Joe Franklin: TV & Radio Legend

We live in a world of constant transition. Our modes and models change incessantly. Nowhere is that so true as in the entertainment industry. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able, at once, to reach back into the good ol’ days while still keeping pace with the new entertainers? The Atlas of those conjoined entertainment worlds, without a doubt, would be Joe Franklin. The first man to bring the talk show format to television, Mr. Franklin pioneered facets of television that are wholly taken for granted these days. With an incredible list of classic stars and new names fresh from the marquise lights, to his talk show credit , we don’t want you to miss a moment of this astounding, fast paced interview. Don’t change that dial…or URL!

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a great pleasure to welcome the great Joe Franklin. Joe Franklin is someone who has brought a lot of joy into the world. The Joe Franklin Show ran on television for 40 consecutive years, featuring guests in the hundreds of thousands. Joe Franklin has played himself in films like Manhattan, Ghostbusters, Twenty Ninth Street, and Broadway Danny Rose. Joe Franklin has been honored by the Museum of Television and Radio, and is still active today. In the words of Howard Stern, Joe Franklin is a celebrity you have to love. Mr. Franklin, thank you so much for joining us.

Oh, what a nice eulogy – I mean what a nice introduction. I really appreciate that. That’s very nicely put. I did TV for 43 years, 43 years, believe it or not. That’s a long time, right? And then counting radio, I’ve been around about 60 years –I’m only 39 years old (laughs)! I would have been 40 but I was sick for one year (laughs). I’m sorry, I apologize. I’m still going strong, still doing interviews every day on Bloomberg Radio here in New York City. This week I had Cindi Lauper, I got Neil Sedaka, I got Olivia Newton-John. I call my little segment The Business of Show Business because I’m more or less the nostalgic historian in the world of show business and I’m not going to quit until I get it right. So I’m just going to keep on practicing until I get it right, Paul.

Well, I think most stories are best from the beginning. What was life like growing up?

Well, I was, I was in the Army. I was in the Army when I was 17½ years old. And I had a little accident in the service and I began playing old records on the army radio station in Temple, Texas. I was in Camp Wood, Texas and word about me got written up in the Stars and Stripes, and the New York papers like the New York Times and the Daily News. And when I got out of the army they sent for me to take a job on the local radio station called WHOM. I had a program called Joe Franklin’s Vaudeville Echoes and I got paid zero. Then I got a phone call one day from WNEW, which was a major radio station back in those days. And they said ‘Joe, whatever you’re making, we want you on our station. We’ll double your salary.’ And I said I’m getting paid zero so I had to think fast. I said ‘I’m making $20 a show.’ ‘Joe, we’ll double it.’ so I went to WNEW and I met a man named Martin Block, who was the famous disc jockey on that radio station with his Make Believe Ballroom, and he gave me a job choosing his records. And from there I got my own radio show on WNEW which I called The Record Collector’s Exchange. I would go out to different stores and buy old records for a penny apiece – old Al Jolsons, old Eddie Cantors, old Sophie Tuckers, old Fanny Brice, old Rudy Vallees. And I’d come on the radio and say ‘Now here’s a record worth $500!’ I made up those crazy stories. The next day I’d go back to the same store and I’d pick out five records and put down five pennies on the counter and the man would say ‘Come here, kid! I heard you on the radio last night say these records are worth $500 apiece.’ So, for us, we created the collector’s market, the blockbuster market of old records and that was the beginning of my true nostalgic career. I’m known more or less as the King of Nostalgia.  Not the King of Neuralgia, the King of Nostalgia. And one day I get a phone call from Channel 7, that’s WABC TV – then it was WJZ TV – and they said ‘Joe, we heard your voice on the radio. We like your voice. We’re considering, we’re just thinking about maybe lighting up in the daytime.’ But there was not daytime TV yet. TV was only on from 5:00 at night until the Sermonette. And they said ‘Joe, if we gave you an hour a day on our proposed daytime schedule what kind of a show might you do?’ So I said ‘Well, I’d do a show of people just talking nose to nose, eyeball to eyeball. Something very pure, very organic, from the bones.’ And they said ‘Joe, you’re out of your mind. you can’t do a ‘talk’ show on television. The word is “television.” You gotta give them ‘vision’. You gotta give them, you gotta give them baggy pants, you gotta give them burlesque skits. You can’t just do – there’s no such thing as just a talk show’ I said ‘Well, those rock and roll polls are coming out. I’ll show the kids dancing to records.’ They said ‘Joe, you’re nuts! Who’s gonna watch kids on TV dancing to records?’ Then Dick Clark becomes a billionaire. But I defied them d the first pure, nose to nose TV talk show. My first guests included Kim Novak, Eddie Cantor, Georgie Jessel. I had tremendous guests. So that day, and I met…the film, A&E – Hirsch, Hirsch made a film called It’s Only Talk. It runs for about two hours and it shows I, Joe Franklin, invented the talk show. There was no talk show before then so I can tell you a little about it. Every time you open up the paper today somebody’s got their own talk show. They tell me it looks today like flies, butt I did create the talk show – for better or worse – and I’m still carrying on. And, in fact, what I’m doing now is on 11:30 AM on Bloomberg Radio, the same station, on WNEW 11:30 AM, 60 years ago so life goes full-cycle, you know what I’m saying? Like where I began, and I’m still enjoying it. And I do lectures at colleges and nursing homes. And I do nostalgia, memories. I was in a nursing home two weeks ago and I see a – I was giving a little lecture in a nursing home and I see a man in the front row falling asleep. I said to his wife ‘Hey what’s that?’ She said ‘My husband is sleeping.’ I said ‘Do me a favor, wake him up!’ She says ‘No, you wake him up. You put him to sleep!’ (Laughs) They have a good sense of humor, those old-timers. I’ve written 23 books. Whatever you want to tell me, whatever you want to ask me, Paul, I appreciate, but I’m very happy to be on your show. I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time and it’s fun to be chatting with you.

