Joe Franklin: Forsooth the Soothsayer

By Robert Mladinich on January 27, 2015
Joe Franklin: Forsooth the Soothsayer
“My whole life has been lived tongue-in-cheek.” (Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News)

“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…”

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 on Saturday, January 24th, from complications associated with prostate cancer. He was 88 years old.

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.”

While it could be argued that Franklin lived in the past, he begged to differ with that assessment. He has 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 2006 interview with him, 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.

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, contributor to this web site, and author of two books, “A Clenched Fist: The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion” and “Confessions of a Fighter: Battling Through the Golden Gloves,” 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.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Joe Franklin Excerpts

Joe Franklin Show interview with Bing Crosby.wmv

john coltrane & johnny hartman / "my one and only love"

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  1. Eric 09:05am, 01/30/2015

    Elvis had a thing about giving away Cadillacs to his friends, and even complete strangers. He gave his maid who worked for him for 14 years, a total of 6 cars, 3 of them Cadillacs. From what I understand, Elvis never wanted to make a big show of his generosity, often wanting to keep it a secret. Greatest singer/performer ever in my book. Sinatra couldn’t hold a candle to Elvis.

  2. Bob 04:48am, 01/30/2015

    While Sinatra’s generosity to his down and out friends was noble, what is not so noble is that everyone seems to know about them.  I believe that kind gestures toward others lose their value when one feels the need to “leak” word of their benevolence to the masses. For a guy that supposedly did things “quietly,” Sinatra (and Floyd Mayweather’s) endeavors, such as the latter reportedly paying for the funeral of Genaro Hernandez, are known by an awful lot of people.

  3. Clarence George 08:49am, 01/29/2015

    I never cared for him either, but he was talented and was extremely helpful to friends down on their luck.

    When he married Mia Farrow, Ava Gardner said something like, “I always knew he’d wind up in bed with a boy.”  Ouch!

  4. Eric 08:31am, 01/29/2015

    Frank must have weighed 120lbs soaking wet. Supposedly actress Ava Gardner said that Frank Sinatra only weighs 120lbs and 100lbs of that is c*ck. Legend has it that the tiny little crooner was hung like a horse. Just never cared for Sinatra.

  5. Clarence George 08:19am, 01/29/2015

    Never cared for Mathis.  To my amazement, he made a recent appearance in a TV commercial, but I can’t remember for what.  Sinatra was great in his heyday, but his tough-guy act was both boring and laughable.  Most people have good reason to remember Sammy Davis Jr. as an absolute jackass, what with his Nehru jackets and love beads.  But he was actually a very versatile and talented entertainer.

  6. Eric 07:55am, 01/29/2015

    Nat King Cole was talented but from that genre and time period, I would take Johnny Mathis, just my personal preference. Never bought into the Frank Sinatra thingy, overrated IMO. I’m sure some of the boyz had a heavy influence on, “Ole Blue Eyes,” becoming a big star.

  7. Eric 07:21am, 01/29/2015

    The volatile Pesci is calmed down by Ray Liotta’s character. Pesci tells Henry aka Liotta, he just wants to make sure he’s not kissing Nat King Cole over here. teehee. Classic scene.

  8. Clarence George 04:40am, 01/29/2015

    Nat King Cole was in a class by himself.  Can’t say the same for daughter Natalie, whose success always mystified me.  He appeared in “Istanbul,” one of Errol Flynn’s last movies, in which he sang “When I Fall in Love.”  Also in the film was Cornell Borchers.  Hollywood’s characteristically ridiculous attempt to build her up as the next Ingrid Bergman was an utter failure.  Little remembered, her death last year passed pretty much unnoticed.

  9. Eric 09:19pm, 01/28/2015

    Nat King Cole had a brief fling with Swedish born Gunilla Hutton. Hutton was known for her role in the sitcom, Hee-Haw. This happened in the ‘60’s when interracial couples weren’t that common. Every time I see Hutton or Nat King Cole, I think about this, and the scene from the movie, Goodfellas. It is the scene where the borgata are sitting around a table listening to someone sing, Sammy Davis Jr’s name is brought up, and Pesci’s date says something about she could see why a girl would fall for Sammy Davis Jr. I was thinking Pesci was about to go Joey Bananas on dat broad, maybe even pull a Billy Batts number for a second or two there.

