“Boy, if we ever hit number one, we’d love to be on the Joe Franklin Show!” That’s what J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf quipped to the host of TV’s longest running talk show, on the night he and his bandmates hijacked Franklin’s late-night program.
The date was February 20, 1982, and the veteran party band from Boston had finally hit the big time with two singles from their 1981 “Freeze Frame” LP: the catchy title song, with its camera-shutter sound effects, and the poppy, MTV-friendly “Centerfold.” I vividly recall staying up till 2:00 am to watch this episode on New York’s WOR-TV, one of the few cable channels available to me back in the dark ages.
The mangy, jive-talking Wolf sat co-pilot-style beside the diminutive old-timey talk show host, rapping away while his crew looked on in amusement. But were he and the boys being straight, or were they merely mocking the institution that was Joe Franklin?
There was no doubt in my mind that Peter “Woofa Goofa” Wolf and his cohorts were dead-on serious. I mean, who wouldn’t want to join the ranks of the top-tier celebrities who once graced Joe Franklin’s couch? The man credited as TV’s first talk show host interviewed an estimated 300,000 guests during his career, giving people like Woody Allen, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Al Pacino, Bruce Springsteen, Robin Williams, the Beastie Boys, and Richard Pryor their first television exposure. Bette Midler, with her accompanist Barry Manilow, was once his in-house singer.
Born Joseph Fortgang on March 9, 1926, to Jewish parents, he began writing skits for the Kate Smith Radio Hour at age 14 and was soon selling jokes to vaudeville greats like Eddie Cantor. His in-depth knowledge of silent films and early 20th century pop culture earned him titles like “The King of Nostalgia” and “The Wizard of Was.”
From 1950 through his last show on August 6, 1993, he hosted 21,425th episodes, interviewing legends like Cary Grant, John Wayne, Muhammad Ali, Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, Elvis, John and Yoko, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and five U.S presidents, including Kennedy and Nixon. He opened his stage to everyone from oddball novelty acts to kingpins like Frank Sinatra, who made four appearances on the show. His early friendship with Marilyn Monroe led to a literary partnership when he collaborated on her 1953 book “The Marilyn Monroe Story.”
If you’re of a certain age, you may not know of Joe, but I’m guessing you’ve heard of “Ghostbusters,” “Manhattan,” and “Broadway Danny Rose.” Those were all films in which the indefatigable Mr. Franklin appeared – as himself.
After retiring from TV, he stayed active on-air, hosting an overnight radio show and spinning vintage discs on WOR-AM. And he never stopped talking to celebrities. His “Nostalgia Moments” interviews were broadcast daily on the Bloomberg Radio Network right up until his death at age 88 on January 24, 2015.
I’ve written many times about my early, sans-boyfriend years, when my only night-time “dates” were with men like talk show host Tom Snyder and TV rock show creator Don Kirshner. Well, I’m proud to say that Joe Franklin was among the most interesting of my beaus. He was one of the people who helped fuel my knowledge and love of performers – big or small, A-list or D-list – who hailed from an entertainment era that’s long gone. Sure, Joe was often corny and no doubt out-of-touch with some of his guests, but I’ll take him over the Jimmys and Jays, any day.
Here’s Peter Wolf, with Playboy bunnies in tow, presenting Joe with a trophy in recognition of his many years of service. Click here to watch the entire funny episode.
Joey Ramone said he discovered Mr. Franklin’s show at age 5. “Mom, I wanna watch Joe Franklin.” Here’s a clip from 1988.
Hey, 50 million Joe Franklin fans can’t be wrong!
© Dana Spiardi, Feb 5, 2015