Well, Mr. Franklin, you mentioned a moment ago the name Eddie Cantor.

Right.

And that’s someone that maybe youngpeople should find out about. He’s an important person in American popular culture. Tell us about him.

You know what’s sad? I’ll tell you about Eddie in a second, sad how people don’t know – I met a lady the other day, she’d never heard of Joan Crawford. They never heard of Bette Davis. They never heard of Rudy Vallee. Fame is very fleeting. They barely know Bing Crosby nowadays. Frank Sinatra’s magic is waning. So it’s very noble of you to want to keep those names alive a little bit on this radio show. Eddie Cantor was the #1 star in all of the world. For many, many years he was #1 on radio with the old Chase and Sanborn Hour every Sunday night at 8:00. He was #1 in movies with movies like Roman Scandals and Strike Me Pink and they would line up around the block around the clock at Radio City Music Hall to see Eddie Cantor movies like Whoopee!Makin’ Whoopie. He was #1 in vaudeville, at the Palisadium. Over at the Palisadium he was on the bill with Georgie Jessel. He was #1 with…record sales in the 1920s so he was known as “the Apostle of Pep.” He was the energy that they needed in the early days of the depression, in the early ‘30s. He was very lively and bright, you know, sparkling and jumping up and down. And there was a big movie on his life called The Eddie Cantor Story with Keefe Brasselle, which wasn’t a great movie but he was an important part of show biz history.  He died in 1964 at the age of 72. In fact, I wrote his radio show when I was a kid he gave me a job writing his radio show with the old records I had saved up and new anecdotes about the stars… There’s still old timers who remember and I love them but the young generation today, it’s all rock and roll and Puff Daddy and Lady Gaga and Madonna and – you can’t knock what’s current, right? You can’t knock it. Trends do come and go. Trends change but I’ve got a lot of memories of the old-timers that I knew and loved when I was a kid – Veronica Lake and Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith. And, thank God, they were all dear friends of mine way back when.

One of the people in your book – and I’m talking about your book, Up Late with Joe Franklin

Yes.

Just a fantastic, entertaining book that really could keep you up at night. I wanted to ask you about meeting the great Al Jolson. What was your first impression?

Well, he was known as the world’s greatest entertainer. One night, when I was a kid, I turned on the radio and I heard that voice and I said ‘Oh my God, what a voice.’ I was only 10 years old and I just fell in love with that voice. And I met him several times. And when they made the movie called The Jolson Story with Larry Parks – I love watching that – they made me sort of the technical advisor, and I lent them some of my old records, and I did it with Al Jolson a few times. He was, I mean when he would do a Broadway – he was in many, many Broadway shows and then about 10 minutes into the show he would say to the audience ‘Should I send the cast home and just sing to you?’ and they would scream ‘Yes, yes!’ and he would send the whole cast home and he would stand there and sing for three hours. And he sang Sonny Boy and Rockabye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody and Swanee and all those great songs. He was, he was beyond dynamic, beyond, beyond tantalizing, beyond anything. He was just a great, great star. He died in 1950 at the age of only 64, but what he crowded into that lifetime – it was a great, great, great, great track record. It was Al Jolson. There are Al Jolson conventions all over the world today where people line up by the thousands to come and remember him and honor him, and watch old movies and play his old records. It’s a bygone era, Paul, but it’s nice to be remembered and I hope that many of your people listening will remember Jolson, remember Cantor, and remember what fun it was back in those days.

