Joe Franklin

The Man Who Invented Talk

by Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 2, 2007.

Joe Franklin, from his infamously nostalgia-cluttered midtown office, claims that he hosted television's very first talk show. In fact, he insists that it was he who developed the very idea of the eternal genre. 

"I was hosting a radio show called 'Vaudeville Isn't Dead,'" says the Bronx-born media treasure and author of twenty-six books. "This was around 1950. Then I get a phone call from Channel 7, which at the time was WJZ-TV. Now it's WABC. They say, ‘Joe, we're considering lighting up in the daytime.’ TV at that time was only on from five o'clock at night until Sermonette. There was no daytime TV. ‘If we give you an hour a day, what type of show might you consider?’ And I say, how about a show about people, talking, nose-to-nose, eyeball-to-eyeball. They say, ‘Joe, you're out of your mind. This is television. You have to give them vision. You've got to give them seltzer bottles. Pratfalls. Baggy pants. You gotta give them burlesque skits. You can't give them just talk.’" 

Just talk, however, is what Joe gave them, and New York listened. And watched. They even stayed up late with him when he became the first king of late night. Real late night. Like the middle of the night. And eventually, so did the entire nation, when his program moved to independent channel WOR, when it became a superstation in the early days of cable TV. 

"I always did my own booking," he says. "I never had a talent coordinator. I would speak out there to twelve million people every night. I've known shows where they had an audience of seven people, with four talent coordinators. I wanted to feel the chemistry myself. I wanted to feel in my mind who would go well together. I would have Ronald Reagan on my show with a dancing dentist. I had what they called 'an eclectic mix.' Margaret Mead with a man who whistles through his nose." 

Try that, YouTube. 

His claim to be the first is arguable, but here's a fact no one can argue, since it's actually listed in the Guinness Book of World Records: his talk show is still king (not Larry King) and all-time champ: the longest running talk show on television. Forty-three years. 

That supersedes Johnny Carson. Merv Griffin. Even Mike Douglas. And Oprah, don't even go there, girlfriend. In fact, more than 500 TV talk shows in New York City alone had been born, short-lived and died while he was on the air. 

Forget Seinfeld. His was actually the first show about nothing: his uneven mix of guests with a focus on the banalities of real-life, as well as his propensity for hosting superstars in their more humble days (Barbara Streisand and Bruce Springsteen, for starters) makes him a mostly underappreciated national treasure. However, he's become as valuable as the record albums, movie lobby cards and film and music posters he obsessively collects. 

Yet like Ed Sullivan, Franklin doesn't seem to be the TV type. 

"My father was a newspaperman," he says. "I probably would have been a reporter. In 1920, he was on the desk alongside Ed Sullivan [who at that time was a very influential gossip columnist]. I was very close with Ed Sullivan. Very nice man. His show was his life. When that show ended [in 1971], his whole life ended. Me, I never lost sight that nobody particularly wanted me – they wanted my affiliation. I never lost sight of the fact that if somebody wined and dined me, they wanted a plug somehow. I was very realistic, very pragmatic about it. I knew it was all a game. I'm still invited, but not as invited anymore." 

These days, he's only semi-retired, still doing interviews on Bloomberg radio and only heard by about 35 million people worldwide and streaming in cyberspace. 

Ironically, his nostalgia collection includes very few videotapes of his former shows, many of them sure to have been an eye-popping DVD goldmine. 

"Of 25,000 shows, I saved maybe 100," he says. "People call me all the time and say, you know, Joe, my grandfather was on your show in 1963 – have you got the videotape? And I have to laugh." 

We have to cry. There were a lot of lost classics in that sorry fact. Just listen to what the man said: 

"I never discovered anyone," he claims, "but I gave the first exposure to many. Barbra Streisand was my singer. She was living downtown at the Hotel Earle. She was on my panel with Rudy Valle, who told her she would never make it. She was fantastic. 

"Also early on, I had Eddie Murphy, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Tiny Tim, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Julia Roberts and Barry Manilow. You spot a certain charisma. People ask me, do they come back? Most of them don't come back. I represent to them the times when they were broke. It's human nature. I had them once. That's all that really matters." 

Some of the greats still stopped by, even if the hungry years were behind them. 

He recalls, "When I had Jane Wyman, they said, ‘Joe, don't mention Ronald Reagan to her. They had a very unhappy divorce.’ But I said, how can I not talk about the President of the United States? We did ninety minutes on that and she loved it. 

"When I had Shirley Temple [Black] on, they said, ‘Joe, don't mention her old movies. If you mention her old movies, she will get up and walk away. She's here to talk about the United Nations.’ But I said to myself, how could I not talk about Shirley Temple's old movies? We did ninety minutes, nose to nose, on her old movies. And she didn't get up and she didn't walk away. She went back to California and sent me one of her old scrapbooks, which is beyond value in my archives now." 

Those archives, most of which are vinyl records that used to be labeled as "easy listening," are worth their dusty weight in gold. Although Joe has no computer or email (or even a fax machine), he does have some of his stuff put up on eBay, and he claims to still get about 300 phone calls a week. 

