The River View Observer’s exclusive interview with the man who is “America’s First Talk Show Host.”
Before Jack Paar Johnny Carson, Jay Leno , Jimmy Kimmel Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon there is Joe Franklin.
by Sally Deering
To his fans he’s the “King of Nostalgia,” but to thousands of show folk, Joe Franklin is a friend who gives stars a place to shine and unknowns the chance to stand out from the crowd. In his 50-year career, Franklin has made it his mission to help the struggling artist get a foot in the door, and with a look-back, it seems this spunky octogenarian not only accomplished his goal, he picked up a little stardust of his own along the way.
In 1951 TV was a toddler still learning and discovering its capabilities. Many of the TV studios were in New York – on the fringes of the Theater District broadcasting game shows, kiddie shows, dramas and comedies live and in black-and-white. That year, station WJZ (which later became ABC,) approached Franklin about doing a TV talk show.Things clicked and “The Joe Franklin Show” premiered with Franklin as host engaging celebrity guests in the art of conversation.
Franklin has sat behind the mic for some 300,000 interviews with the Who’s Who of Hollywood — Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and practically every superstar in between. But it wasn’t just the big names that interested Franklin. New York City was his hometown and Franklin knew first-hand how young actors, singers and comics were struggling for their first break. So between the glamorous glitterati, Franklin interviewed unknown up-and-comers. Some never went any further than Franklin’s show, but others like comic Bill Cosby, singers Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and actress Julia Roberts saw their careers take off and became superstars.
At 83, the dapper “boy from ‘da Bronx” is still going strong. His radio show “Memory Lane,” broadcasts Saturday nights at midnight on WOR, 710-AM and he hosts weekly interviews with celebrities for Bloomberg Radio’s “Lifestyles.”
An authority on the world of show business from the days of silent films, Franklin has written 23 books on the stars and how some of them played a role in his life. He interviewed so many stand-up comics, he wrote a book about them, too. Carving out his niche as talk show host cum celebrity, Franklin even played himself in films like “Ghostbusters” and “Broadway Danny Rose.” And now, the accolades are rolling in. The Theater Museum honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award at a dinner held at the Players Club, last October, and he was honored by the Museum of Broadcasting for his contribution to television. And to many New Yorkers, he’s still the man to see when you’re trying to break into the biz.
The Open Door Policy
Franklin’s office is in a busy theatrical building that shadows the Theatre District west of Broadway, a building where the business of show is conducted on a daily basis. Walk through the halls and you’re likely to see audition postings on office doors and the halls filling up with dancers, singers and actors waiting to be called in to perform a monologue or sing 8-bars for the director or casting agent. It’s a building like so many others in Manhattan and before you even get to Franklin’s office, you feel that show biz electricity in the air. When you reach his door, it’s slightly ajar as if to say “Come in, have a seat and we’ll talk!”
Stepping inside Franklin’s office is like entering a catacomb of memorabilia crowded with piles of books, celebrity photographs, magazines and papers. Shelves line most of the walls with record albums from Franklin’s days as a DJ spinning “33s” for New York’s insomniacs, lonely-hearts and night-shifters who tuned in to his radio program back in the day. Franklin still keeps warehouses filled with memorabilia he has collected throughout his years, with enough nostalgic ephemera to fill several museums.
At the far side of the room, Franklin holds court at a small desk – his two phones ringing constantly with press agents and publicists looking to book their clients on his radio show. He doesn’t have a computer or a talent coordinator and does all the bookings himself.
“I never solicited a guest,” Franklin says between calls, “never called one guest to appear on my show. They all came to me.”
Among his favorites, he says, were five U.S. Presidents, Cary Grant and Charlie Chaplin. He had Frank Sinatra on four times.
“He was charming,” Franklin says. “He spoke what he spoke, ‘dese, dems and doughs,’ but when he sang, he was like a different person.”
And the stars keep coming. This week, for his Bloomberg Radio show, Franklin booked Lily Tomlin, Andy Williams, Dick Van Patten and his best friend from childhood, Tony Curtis, who’s plugging a new book. When interviewing celebs, Franklin says, “get the plug out of the way fast. They’re always nervous about what they gotta plug, once that’s done, they can relax.”
It’s a late Thursday afternoon and Franklin’s friend, 56 year-old aspiring actor Frank DiGiovanni has been visiting and helps answer phones and greet visitors. When they walk through the open door, some Franklin knows and some he doesn’t, but whether they’re stopping in to say hello or plug their act – Franklin greets each one with a smile and a handshake.
“DJ Patty” and “DJ Anthony” a mother and son mobile disc jockey act from Long Island are visiting Franklin with the hope he might help them break into the Manhattan scene. DJ Patty, a vivacious blonde, shows Franklin a picture of herself with Robert DeNiro from the time she DJ’d a party for the “Casino” cast. Franklin seems genuinely interested and invites her to sit and schmooze.
“He’s a legend,” DJ Patty gushes. “I watched his show all the time.”
And while DJ Patty puts on the charm, Franklin’s old buddy Remo Capra strolls through the door. Capra talked about the time he sang with the Tommy Dorsey band in 1956 and recorded an album with Frank DeVol at Columbia records.
“I used to go on Joe’s show all the time,” Capra says. “Those were good times.”
And then Tommy “G” from Bayonne bursts through the door with some buddies.
“I met Joe through my cousin, they were very good friends,” Tommy “G” says after shaking hands with Franklin and exchanging hellos. “I call him on the phone and stop by and say hi whenever I’m in the neighborhood.”
So do a lot of people.
“This is typical,” DiGiovanni says.. “They come to talk with Joe or to network.”
A New York Landmark
Joe Franklin is a New York original who shooed away offers to leave the urban landscape for the glitz and glam of Hollywood. He’s a “Regular Joe” who still gets a kick out of being recognized on the street and hearing cab drivers tell him they learned English from watching his show.
“I was told I should relocate to the West Coast, but I didn’t want to drop the New York Beat,” Franklin says.
He’s a New York landmark, a TV pioneer who has given thousands of people their shot – and he’s not done yet. As the phones keep ringing, Franklin sits in his chair booking guests and sharing anecdotes with the people chatting away in his office. This is his world – schmoozing with big names and meeting new faces and Franklin, looking delighted at all the activity, stops for a moment and asks, “Anyone want coffee?”
His guests say “Yes,” coffee orders are taken and everyone settles in for a schmooze-fest; just another typical day in the life of “America’s First Talk Show Host.”