There’s another name that I wanted to get your impression when you met George M. Cohan.

I met at the park on a bench when I was a kid. I recognized him from having seen him in a Broadway show called I’d Rather Be Right. And I said ‘Mr. Cohan, did you ever make any records?’ and he gave me a record and he went. Next time I meet him at his house, about a week later, he gave me a record. A one-sided record. There was no such thing as – it was known in those days as a 78 RPM. Long before LPs, long before albums. And it was a song called‘You Won’t Do An Business…” “You Won’t Do Any Business, If You’ Haven’t Got a Venue, If You Haven’t Got a Band.”  He autographed it with white shoe polish.  And I said ‘Mr. Cohan, how many records did you make?’ He said he’d made like six or seven back in the old days. So I set out to buy those records, and in searching I found out that Jolson made thousands, Eddie Cantor made thousands, Kate Smith made thousands. So that was the beginning of my searching and making the rounds of old records, and becoming known as the king of neuralgia (laughs) – I mean ‘nostalgia’ – and Cohan was my inspiration. He was my mentor for everything I did in later years in this business and I remember him fondly. He was, he wrote Yankee Doodle Dandy, I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy. He wrote You’re a Grand Old Flag, which he – originally it was called You’re a Grand Old Rag because that was the year of Ragtime, but the public didn’t like that connotation of the word ‘rag’ so he changed it to You’re a Grand Old Flag. And he wrote Mary is a Grand Old Name and so many fabulous songs. George M. Cohan. C-O-H-A-N, Cohan. He was the best. I had Charlie Chaplin on my TV show. I had Ronald Regan five times. I had Richard Nixon. I had John Wayne. I had Cary Grant.I had Frank Sinatra twice, Bing Crosby twice. I think I had them all. I tried for Greta Garbo. Greta Garbo was a dear friend of mine but Greta Garbo would not go on any shows. She said ‘I want to be alone!’ but she was just – we’ve got great memories, Paul.

I wanted to ask you about Woody Allen. Woody Allen is just probably the greatest film maker, in my humble opinion, of American film.

I’m a fan of Woody Allen movies. I’m in Broadway Danny Rose. I’m in Manhattan. He’s a very dear friend of mine and I enjoy his work. I think he’s a genius film maker and I can only tell you that when he makes a movie, there’s no script. He just tells you to – he just gives you the flavor of the movie role and it’s just a fantastic, the kind of mind he’s got. He’s just brilliant. Did you ever see Broadway Danny Rose?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

I’m in the pivotal scene, you know where the singer is trying to make his comeback – you know, the old-timer. And he’s a very dear friend of mine. You can’t knock that. He’s the modern-day Charlie Chaplin, I guess. You can’t knock that, you know?

What do you find him to be like, personally?

Very quiet. Very, very subdued. Totally, totally into – I mean, I think he still goes to a psychiatrist, as so many people do. He wants to know the meaning of life. He’s genius of the movie business. Still is to this day. His movies are eagerly awaited and they do a pretty big business all over the world, so he’s certainly got his niche.

Both on radio and on television, who has been your most talented guest?

I would say Bing Crosby. That’s the one who excited me. I always thought of Bing, Paul, as what you would call mechanically reproduced, as sort of being on radio, on TV, on records, in movies. But when he walked toward me flesh and blood that day I think I melted. I think I did my best interview that day. I don’t know – half a million, half a million interviews, I think I did my best one with Bing. He was my favorite. And you know, the ironic thing? He was not that romantic. It’s kind of like ironic because the #1 singer in the world of romantic ballads was not that romantic. He would tell his song writers, he would say ‘Don’t put the words ‘I love you’ twice in one song.’ I think he’d rather be out hunting and fishing with the boys. But Bing was his own man. His record of White Christmas is still the #1 record seller of all time. Andhe was – I just love Bing Crosby. I had people that never made any appearances on TV, including Cary Grant, including John Wayne, who would never do any interviews anyplace else but Bing, Bing remains in my mind a highlight if not the highlight.

Wow. Another one would be Frank Sinatra.

He was the best. What a voice. There’ll never be another Sinatra. One time I said ‘Frank, how could ever you go under contract at one time to three people? You’re under contract,’ I remember, ‘to Tommy Dorsey, the famous bandleader, Harry James, the famous bandleader, and your press agent, George Evans.’ He said, ‘Joe, let me tell you one thing.’ He said ‘Hearts and contracts were meant to be broken.’ (Laughs) Does that tell…I’ll never forget it. But he spoke a little bit like a kid from the East side but when he sang! His…thrilled.  Nobody else had that voice. He would make every song into a story, with a middle, with a beginning, with an ending. He was just beyond captivating. And he will endure.

