Joe Franklin, 'King of Nostalgia' on NYC Radio, TV, Dies at 88

Joe Franklin, an institution of New York City broadcasting and self-crowned “king of nostalgia” who bantered on radio and television with celebrity A-listers and D-listers alike, has died. He was 88.

He died on Saturday at the Dawn Greene Hospice in Manhattan, according to Steve Garrin, his producer and longtime friend. The cause was prostate cancer.

Like many entertainers he interviewed, Franklin was cagey about his age, often shaving off a few years by listing his birth year as 1928. After divulging his “real” 1926 birth date in his 1995 memoir, Franklin began saying he was born in 1929.

In an on-air career that began in the heyday of radio and continued into podcasting, Franklin took credit for discovering or giving early exposure to Al Pacino, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks and Woody Allen.

He interviewed Andy Warhol and Howard Stern, William F. Buckley and Abbie Hoffman, Jack LaLanne and Muhammad Ali, Fred Astaire and John Wayne, plus, as he put it, “plate twirlers, muscle men, politicians, rock-and-rollers, scribes, rocket scientists” and “stars, wives of stars, sons of stars, daughters of stars and mothers-in-law of stars.”

That “eclectic mix” of guests was his show’s unique appeal, Franklin said in a 2011 interview with Bloomberg Radio: “I had Ronald Reagan on with the Dancing Dentists. I had Margaret Mead on with the man who whistled through his nose. I never had a talent coordinator -- I could feel it in my mind, the chemistry.”

Chance Encounter

Actor Billy Crystal watched Franklin’s talk show as a kid and impersonated him on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” in the 1980s, sporting a comb-over, a loudly patterned sport jacket and his best imitation of Franklin’s machine-gun delivery and I’ve-seen-this-all-before tone.

Franklin traced his fascination with nostalgia to an encounter he had at age 13 with George M. Cohan, the entertainer and composer, who was feeding pigeons at the Central Park reservoir. Delighted to be recognized by a teenager, Cohan treated him to dinner and gave him an autographed record.

By his 20th birthday, Franklin had a show on WMCA radio devoted to popular music classics.

Final Interview

Most recently, he contributed interviews and minute-long commentaries -- on Errol Flynn, “I Love Lucy,” The Beatles -- to Bloomberg Radio. His final interview, which was recorded earlier this month, aired on the day he died. It was with Joe Coffey, a retired New York detective turned author.

One of his favorite topics was Marilyn Monroe, about whom he said, “She is absolutely impervious to the winds and whims of public taste.”

Monroe was a longtime interest, tracing back to their work on a biography, “The Marilyn Monroe Story,” published in 1953.

Their collaboration included a moment of intimacy that Franklin described in “Up Late With Joe Franklin,” his memoir:

“One night we were working late on the manuscript. I was astonished to feel her hand on my knee. I stammered a weak protest. The rest is a fog of Chinese food and Garry Moore. She had a very severe biological need, a strong biological urge. I would characterize her as straight-ahead, unemotional, business-like. Not kinky. Neither dominant nor submissive -- neuter. A man could get her in the sack, and he would think he was the conqueror when actually she made the conquest.”

Franklin offered a similar story about an encounter with Jayne Mansfield.

Tall Blondes

“I always liked tall blondes,” wrote Franklin, who attributed his own small stature -- five feet, six inches, according to a Times profile -- on a cyst that affected his thyroid when he was a teenager.

With the tall blonde who became his wife -- the former Lois Meriden, a onetime performer with Sally Rand’s burlesque-style “fan dancers” -- he had a son, Bradley Franklin. His wife died three or four years ago, Garrin said. Survivors include his son; his sister, Margaret Kestenbaum; two grandchildren; and his longtime companion, Jodi Fritz.

Franklin was born Joseph Fortgang on March 9, 1926, in the Bronx, the first of two children of Martin Fortgang and the former Anna Heller, both offspring of Austrian-Jewish immigrants.

His father sold pushcarts and bags to shoppers on Manhattan’s East Side and moved his family there to the neighborhood known as Yorkville. Franklin said his father called him “crackpot” because of his passion for vaudeville, silent movies and early radio. Franklin went to the movies most days with his friend, Bernard Schwartz, who would later take the name Tony Curtis when he became an actor.

Flat Feet

Drafted into the U.S. Army after high school, Franklin was found to have flat feet and sent home from training in Texas.

At 19, he was hired as a writer for Kate Smith’s radio variety show. At WNEW-AM -- today’s WBBR, Bloomberg Radio -- he picked records for Martin Block’s long-running show, “Make-Believe Ballroom.” After a few months, Franklin got his own show, “Vaudeville Isn’t Dead.” He also hosted “Main Street Memories” and “Antique Record Shop” on WMCA.

He moved to television in 1951, debuting “Joe Franklin -- Disk Jockey” daytime on New York ABC affiliate WJZ-TV. At a basement studio on West 66th Street, he hosted stars such as Elvis Presley, Ann-Margaret, Bob Hope, James Cagney and one of his boyhood idols, Eddie Cantor.

‘Memory Lane’

The following year he introduced “Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane,” a Sunday-night show offering clips of classic movies to a viewership that included Crystal, the future comic actor who was born in 1948 and grew up on Long Island. In his memoir, “700 Sundays,” Crystal wrote that watching Franklin’s show taught him “about old movies and show business.”

WJZ became WABC-TV in 1953, with Franklin continuing as a daytime fixture.

“I was gigantic on channel 7 for about 12 years,” he said. “I dominated 9 to 10 in the morning until somebody came along opposite me named Phil Donohue, and he got the ratings and clobbered me.”

Unable to persuade WABC to give him a different time slot, Franklin said, he took “Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane” to WOR-TV in 1962, eventually dropping the silent-film clips and becoming “The Joe Franklin Show.” He was a mainstay for three decades on WOR, during which time it moved from New York City to Secaucus, New Jersey, and became WWOR.

Nostalgia Business

His last show, on Aug. 6, 1993, was the 21,425th of his career; according to a Times story marking the occasion, he said he planned to spend time selling the show-business memorabilia he had accumulated, including Rudy Vallee’s megaphone, W.C. Fields’s shot glass and Greta Garbo’s shoes.

A few years earlier, he had tried without success to profit from his brand of nostalgia through Joe Franklin Productions Inc., which started trading over the counter in 1987.

Franklin long held court in a famously cluttered Times Square office.

“People still walk in from the street unannounced, unrehearsed, carrying their 8 x 10s, their press material, their reviews, looking for the big breaks,” he wrote in his memoir. “They know I’ll always lend them an ear. It is the office that gives me security, that gives me access to the world and introduces me to the great characters of my life.”

Though he played himself -- who else? -- in Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose” and in “Ghostbusters,” both in 1984, Franklin’s specialty was deflecting the fame, deserved or not, to those who visited his show.

“I’d like to be remembered as somebody who was kind and nice and gentle, and suppressed any knowledge I might have, if I had any, in order to let the guest shine,” he said in 2011. “Maybe that’s one reason why they always came back.”

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