Last night (Saturday, Jan. 24), when I shared the New York Times and New York Daily News obituaries of the great Joe Franklin on the Book of Faces, some of the comments I got included the standard “I didn’t know he was still alive!” variety. Well, the man was a month and a half shy of 89, and, let’s face it, he was born old. And he gave up The Joe Franklin Show, his record-length talk show of 42 years, two decades ago already. Yes, that long ago. So excuse those who didn’t realize he’d been whistling past the graveyard all these years. And now he’s another great New York institution that’s disappeared.
If you didn’t grow up in the Tri-State Area, or see Billy Crystal’s impersonations during his lone year on Saturday Night Live, Joe was the King of Television, the King of the Talk Show, the King of Late-Night and King of Nostalgia. He pretty much gave us the talk-show format as we know it when he started on the tube in 1951 — sitting behind a desk and chatting with a couch full of guests. He also gave us the concept of nostalgia as we came to know it — regaling viewers and guests with stories of performers such as Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson on his many travels down Memory Lane.
And along the way, he interviewed an estimated 300,000 people. A handful were bona fide legends, such as Debbie Reynolds, Tony Curtis, Joe Louis and his idol, Bing Crosby; some others were up-and-comers who caught a huge break early on from Joe and his show, such as Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and Bette Midler; some were regular guests who could be called upon in a pinch, such as Joe’s longtime producer and trivia quizmaster, Richie Orenstein, or Morris Katz, the world’s fastest painter, who created works in a minute or less using a palette knife and toilet paper. As a rock and pop music fan, there were other great names along the way, such as Tiny Tim (another quasi-regular), The J. Geils Band (who made a paint-splashed mess of his studio one Friday night my senior year of college) and The Ramones.
But most of his guests were everyday people who would fall into the categories of never-weres, never-gonna-bes and wannabes. And from time to time, they shared the couch with the greats. Thus, the show sometimes ran toward the mundane, or even the surreal. But the democracy of the panel of guests was one of the most endearing qualities of Joe’s show. For even a few minutes, anyone could be a star. And Joe was perhaps the most accessible TV host of all time — his number was in the Manhattan White Pages.
And that leads to my personal experience with Joe Franklin, and how he could launch something Big! Big! Big! with the exposure from his show.
Let’s just say that without Joe, fans of The Honeymooners would never have seen the “Lost Episodes.” read on …
The first Friday morning of December 1982. My senior year at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University.
For three of my four years at Post, I had a work-study job as a gofer in the school’s public relations/sports information office — answer phones, run errands, etc. Two of the full-time ham-and-eggers on the staff were Bob Columbe and Peter Crescenti — both small Italian guys with beards, both passionate about music, especially doo-wop (in my time there, they brought a gospel program featuring both The Five Blind Boys of Alabama and The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, as well as a doo-wop extravaganza). In fact, the first time I saw James Brown was when they invited me along one Saturday night in the fall of ’82 to see him and Wilson Pickett at a midnight show at the Palladium in Manhattan.
But they were especially mad-rabid atomic passionate about The Honeymooners. It wasn’t unusual to hear them throw lines from the show across the cubicles. I’m talking obscure, trivial, way-beyond-“Bang! Zoom! To the Moon!” stuff — like talking about ordering Neapolitan knockwurst for lunch; or evening plans, such as taking the wife to dinner at Hong Kong Gardens, going dancing afterward to the music of Basil Fomeen and Little Jack Little at the Sons of Italy Hall. Or spontaneous outbursts of “Uticaaaaa!,” from the infamous train trip to see Ralph’s Uncle Leo (yes, Ralph Kramden had an Uncle Leo four decades before Jerry Seinfeld). And a couple of times, Newsday’s longtime TV columnist, Marvin Kitman, ran trivia quizzes that they submitted to him.
Even casual fans of the show know that The Honeymooners originated as skits on Jackie Gleason’s variety show in the early ’50s, and became a dedicated TV show for just one season — 1955-56, the “Classic 39” episodes — before being swallowed back into Gleason’s show. New York’s Channel 11, WPIX, had aired those 39 episodes over and over again weeknights since 1956. And in the fall of 1982, the station decided to give the show a rest.
