The storm, the election. . . Now, let’s get back to why Joe Franklin matters. . .
In September I received a request from Joe Franklin to take down a blog that originated from this site. It contained a few parodies of Joe my brother and I, then known as The Friedman Bros., did in the 1970s. I was happy to oblige. This might constitute a breach of journalistic ethics if it involved anyone but Joe Franklin. At 86, he is Olde Times Square’s foremost senior statesman. An intimate of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor who still walks amongst us. Like Hugh Hefner, Joe cares about his image and legacy. Even the minutiae of what appears on esoteric blogs.
Here are several reasons Joe Franklin’s legacy is so valuable:
He was New York’s—and therefore the world’s—first TV talk-show host, circa 1950. The ABC studios on West 66th Street were a former horse stable when Joe broke his new format there. Seated at a particular angle, nose-to-nose, eyeball to eyeball, at a desk, the microphone positioned just so. According to Franklin, his very first week on the air included guests John Wayne, Cary Grant and (17-year-old?) Kim Novak. There are no records to prove this or the hyperbolic lore surrounding who may or may not have appeared through the decades. But that is not the point. (Joe himself would swear Abe Lincoln was on the show.) From Joe’s humble format sprung the TV talk show. That may sound like a curse unleashed, considering the cesspool of programs that appear today. But once upon a time, the format had some dignity.
Joe Franklin invented nostalgia, but more importantly, he was the first to rescue silent films from oblivion. That is the primary reason Franklin should be honored. With the exception of Chaplin, silents—ruthlessly passé after 1930—were utterly forgotten when Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane came on the scene. (It was Lillian Gish who wisely remarked that movies should have begun with talkies and evolved into silent films.) The last silents were only 25 years old at the time Franklin began rescuing old two-reelers from warehouses to broadcast on his show. This ultimately led to film restoration, preservation and pioneering academic study of early film by Kevin Brownlow. Today’s moving picture archaeology involves search and rescue of volatile nitrate film canisters to reassemble lost films. The whole silent era could have disappeared without Franklin’s intervention.
Thirdly, I might add some lore on Franklin the man. It is implied in his autobiography (Up Late with Joe Franklin, Scribner, 1995) that notches on his bedpost include Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Veronica Lake. And that these actresses literally threw themselves at him. More likely, however, he might have banged Kate Smith. He worked for her at the time when Kate Smith was at the cutting edge of patriotism, the country was at war, Joe was young and anything seemed possible. Should we not honor Joe for those conquests alone? Sarah Silverman can only wish she had a shot with Franklin, were he not 50 years her senior.
As a reliable source of misinformation, his capacity for tall tales is legendary. Especially the Franklin telephone buttering-up process, upon which he heaps praise and promises into a high art of hyperbolic show-biz malarkey. But Joe gets a pass on this conceit.
Joe did indeed did collaborate with Marilyn herself on her first (extremely rare) autobiography. He also may have had Elvis on his show before Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle—but there is no kinescope to prove it. He booked Eddie Fisher’s first TV appearances, along with the earliest Streisand, Woody Allen and Robert Redford appearances. Yet not a moment survives on kinescope or video of Franklin’s show from the 1950s or ’60s, excepting 39 seconds of Japanese silent screen star Sessue Hayakawa on Memory Lane in 1957:
Sessue Hayakawa, hugely popular 90 years ago, in 1957 on Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane.
Thus, Joe’s YouTube series is reduced to titles like "Joe Franklin Remembers _____." Minus the kinescope or video, Joe is reduced to recalling hundreds of guests, including five U.S. presidents. He recalls a lineup of 20th century giants, some who rarely, if ever, did intimate TV interviews: Irving Berlin alongside Sophie Tucker and Ethel Merman, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Rocky Marciano, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny; all surviving silent screen actors, as well as bedroom conquests Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Veronica Lake. There was no studio audience, so it was the only time you heard comedians like Milton Berle talk without playing to an audience. If the footage existed it would comprise an archive like no other at the NY Museum of Television and Radio, where Franklin should be canonized.
I hope the radio waves will be captured in interstellar space and a future civilization will behold The Joe Franklin Show. But let us honor this man now.
copyright © 2012 Josh Alan Friedman
portrait of Joe, © 2012 George Seminara