Visiting the Nostalgia King: Joe Franklin, I Love You
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
July 9, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 28
Visiting the Nostalgia King: Joe Franklin, I Love You
By Jonathan Black
I am a Joe Franklin fan. Oh, I know what you're thinking. Joe is no star. Joe is nobody's plum. Maybe you've never even heard of Joe Franklin. But I am a Joe Franklin fan nonetheless.
I knew I liked Joe the first time I saw his show (twice daily, Monday through Friday, channel 9). One of Joe's guests was a lawyer. Not just any lawyer. This lawyer had just come back from Israel, and at the airport he had shaken hands with Sammy Davis who was in Israel planting a lemon tree. The lawyer told all about what it was like to see Sammy Davis at the airport in Tel Aviv. He also showed some pictures of Sammy getting off the plane.
On the same show was the director of tennis tournaments in South Africa. The director had not made an appearance on any other late-night talk show in the New York area. There was also an archaeologist who had just returned from Peru, and he brought in a skull he had dug up. I knew the archaeologist had not been to Peru. Joe knew the archaeologist had not been to Peru. I had my doubts archaeologist was even an archaeologist. But Joe and the archaeologist hasd a very civilized discussion about Peru. "It's a fantastic place," said Joe, "my favorite country," and it was clear that Joe didn't know if Peru was in South America or Pango Pango.
Joe, of course, is in the phone book. ("Franklin, Joe rdio telvsin 220 W 42 WI 7-2517.") When I called, Joe picked up the phone himself (could I have expected less?). Joe said he thought my writing was terrific. I suspected Joe had never read The Village Voice in his life, and I liked him even more. Joe said to come to his office at 10.15 the next morning. "You can watch how I work," he said.
Joe's office is tucked over a 42nd Street movie house, two flights up, at the end of some unlit curling corridors. Room 314 -- the office -- is racked and shelved to the ceiling, piled and stuffed with yellowed papers, clippings, song sheets, files, photos, posters, magazines, books, boxes, and cartons, all circa 1924. Sunlight sifts in weakly through a small dusty window. An overhead fan -- the kind Hollywood puts in Southern courtrooms -- turns slowly in the corner. There is no receptionist. There is no secretary. Two old men are curled on a bench by the window. On a metal folding chair by the door sits a young woman, pushing her prime, eyelashes down to the floor, calves a bit heavy (perhaps from dancing). The walls are plastered with Valentino, Fields, Adlai Stevenson, Bogart, Cagney, Shirley Temple, nudging each other for space, overlapping, several thick. And above the desk, above the piles of clutter, a color photo of the chummy blue-eyed putty face, the handsome wisp of slick black hair, the twinkling cheeks. And peeking over the clutter, Joe himself.
"Village Voice?" Joe waves me in, gestures to the corner -- "Pop, Hap" -- and back to the metal chair. "This is the guy I was telling you about. Terrific writer. Give him the book, sweetheart. What's your name again, honey?" The phone rings -- there are two on the desk -- and Joe lands on the receiver. "Hello. Hello. Okay. Okay. Listen, tell me something about horses. I have a guy on today who knows all about horses." The woman passes me a heavy manuscript in black binding. I open a page and read something about the "solidity of her hips" and the "juice of her loins." Joe hangs up. "What do you think, is it gonna sell? Mention it in your column. I've got three plans for you, sweetheart." "But Joe," she begins, and the phone rings as Joe picks it up. "Right, I'll talk to my lawyer. Look, can you give me a synonym for 'overt.'" The other phone rings. Joe waves for me to pick it up. Someone wants to know if Joe has received a book. Joe hangs up one phone and picks up the the other. "All right, I think we've got something cooking. Call me back at 3 p.m. Three sharp. I think I've something for you." Joe hangs up. "Pop, get some stuff on me." Pop, who has been peering into an opened Ansco camera, shuffles off into a broom closet that looks like a spilled suitcase. "Here's a new book," says Joe, "Tell me what you think of it. I've got the author on today." The name of the book is "Dillinger, Dead or Alive?" The author thinks Dillinger is alive, and inside the book is a letter from J. Edgar Hoover that says the FBI cannot cooperate with the author's research.