  10. FrankinDallas 08:58pm, 01/28/2015

    Wow….Joe was still alive up until this week? I remember him
    from back in the 50’s when I was a.kid….wish I could get a vanilla egg cream

  11. peter 06:14pm, 01/28/2015

    @ Irish Frankie…You’re correct, Nat King Cole would have been a perfect fit for “Till Then”, and I don’t know why it didn’t happen. NKC did record at least one other Guy Wood song, a ballad called “Don’t Go”.  Google “Nat King Cole ‘Don’t Go’” and it will pop up.  Thank you for your interest.

  12. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:51am, 01/28/2015

    Eric-Michelle is 6 ft. tall and is built like Serena Williams….probably stronger….no doubt in my mind that she could be the best athlete in the family…, golf whatever, if she had practiced or played at all in her youth she could whip Hubby’s ass to a frazzle in the present day….probably does anyway,,,,behind closed doors…..something like: “Please Dear,may I have another?” Whack!....“Please Dear, may I have another?” Whack!....on and on til the morning light. No wonder he sleeps in and watches ESPN in the morning.

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:25am, 01/28/2015

    Can’t believe that Nat Cole didn’t record “Til Then”....his voice was perfect for this song!

  14. Eric 10:36am, 01/28/2015

    Irish…We had no problems naming the Brits, the Yankees or Rebels, depending on what side you were on, the Germans, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Viet Cong, etc. You definitely have to know who and what you are fighting against.

  15. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:59am, 01/28/2015

    It’s kinda’ like in a boxing match where you don’t know who your opponent is….you might end up knockin’ the fuk out of the referee!

  16. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:50am, 01/28/2015

    Mission Impossible-Roger that!.....which reminds me…..if you can’t name your enemy that means you don’t know your enemy…..if you don’t know your enemy….how in the fuk can you defeat him? Or how about this….if you don’t name your enemy maybe, just maybe it’s because you don’t want to defeat him.

  17. Mission Impossible 09:37am, 01/28/2015

    Had to look up Kohn. “She” seems to be of the Rachel Maddow mold. You have your work cut of for you on that project, Irish. I get the whole challenge of turning out a lizzie mission. You are a true trooper for taking one for the team. Semper Fi, troop! And should your mission become dangerous, abort ASAP.

  18. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:29am, 01/28/2015

    Clarence George-Yikes! I could tell Sally Kohn was a big girl and very much into power pant suits like Hillary Clinton…..I’m looking up Julie Bowen right now.

  19. Clarence George 09:28am, 01/28/2015

    Irish:  I’d ask if you don’t mean Sophia Myles…but I already know the answer.

  20. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:21am, 01/28/2015

    Clarence George-Sally Kirkland and Sylvia Myles are two women who have/had that certain something….you could put Miss Universe right next to either of them and I’d pick Sally or Sylvia every time.

  21. Clarence George 09:13am, 01/28/2015

    Er, Irish, Sally Kohn is a dyed-in-the-wool lesbian.  How ‘bout Julie Bowen?  A handsome filly, to be sure.

  22. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:02am, 01/28/2015

    Eric-Thanks for the heads up….I’ll have to check out Sandra Lee on the Food Network. Just remember….“Pretty is as pretty does.” I guess you could say I’m into taming shrews… fact I was thinking of giving Sally Kohn a shot….then someone said she was into a same sex relationship….hoping that’s not real.

  23. Eric 08:33am, 01/28/2015

    Irish…Could you have been referring to Sandra Lee of the Food Network Channel or even Sandra Dee? Michael, ahem, Moochie Obama looks attractive next to Bernhard.

  24. Clarence George 07:49am, 01/28/2015

    ‘Fraid not, Irish.  The only belly dancer I know is my neighbor, Anna.

    By the way, did you see what Sally Kirkland looked like?  Good Lord, that must be 40 years ago!