And you can imagine how the news went over with Bob and Peter. You’d think someone shot Norton’s dog, Lulu, or poisoned their stash of Kram-Mar. I think apopleptic would be a close-to-accurate description of their state of mind. That fall, it was almost all they could talk about. And it became their cause: to get Channel 11 to put the show back on the air. Kitman ran another of their trivia quizzes on a slow news day in Newsday.
So, fast-forward to that first Friday of December. I arrived at 10 a.m. for my usual shift, I’m guessing tired and a little cranky because I had a Thursday/Friday midnight-to-3 new wave show on the campus radio station. I sat at the front desk by the door leading out to Hillwood Commons, the student center, and started leafing through the copy of Newsday I bought downstairs at the newsstand …
And somewhere around 11, I heard them yapping about the damned show again.
And I think I had had my fill at that point.
“Look, guys,” I called across to their cubicles on the other side of the aisle, “if you want the show back on the air so bad, why don’t you call Joe Franklin and tell him you have a fan club?”
And I felt two light bulbs go on at once.
“Frannie! That sounds like an idea,” Bob said, or something to that effect.
“Well, his number’s in the Manhattan White Pages.” I had read that somewhere along the way.
And well, since it was my bright idea, and I was a lowly work-study worker, they made me make the call to Joe.
I found a Manhattan White Pages among the stack o’phone books across the aisle, next to the primordial, drum-load fax machine, and there it was: “Franklin Joe RadioandTV,” and his phone number. I was a little nervous all of a sudden.
I figured I would get his secretary, big TV star that he was. I was shocked when I heard “Hello” at the other end and recognized that voice.
And I immediately was at a loss for words, and I started speaking in kind of a dweeby, breathless squeak: “HiJoethisisFranFriedcallingfromC.W.PostCollegeonLongIslandand IrepresentaHoneymoonersfanclub …”
And the dynamic duo were listening on a speaker phone in one of their cubicles …
And Joe responded, in that unmistakable phrasing i had heard so many times: “Hmmmmm … The Honeymooners … That’s that Jackie Gleason thing, huh?”
It was just something about the way Joe said it — kinda cluelessly. “That Jackie Gleason thing.” And I heard Bob and Peter start giggling like schoolkids. And I, in turn, almost lost it — kinda like the centurion in the Biggus Dickus scene in Life of Brian, trying to keep my composure and sucking in my cheeks as hard as humanly possible.
And then Joe had to ask:
“This is no joke now, is it?”
And your fwiendly lowly P.R. centuwion had to choke out a “NoJoeit’snotajoke.”
“Well, send me some letterhead and call me on Tuesday.”
And that was that.
I got off the phone, and the two of them were cracking up. And I could finally breathe again.
They took it from there. They coined the name RALPH — the Royal Association for the Longevity and Preservation of The Honeymooners — came up with letterhead and mailed Joe a letter, as well as clips of their Newsday quizzes.
They were invited on Joe’s show. I missed the taping at Channel 9, as I was back home for the holiday break and had scared up some writing work at the Waterbury Republican-American, where I had interned the previous summer (and would spend the next nine years after graduating that May).
From there, the fan club took off, from a few dozen based on the appearance on the show, the rest by word-of-mouth. By the time I graduated, the membership was in the hundreds, soon to explode into the thousands; Bob and Peter had told me at some point that Bruce Springsteen and Mark Hamill were among the members.
That fall, they held their first Honeymooners convention at Post. Gleason caught wind of it and, in gratitude, sent them a pair of his Ralph Kramden bus driver uniform pants, which the guys modeled on TV — one of them standing in each pants leg. I missed it because I was working, as I did the convention the next fall — where Gleason announced that, because of the huge fan response, he would be releasing all the “Lost Episodes” from his vaults. All those 10-, 30- and 50-minute Honeymooners sketches from the variety show would make their way to TV.
I haven’t seen the guys since I graduated, and they disbanded the club after Gleason died, but it served its purpose. Channel 11 stopped airing the show quite a while ago, but the Classic 39 are readily available in Videoland, as are the “Lost Episodes.”
And it was all because of Joe Franklin and his wonderfully democratic and sometimes-wacky late-night talk show.
May you meet up with all of your heroes and idols and friends, Joe. And please say hi to Gleason and Art Carney and Audrey Meadows …