"Joe," says the woman, "the name on the manuscript isn't really my name. I may use a pseudonym. Prolific writers always use a pseudonym. Did you know that Somerset Maugham wasn't really his name?" "Really? Listen, sweetheart, here's what I want you to do. Call me Monday, Monday morning. I've got something in mind. Ever see my show?" The woman shakes her head. "You've never seen my show? I'm on television two hours a day. I've been on radio 20 years. I pay $78,000 in taxes, and you've never seen my show? Throw her out of the office!" And Joe's 39-year-old baby face twists into a giant wink as he launches a huge smile at Hap.
Pop is back from the broom-closet with a dozen articles. Joe sticks in an eight-by-10 glossy of a fat woman swallowing a sword: "I had her on last week. Crazy, I like to mix up my guests." Joe, I read, began in show business at the age of 13 when he caught George M. Cohan feeding pigeons in Central Park and got an interview for his high school paper. Cohan took him to dinner and give him a record. Joe now has 60,000 old records, filed, labeled, and boxed in his apartment, said an article in the New York Post. He also has 10,000 silent movies in his private collection, which he usually shares with his tv audience. Joe is king with sponsors, says another article. They are the biggest and they never leave him.
Joe is also king of nostalgia. By the age of 22 he was making $70,000 as the reigning expert on vaudeville. (Pop and Hap, Joe explained, are old vaudevillians. "The only people I let work for me are old vaudevillians.") As a boy, Joe saw "Banjo Eyes" 25 times from the first row. "I am the number one walking encyclopedia on Eddie Cantor," he says. Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker went to Joe's house to listen to records of themselves singing. According to another article, Joe discovered Barbra Streisand, Joan Rivers, Tiny Tim, Eddie Fisher, Connie Francis, and Flip Wilson. Mayor Lindsay has appeared on the Joe Franklin show.
It is now 10.25 a.m. Joe's morning show is live at 10.30; the night show -- 1 to 2 a.m. -- is on tape. Both phones are ringing. "I'm an employment agency," says Joe. He turns to the woman: "All right, sweetheart, here's what you do. Give me a call Tuesday morning, at 11.45. I have four plans for you: 11.45, right?" and he is out the door, trailed by Pop, down the dark halls, down two flights of stairs, out into the traffic of 42nd Street, through the cars, waving at friends, into the building over the Rialto Theatre, up to WOR-TV and into an empty dressing room as a voice calls, "Two minutes, Joe."
"I'm a phenomenon," says Joe, running his comb through the water. "Look at the this." He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a packet of letters. "Offers from major networks. But I'm safer here. You can't compete with Carson. You die. I'm a legend, an enigma. I'm a potential goldmine, but I'm too disorganized. I never call anyone back. Did you see that girl in my office? Some kind of nut, right? But you gotta be nice."
The voice again: "Theme's on, Joe." Joe pours out of the dressing room, through some curtains and onto the set (no audience, an orange partition, Danish modern chairs, and 10 yards away, blocks and dumptrucks from "Romper Room"), and slides into his chair as the theme tinkles to a close. "Joe Franklin here. I just came in with a reporter from the Village Voice. He's doing a story about me, about show business, a story about the show. He says he watches the show whenever he can, he loves the show, but, but, he says he likes the old movies best, so, our format, as usual, is show business, and today we have on some fascinating people, some terrific guests, we'll be talking about horses, about Dillinger -- is he really dead? -- we have a star from the smash hit Broadway play 'Inquest' " (the man standing next to me grabs his head with his hands: "Star? What star? What the fuck is he talking about?I don't have a single line. I'm the rabbi") -- "and, of course, we'll be looking at old movies, we'll be looking at old things, at new things, at things you, the audience, want to see..."
Joe Franklin, I love you.
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