    Sandra Bernhard, me auld warrior?  Um…

  25. Eric 07:43am, 01/28/2015

    Irish….Sandra? What? That is when keeping it real goes wrong. teehee.

  26. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:32am, 01/28/2015

    I hear you guys on Sarah and Roseanne…..for myself I wouldn’t mind boinkin’ Sandra…..just keepin’ it real here!

  27. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:21am, 01/28/2015

    I am in awe of his office/working space…“A place for everything and everything in it’s place.” I’m wondering if Clarence George recognizes the “Belly Dancer” in the clip.

  28. Eric 07:09am, 01/28/2015

    Sandra Bernhard & Roseanne Barr were two pretty disgusting hags back in their day, but Silverman might even out skank them. “The View” crowd is hag heaven, with Joy Behar, Whoopie Goldberg, and Rosie O’Donnell.

  29. Clarence George 04:31am, 01/28/2015

    Franklin, who “always liked tall blondes,” got to, ahem, interview Jayne Mansfield.  Lucky man.  Me, I would have been too tongue-tied (nobody go there).  His association with Sarah Silverman was less pleasant.  Didn’t he wind up suing her?  I’ll take this opportunity to note that there’s no current celebrity who revolts me more than Silverman.  And that’s saying a great deal…a very great deal indeed.

  30. peter 09:21pm, 01/27/2015

    My gosh! This article is like a rare triple play, or a beautiful three-punch combination!  First you read a great article about Joe Franklin, then you scroll down and are treated to a wonderful video clip on “Memory Lane”, and then you scroll down more, and you’re hit with a beautiful song—the definitive John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman rendition of “My One and Only Love”. This site, once again, goes beyond boxing and stimulates all of the senses! My gosh!

  31. peter 08:56pm, 01/27/2015

    Yet another excellent Bob Mladinich article. I am proud and honored that my father, a songwriter,  was cited in this beautiful eulogy devoted to Joe Franklin.  My father was interviewed on Franklin’s show talking about a case dealing with plagiarism, which my father, a member of ASCAP, won in court. I think Mladunich has a little bit of Joe Franklin in him—he seeks out and finds the stories, large and small.

  32. marvin moskowitz. 08:25pm, 01/27/2015

    Great article on a New York icon..

  33. Pete The Sneak 06:05pm, 01/27/2015

    Absolute Great read… Joe Franklin was indeed a true NYC treasure…I tell you, that Galento was something else as well, wasn’t he? ‘Leak in the sink.’...Gotta love it…Peace.

  34. Eric 04:03pm, 01/27/2015

    Vito Antuofermo would have bit a chunk out of that cabbie’s chest had he dissed Vito The Mosquito.

  35. NYIrish 04:02pm, 01/27/2015

    No small story indeed. Thanks Robert.

  36. Clarence George 03:19pm, 01/27/2015

    Outstanding!  Hot off the presses, and it’s already one of my favorite articles; up there with Mike Casey’s “Welcome to Wonderland” of a couple of years ago and Robert Ecksel’s recent trilogy on Tony Napoli.

    I didn’t know that Joe Franklin had died, and I’m very sorry to hear it.  I have no talent for mimicry, but I used to be able to do a spot-on impression of him.  Gone now, just like the great man himself.

    Lovely epitaph, Bob.

  37. Pete 03:14pm, 01/27/2015

    This is as good as it gets. Kudos, Mr. Bob.

  38. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 02:55pm, 01/27/2015

    Wow! 2015 starting off with a bang on….one great article after another!

  39. Eric 01:59pm, 01/27/2015

    Always amazed at how much restraint some old time tigers like Dempsey, Louis, and Marciano used when confronted by loudmouths. I know it is the old, what would it prove for a former heavyweight champion to beat this guy within an inch of his life deal, but still the human side would want to say, f*ck it, I’m going to teach this loudmouth a lesson. Dempsey said that he always had some ahole want to challenge him at his restaurant. I’ve read a couple of stories of guys wanting to challenge Marciano, one was a Yankee ballplayer at the time. These guys better be glad that Tyson wasn’t around back in those days, Mike wasn’t known for his restraint or tolerance.

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