TV Talk Show Pioneer Joe Franklin Dies

Television talk shows are everywhere these days, and they have been a long-time staple of late-night TV. Well, my friends, the pioneering spirit behind them has died. Joe Franklin, the New York native with the prodigious memory and low-key demeanor on screen, died Saturday at 88.

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Franklin had a long-running TV talk and variety show, “The Joe Franklin Show,” which featured many famous performers before they became well known. He also had a radio show, and appeared as himself in films such as “Broadway Danny Rose,” “Ghostbusters” and the comedy documentary, “The Aristocrats.”

According to his website he interviewed over 300,00 guests on his show. Among them were Harvey Fierstein, Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, the Ramones, Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, John Wayne and many more illustrious names. But he was also known for putting on air hardly-knowns, local musicians and performers with talents such as plate twirlers. A wide variety of people made it onto the Joe Franklin show over the years and he was welcoming to them all. His show is in the Guinness World Records as the longest running talk show; the TV show ran from 1950 through 1993, and then he went on to radio, doing spots for Bloomberg Radio. He was also a self -described King of Nostalgia, with prodigious collections of records, sheet music, signed photographs, and other ephemera. He wrote a half-dozen books, produced music collections, and opened a restaurant in midtown Manhattan.

Born Joseph Fortgang in March 1926, the Bronx native was boyhood pal of one Bernarnd Schwartz, who later changed his name to Tony Curtis when he became a movie actor. Early in his media career he wrote jokes for comedians, wrote for Kate Smith’s radio show and also dee-jayed his own slots. When he finished his TV show run, he had chalked up 21,425 episodes. The show ran on a few stations, mostly on WABC and then WOR (later WWOR).

I have two friends who shared their personal memories of Joe with me. Dave L. writes:

“I met Joe many times. My folks had been on his show back in the 1970s. He was always kibitzing (chatting) with characters from the neighborhood.”

Elliot S. wrote that he first met Franklin in 2007 at his restaurant (which was renamed Charlie O’s but still known colloquially as Joe’s) and writes:

“I enjoyed telling him some of my favorite Joe Franklinisms like, ‘It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice,’ and Joe responded with, ‘Get this man a water!'”

Elliot still has Franklin’s business card, which he was given that night.

Joe Franklin had a long media career and could talk to just about anyone. We need people like that in media, even today — even tomorrow.

Ellen Levitt is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn (2009), The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens (2011) and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (2013), all published by Avotaynu. She is a lifelong New Yorker, a veteran public school teacher, writer and photographer. Bird lover as well.