Longtime radio and television host Joe Franklin, best known as “Mr. Nostalgia,” was as much of a New York treasure as an egg cream or a Nedick’s hot dog.
Between 1950 and 1993, he hosted an astounding 21,425 televised installments of “The Joe Franklin Show,” a feat that is still heralded in the “Guinness Book of World Records.”
The beloved Franklin passed away in January 2015 from complications associated with prostate cancer. He was 88 years old. As we battle this global pandemic, a broadcaster like Franklin, who represented vintage Americana, is missed more than ever.
Until shortly before his death, he still hosted “Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane,” which was heard daily on WOR in New York and Bloomberg Radio. Over the years it seemed as if there was no one from the sporting, political, or entertainment world that he did not interview.
Included among them were five U.S. presidents; Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, the latter of whom was on his show when he was still the governor of Arkansas.
Although John F. Kennedy was never a guest, he did appear on Franklin’s stage at Channel 7 in New York in 1960. At the time Kennedy and Nixon, both of whom were presidential candidates, were rehearsing for a televised debate in an adjoining studio. When one of Franklin’s guests dropped dead, the presidential aspirants raced in to try and revive him.
Although Franklin was the first to admit he was not a big sports fan, he loved boxers and wrestlers and had many of them on the show.
The fistic guests spanned several generations and included Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Max Baer, Billy Conn, Joe Frazier, “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom, “Two Ton” Tony Galento, Emile Griffith, Mike Mazurki, Vito Antuofermo, Al Certo, Buddy McGirt, and Lou Duva.
“All of my guests have been wonderful,” said Franklin in a 2006 interview.
“Because I’ve been doing what I love for my whole life, I can say that I’ve never had a bad interview. I’ve loved every one of them. And I remember each and every one of them.”
Franklin recalled having Joe Louis and Billy Conn on the same show around 1955. Both, he says, were “absolute gentleman.” But what happened after the show is what Franklin remembers most vividly.
“Joe Louis was taking me and the director to lunch,” recalled Franklin. “On the way we sideswiped a taxi and the cab driver got out and got real tough with Joe. He told Joe to open his window and abused him racially. He obviously didn’t recognize him.
“I was waiting for Joe to kill him, but he just listened quietly and the cabbie drove away,” continued Franklin.
“I asked Joe why he didn’t doing something. He said, ‘If someone insulted Enrico Caruso would he sing him an aria?’ Joe was a very articulate man.”
When Franklin had Dempsey and Tunney on the same show he remembers being “very touched” when they embraced.
Franklin seemed to be in genuine awe of Dempsey, as so many people from that generation are, and said that, in his opinion, Dempsey and Babe Ruth were the greatest athletic heroes of all time.
“When I met Jack he was arthritic, but he was still bigger than life,” said Franklin. “You could tell he was so tough, with such an interesting past, but I most remember him just being a kind, sweet, brilliant man.”
Franklin also had Ali on the show performing magic tricks and Tyson discussing his beloved pigeons, but said one of his favorite guests from the pugilistic world was Galento.
“He could have been a comedian, he was so funny,” said Franklin as he broke in to a broad grin.
“He told me he was in a hotel one night and there was a drip in the sink that was keeping him up. He called the desk clerk and said, ‘I got a leak in my sink.’ The clerk told him to go ahead.”
His scores of guests from the entertainment field were just as diverse and included Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, and Bruce Springsteen prior to them becoming megastars, as well as Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee, Frank Sinatra, Eddie Cantor, Pat Boone, Mickey Rooney, and Robert Klein.
His favorite of all was Bing Crosby, who he got as youthfully exuberant talking about as he did when discussing Dempsey.
“I always thought of him as being mechanically reproduced,” said Franklin of Crosby. “When he walked in and I saw that he was flesh and blood, my insides turned because I was so excited.” (Below, Bing hits NYC, and visits Joe to talk about his show at the Uris Theater Dec. 7-19. The show raised funds for the Mannes College of Music and the Association For the Help of Retarded Children, for the record. Bing was 72, and still a draw. His Christmas special ran on CBS Dec. 1 in '76, and was ranked fourth that week, as “Happy Days” took the top slot. If you were wondering, it was the '77 Xmas special that featured this majestic mashup. Bing had died from a heart attack after a round of golf Oct. 14, but the holiday special taped in September. He did “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” with David Bowie.)
While it could be argued that Franklin lived in the past, he begged to differ with that assessment. He had been collecting memorabilia for more than half a century, long before it became a passion and lucrative business for so many people.
Around his office were troves of records, magazines, books, film posters, and vintage photos dating back to the 1930s.
“I used to ask all of my guests for a souvenir,” he said. “I never had any intention of selling them. I still don’t. As you can tell, I haven’t. President Reagan gave me a tie clip. George Raft gave me a sweater.
“Collectible is a big word and celebrity memorabilia is a big passion today, but it wasn’t then. I discovered the field inadvertently. I guess I’m a soothsayer.”
Until six months prior to my last interview with him in 2006, Franklin still had a rotary phone, and never once had he employed a talent coordinator. He handled all the logistics himself. As we talked he fielded one call after another, telling everyone he'd call them right back.
And no one was ever more true to his New York roots than Mr. Nostalgia, who was raised on the same Upper East Side street as James Cagney and was boyhood friends with Tony Curtis, who was then known as Bernie Schwartz.
Nothing was more important to Franklin than the dual worlds of broadcasting and entertainment. You need not look beyond the following facts to realize that.
“I never had a driver’s license,” said Franklin. “I never played golf, never went to the beach. My feet have never touched sand. I never played cards or went to a horse race, never had a credit card.
“My life has been work, just work. There have been times I’ve done television three times a day and radio at night. And I’ve loved every minute of it. I just keep going. I never get drained.
“My whole life has been lived tongue-in-cheek,” he continued. “I like to kid the whole world. I’m just having fun making fun of everything. Billy Crystal imitated me for four years on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ The first time I met him, I told him that one of us was lousy.”
Peter Wood, a 1971 New York City Golden Gloves finalist and author of “A Clenched Fist: The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion,” “Confessions of a Fighter: Battling Through the Golden Gloves,” and his most recent, “The Boy Who Hit Back” (2018) remembers the thrill of seeing his father on Franklin’s show in the 1960s.
Guy Wood was a noted songwriter whose credits included “My One and Only Love,” which was made famous by Frank Sinatra, “Till Then,” which was a number-one hit by the Mills Brothers, and Peter Wood’s personal favorite, “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy,” which was recorded by Red Foley, Dinah Shore, and others.
Guy Wood operated out of the Brill Building, which was known as Tin Pan Alley, a place Franklin called home for decades.
“I was tickled pink when I saw my father on his show,” said Wood. “Franklin was a genuine grassroots guy, a real New Yorker to the core. He appreciated people like my father who had hits, but was not in the league of an Arthur Schwartz or a Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote show tunes and whose names were known even beyond the industry.
“Franklin had a way of sniffing out what other people might consider smaller stories, but he made everyone feel like a star. In his world, there were no small stories.”
Franklin often said that when the curtain finally fell on his glorious life and career, he would want his gravestone to read, “I’ll be back after a short break,” which is what he said prior to every commercial for over four decades.
Sadly, this break won’t be a short one. The great Joe Franklin, one of the last vestiges of a bygone New York era is gone. If you are old enough to remember him, he will be sorely missed.
If you are not—you don’t know what you missed. He was a treasure.
PUBLISHER NOTE: Mladinich is co-writer of the new movie “Mott Haven.”
He will be on an upcoming episode of the Everlast TALKBOX podcast to give listeners the inside lowdown on the film.