Joe Franklin, Local Talk Show Pioneer, Dies at 88
By JAMES BARRON JAN. 24, 2015
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.
Mr. Franklin in 2002 with a trombone given to him by a member of the Tommy Dorsey Band. Credit Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times
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.
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