Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
December 2, 2007.
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.
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.’"
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
Ed Sullivan, Franklin doesn't seem to be the TV type.
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
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."
days, he's only semi-retired, still doing interviews on Bloomberg radio and
only heard by about 35 million people worldwide and streaming in
Ironically, his nostalgia collection includes very few videotapes of his
former shows, many of them sure to have been an eye-popping DVD goldmine.
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."
to cry. There were a lot of lost classics in that sorry fact. Just listen to
what the man said:
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.
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."
the greats still stopped by, even if the hungry years were behind them.
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.
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."
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.
"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."
claims that he's a collector of memorabilia, it's similar to the Pope saying
that he is a practicing Catholic.
"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.
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?"
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.
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
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.
office may be airless, but the memories are what keep the room temperature
comfortably above normal.
not everybody played with Joe. There have been a few missteps along the
"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
Ironically, exactly like Lahr's Cowardly Lion, he says, "I didn't have the
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.' "
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
"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
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
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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
December 2, 2007.