He says, "When I was seventeen years old, I had my first radio show. It was given to me by Martin Block [considered to be the very first radio DJ, who played big-band records on a program called Make Believe Ballroom]. He didn't want me to compete with him. He was half-kidding, but he was half-serious. I went out to old record stores and I would buy old Al Jolson records and old Ed Cantor, Rudy Valle, Kate Smith. I would pay a penny a piece for them. I would go on the air that night. I would say, Ladies and gentlemen, here's a collector's item. This record is worth $500. I single-handedly created the rare record market." 

When he claims that he's a collector of memorabilia, it's similar to the Pope saying that he is a practicing Catholic. 

He says, "My specialty is what you would call movie lobby cards [photos of currently running films that would be displayed in movie theatre lobbies]. I have over a hundred thousand of them. In mint condition. Lon Chaney. Boris Karloff. It's a private collection. I'm just a slob. I never got around to organizing it or cataloging it, which I will someday. Make a museum, maybe someday. I'm still young. I've got plenty of time."

Unlike the Lenos and Lettermans of today, who simply prance out the flavor of the week promoting their new movie and faking pre-planned conversations filled with forced irony, Franklin was the real deal. It wasn't a plug – it was a conversation. 

When asked about the kids on TV today, he says, "I don't watch too much of it. I think the hosts have gotten kind of mean-spirited. They certainly put everybody down. I guess that's what pays off today. I don't think it will ever again come back to my day, when I ask, what did you have for breakfast this morning? What is you favorite color?" 

That, amazingly, actually does make for compelling television, when you see the famous and the near-famous simply being themselves and not hot to promote their latest lame project. With The Joe Franklin Show, at least you were not being marketed to. 

"My favorite all-time guest could have been Bing Crosby," he says. "They always said that Bing was what you might call mechanically reproduced. He was on radio, TV, records, movies, but when he walked toward me flesh and blood that day, I think I melted. That interview with Bing that day was a classic." 

Der Bingle was another gem of an interview that may be lost to the ages – or to Joe's chaotic archive of an office. Perhaps even the lost ark is kept safely hidden in there. 

The office may be airless, but the memories are what keep the room temperature comfortably above normal. 

However, not everybody played with Joe. There have been a few missteps along the way. 

He says, "One thing that I regret or resent about my own self is that there are a few people that I wanted who never made themselves available to me. And I'd meet them in elevators and they frightened me, they scared me. They looked so grim and dour and sour. Remember Burt Lahr [the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz]? Remember [comedian] Fred Allen? [Songwriter] George S. Kaufman? Oh, so many more like that. Groucho Marx. I would meet him in different hotel lobbies, and he looked so mean. In every case, I found out that every one of them was waiting to be invited on to The Joe Franklin Show." 

Ironically, exactly like Lahr's Cowardly Lion, he says, "I didn't have the courage." 

Franklin's last brush with the larger spotlight came in the mid-eighties, when Billy Crystal imitated him on a series of on-the-money sketches on Saturday Night Live

"Well, I loved it," he says of Crystal's dead-on impression. "The first time I saw Billy, I said, Billy, one of us is lousy. In my mind, my whole life is a spoof. I'm putting the whole world on. When Billy was doing me, he was doing a spoof on a spoof." 

As spoofs of talk shows became the vogue in that very same decade and onward (the age of Letterman, and eventually The Larry Sanders Show, The Jerry Springer Show and The Daily Show), Joe's Franklin's sincere style was losing ground. 

"I was on at first from 11:00 to midnight," he says, "and then one in the morning, then two-to-two-thirty in the morning. The late night audience is huge, but I figured, that's enough already. I made up my mind on a Tuesday and I quit that Friday. I was never cancelled. I quit. I never wanted to get evicted. They kept putting me on later and later. After the informercials. They were stunned when I quit. But I defied them. I did what I think was the first, pure organic from-the-bones-TV talk show. I figured I'd stay in that business for six months and I stayed for forty-three years. My TV career ended after forty-three years, and people said, ‘Joe, will it be traumatic? Will you wake up in the morning and not go to the studio?’ No trauma." 

In fact, he says, "I may go back, but that's a separate issue. I always say, 'I'm not going to quit until I get it right.' "

In the meantime, he's not exactly sitting on his keister. He says, "I do a lot of college lectures, college gigs. I do speaking gigs at different industrial events. The kids seem to like me. I'm honest with them. And I produce commercials. 

"Doctors, dentists, lawyers, they got their first touch of culture or their first knowledge of old movies or silent films by watching The Joe Franklin Show. It's very gratifying. Billy Crystal, in his first book, dedicated it to Joe Franklin by writing: my first acting lesson was pretending to be sick so I could stay home and watch The Joe Franklin Show." 

His hope for his brand of TV talk is still flickering eternal, like an old Magnavox. He says, "I encourage young people to try out for the talk show business. People love to talk. Kids always ask my advice: I say, don't leave your wallet in the dressing room. Don't bump into the furniture. Lie on your resume. Persevere. Be driven, like an old Bette Davis movie. Be consumed, be obsessed."

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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 2, 2007.

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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 2, 2007.