One artist who still records, still tours, who got some early exposure on The Joe Franklin Show would be Barry Manilow. And he’s a singer who has paid a lot of homage to the old-time greats and the Tin Pan Alley – the American Songbook as you would say. Tell us about Manilow.

Well, he’s a legend. He certainly a music legend along with Billy Joel and so many more. One of my back-up singers for Barry Manilow was Madonna. I knew she was going to make good. She said to the other singers ‘Back up! Back up! Back up!’ She was very enterprising. She knew how to merchandise her own career. Then Barbra Streisand was my singer for one year. I think she was 17 years old. She was my house singer. She was followed by Connie Francis. Connie was followed by Eddie Fisher. I had Patti Page when she was very young – “Patti Page, the singing rage” was her name. Patti Page. I had – in those days, I had a big orchestra, a 15-piece, 18-piece orchestra that played for these singers and it was a crazy era of life. I would have all my commercials on – at one time, I had 28 commercials on my desk. Twenty-eight commercials, which I did live – 28. I did Martin Paint, Bertolli Olive Oil, Nabisco Shredded Wheat, Imperial Margarine – all on my desk, the most cluttered desk. My office is cluttered now, my office is cluttered. My office isn’t quite as well known for being a mess but I’m enjoying it. I’m still, you know, in demand for radio or TV. They want me to go back on TV, which I never will. I’ll never – I don’t want to get into that much rehearsal anymore. But it was the golden era. I was there when TV was brand new. I grew up with it and I became part of it. I was very close with Johnny Carson. I was on his show a couple of times. He was on my show a couple of times. And they’re all gone, all the other talk show hosts, except for Dick Cavett. I mean, Dick Cavett and I, we’re the last two. Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Jack Paar – they’re all gone. I’ve got great, sacred memories of those people. I love them. But we’re – I’m still hanging on.

Now, you mentioned Barbra Streisand a moment ago. What was your impression of her when you met her?

I knew she’d make good. One day she was on my panel with Rudy Vallee. Rudy said ‘You’ll never make it Barbra. You don’t have the right face. You don’t have the right nose.’ And that sort of gave her even more of a reason to accept that challenge and make good. She got a part in a Broadway show written by Harold Rome, who discovered her on my show, Harold Rome the famous songwriter, and that Broadway show was called I Can Get It for You Wholesale. She sang a song called Miss Marmelstein, Miss Marmelstein. Then, of course, she became the star of a big Broadway show called Funny Girl where she portrayed the late comedian, Fanny Brice. Then she certainly took off.  You can’t knock her. And she made a few million dollars a month ago singing at a bankers convention. She got a few million dollars for one performance. I said, ‘I gotta work two weeks for that kind of money!’ (Laughs)

You were mentioning the other talk-show hosts –

Right.

And one of them is based out of New York City who, as you like to say, he’s made good (laughs). Tell us about David Letterman. David Letterman has had you –

Oh, yeah! You can’t knock what pays the rent. He’s gigantic, as is Jay Leno. I used to get Jay Leno little jobs here and there in nightclubs to get him rolling, and he still calls me and says hello to me. And David Letterman, of course, he’s the one and only. He’s beyond a broadcast legend. He’s I guess around 65, 67 or 68 years old now but you’ve got to give him credit. He comes on every night. He’s so spontaneous and so clever and humorous. And throws his pencil into the audience. You can’t knock him. He’s beyond a legend, as is Jay Leno. You can’t knock him. And now you’ve got all these new ones coming up like Jimmy Fallon and all these others. They love being in this field and they have a certainly likability factor that the public seems to enjoy.

What does New York mean to you?

Well, I’m kind of known as Broadway Joe. I’ve been in this vicinity for about 50-60 years now and some people think it’s going downhill but I think, under the improvements of Mayor Bloomberg, it’s gone uphill. And we’ve got a new mayor soon. Mr. DiBlasio is a dear friend of mine. So I think it’s – education is up, graduations are up, tourism is way up, filmmaking in the city is now maybe bigger than what it is in California. New York, to me, is the pivotal part of the whole, the whole country. It’s the museums, it’s the stock market. I love New York. I love the fiber, the ambiance, the track record – it’s here to stay. It’s definitely here to stay.

What is the best thing about being Joe Franklin?

