Sunday, May 03, 2009

Joe Franklin's Come and Stayed

I saw a living legend the other night and I was so happy to learn that he’s still living.

I was at the theater recently--God, I love how that sounds; it makes me seem so cultured.

So like I was saying, I was at the theater the other night taking in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and during the intermission I headed for the gents. (We don’t call it “the crapper” on Broadway. We’re cultured.)

The line was huge, rolling up a flight of stairs and into the back of the theater. The usher had to move us along in small groups to avoid a mutlti-male pile up, which sounds a little funkier than I intended. (Or did I subconsciously intend it to be funky and just won’t admit it? This is all your fault, Freud.)

I'm used to seeing this kind of mob scene outside the woman's room, but never with my own gender. We’re supposed to be in and out and on our way. (Now that was intentional.)

What was I talking about? Oh, yeah, the crapper.

I finally got to the appointed place and as I came back up the stairs I saw this little elderly man--he reminded me of E.T.--standing quietly on line with this serene look on his face.

Is that who I think it is? I thought to myself. Is that Joe Franklin?

I was debating this issue as I walked up the stairs and just as I reached the top step, I heard a man behind me say loudly, “We haven’t seen you in a long time, Joe.”

I turned and saw this gentleman was talking to E.T., who was not E.T. at all, but Joe Franklin for real—standing in bathroom just like a normal person.

I’m sure you youngsters out there are asking yourselves "who the hell is Joe Franklin?"

Well, I’ll have you know that Joe Franklin is the king of nostalgia, a living and breathing—thank God--New York institution who started his career on the airwaves shortly after another Franklin named Ben did that business with the kites. I’m not sure if the two are related.

Shortly before the intermission ended, Joe finally emerged from the men’s room and walked down the aisle to his seat, where a woman stopped him along the way to apparently gush all over him and I pointed him out to my companions.

The thing about Joe Franklin was that he was shockingly devoid of charisma or personality, which normally would be a liability if you want a career in the entertainment business, but it didn't seem to matter with Joe. I liked the guy, even though sometimes I had the urge to check his pulse.

I remember his TV show running on Channel 9 in New York at some ungodly hour. Opening to the strains of “The Twelfth Street Rag,” Franklin’s show was usually the last thing on the tube before the test pattern—and it was debatable which of the two was more exciting.

He had people from the lowest rung of the entertainment industry ladder. I think if you were in the business back in the day, your agent got you a spot on “The Joe Franklin Show” to prove that at least he was trying. And after appearing on the show, you probably fired your agent.

Joe Franklin’s Wikipedia entry says “he interviewed over 10,000 guests during his 43-year TV run” and his guests ranged from novelty acts like Tiny Tim to headliners like Bill Cosby, Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, John Lennon.

I'm sorry to say I never saw anybody like that on Franklin’s show, but I’m reasonably certain they actually did appear. Hell, Ben Franklin probably stopped by as well.

Memory Lane

The entry says the show “frequently included (sometimes on the same panel) utterly unknown local New York punk bands, self-published authors, ‘tribute’ impersonator lounge singers, and the like, giving the show a surreal atmosphere.”

Now that’s more like it.

“Surreal atmosphere” is the perfect description because when you switched the show on you often wondered if you were dreaming. Billy Crystal used to do a great impersonation of Joe Franklin and I wonder now if they ever appeared together. It would be tough telling them apart.

I learned that I know someone who appeared on Joe Franklin's show and shared the evening with a penguin act. She tells me that she accidentally stepped in penguin poop--who would do so deliberately?--and ruined her shoes.

"How many New Yorkers ever stepped in penguin shit?" my brother in California asked when I told him this tale. I would say not many, outside of zoo employees and guests on The Joe Franklin Show.

Joe Franklin makes me think of old time New York, the nostalgia city in my mind that's made up of memories, exaggerations, and wishful thinking.

It was the place of Toots Shor, The 21Club, Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant and the Stork Club, all the legendary hotspots that I never actually visited.

This was New York before the Internet, cell phones, and Blackberries. There were no DVDs or I-pods and Disney wouldn't have dreamed of setting up shop in Times Square. We didn't have Rush Limbaugh or Fox News and the New York Post was actually a respected newspaper--back when we still respected newspapers.

All cars were American made back then. We actually made things in America. We didn't know the term "water-boarding," but we considered it to be so heinous that we prosecuted Japanese soldiers for doing it to our troops.

Joe told the New York Times how he missed the old Times Square “Giuliani came in here with machine guns and cleaned it up, and now it's not really New York City any longer. It's more Las Vegas. It's more Super California. But it's good for the city and for tourism.”

After the play, we walked down Fifth Avenue and about 45th Street and saw a former bank that was now an empty shell.

There are a lot of empty storefronts around the city, which, given the economy is not surprising, but seeing a bank with the “Retail Space Available” sign was disturbing, especially when it's right on Fifth Avenue.

Despite the lateness of the hour, the place was all lit up, so we could see the bank’s fabulous classic design, stripped down to the bone. Even the hands of the wall clock were gone, giving the place a truly surreal atmosphere.

It looked like a tomb being excavated by archeologists. The place was a center of high finance at one time, before credit default swaps and "complex financial products," with thousands of people going in and out its doors on a daily basis, but that was back in the days of the Stork Club, Toots Shor’s and Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant.

I’m glad we still have Joe Franklin.


Anonymous said...

Today I had to visit one of my jobs in NYC and to my absolute amazement, I had the pleasure of running into Mr. Joe Franklin himself. I hadn't seen him in years and I recognized him right away. I told him that I was a fan of his since I was a little boy and he replied "you may just be my only fan". In my amazement, I totally forgot to snap a picture of me with "Mr Nostalgia" and will kick myself for that for a very long time.

wbhist said...

From the 1960's to the early 1980's, the version of "12th Street Rag" that opened The Joe Franklin Show (and was also used for commercial bumpers and the close) was that of Big Tiny Little, from his 1959 album Honky Tonk Piano (Brunswick BL 54049/754049, one of the last pop offerings on that label before it was transformed into an R&B label starting from Jackie Wilson on down - and the remaining pop acts, such as Mr. Little, were moved over to Coral).