Well, I think the best thing is that – I mean, in all modesty, I’m very recognized even though I’m not on TV now for so many years. People say, you know, ‘Joe, we love you. We miss you. We learned so much from you. We learned culture, we learned Americana, we learned about movies, about old-time radio.’ I would take on any topic and I had a fantastic run. Let me get a world record somewhere for the world’s longest running TV talk show. I never had a talent coordinator. I would do my own – I could feel it in my mind the chemistry of who would go well on my panel. I had Ronald Regan with a dancing dentist. I got Margaret Meade with the man who whistles through his nose. I could feel who would go well together. I had a very well-known mix. Sometimes I had 15 guests on one show. I got ‘em in there, I would pack ‘em in there some days. If I had a Bill Cosby or someone like that, I would give them the whole hour, naturally. But I’ve got maybe, out of my 28,000 shows, I’ve got maybe 500 on video, which I saved. The rest have gone into space. They would tape one show over the last show. that’s how they’d save a lot of money back in those days, which is kind of sad. I wish I had more shows. I preserved more than 500 but that’s the way the cookie crumbles (laughs).

This is a question I used to ask people but I’m very curious to know – what is your all-time favorite meal?

I would say meatballs and spaghetti. Believe it or not I’m very simple. I love lamb chops – and meatballs and spaghetti and, I guess, I like a little Jello at the end. I’m like Duke Ellington in that sense. I like my dessert at the beginning because I feel like later I might not have room by the end of the meal, so I like my dessert first – cheesecake or whatever, before I start the meal (laughs). But I, I try to cut down, you know, it’s the calories. But I think best option is probably have half the plate. Have half the plate and then whatever is left, push the plate away for the second half, you know?

For anyone who listens to this broadcast, wherever they are in the world, what do you want to say to the people who are listening in?

I just want to say thank you for your loyalty and your response. And one of my deep regrets is that I never answered my fan mail. I guess thousands and thousands of people must hate me because they wrote in for autographed pictures or they wanted to send me souvenirs and I just never got around to it. The days go so fast. So, except for feeling a little guilty about the fact that I didn’t answer my mail – because I got thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of letters which I never answered – I’m happy I was able to teach people Americana, culture, show business. I’ll do the best I can for as long as they want me. I’ve got so many nibbles – two guest appearances, a request to bring back The Joe Franklin Show, which I said I never would, but it’s just been an amazing career. I’ve written one book that’s the Bible of the film industry. It’s called Classics of the Silent Screen. It’s a film history that’s second to none. It sold over a million books. And I wrote Joe Franklin’s Awfully Corny Joke Book, Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane Cookbooks that included recipes of the big movie stars of the past – Clark Gable’s onions and Jack Benny’s meatballs. Oh, it’s a great book. And I’m doing another one called Growing Up with Radio. It will be out soon about the old radio stars. I’ve got a trivia book with Square One Publishers called Joe Franklin’s Trivia Game, which was a big, big seller all over the world. My last book is into it’s third printing – you want to know why?

Why’s that?

The first two printings were blurred (laughs)! I’m only kidding. But I still enjoy knocking out these things. And I do benefits and I do a lot of speeches at universities. And the college kids all want to do a question and answer bit and they ask me about the old days and Gone with the Wind and Lucille Ball and Lassie and Lost in Space. I chose the right profession, I think, you know?

Yeah, I would definitely have to agree with you. For my last question –

Okay.

Who is Joe Franklin?

Well he a certain guy that I’d like to get to meet someday. He’s a very shy, a very modest guy. He doesn’t blow his horn too much. I never made the circuits or the big-time parties. Never had an agent.   I had an agent or manager or someone who wanted to work with me. I just felt intimidated. I just rolled up myself and you can’t. I could have been bigger and been a multi, multi-millionaire but I’ve got my niche and I’m Joe Franklin who just never went to wild parties and I wasn’t on the social register. I’ve been invited all over the world – Italy, Israel, France – with the airline free, the hotel free. I just never took advantage. I just didn’t want to be like a mooch. I never took anything for nothing. I always paid my way every place I went, and it’s been a great career. And I met nice people like you, Paul. So it pays off in the end. You know?

Wow. Well, Mr. Franklin I can say there is only one Joe Franklin. You’ve brought a lot of joy.

And one is enough.  Paul, you’ve got a good radio personality and I wanted to wish you much success. I’ve got one or two people that I’d like you to chat with eventually, so we’ll be in touch, right?

Absolutely. I hope to have you again. Thank you so much.

If conversations could echo back through time how many well known faces would turn to see this wonderful talk with Joe Franklin? But that is what “the King of Nostalgia” does best, ruling the record of entertainment down on Memory Lane.

TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA

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