A couple of weeks ago we had an interview with Elvis-collector (and soon the proud owner of the first Elvis-shop in The Netherlands) Andylon Lensen. On our regular question "Who should we interview next?"Andylon answered "Joe Franklin, who hosted a TV-show in which Elvis appeared in 1955." Together with us, not many people knew this and we thought it was a good opportunity to find out more about it. Andylon turned out to be a great contributor, by doing most of the work for us. Quite some email traffic between Andylon, Joe Franklin and us resulted in the following article.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Well, where to start? I was born March 9, 1926 in the Bronx, NY. Both of my parents were born here in the U.S., the children of Austrian immigrants. My father began as a newspaperman, but unable to make a decent living in the business he went into the paper and twine business, building a very successful company called the Second Avenue Pushcart Mart in Manhattan, which is where we were living by that time, in an area formerly called "Yorkville" in the east 70s.
The interests that I had as a child are the same ones that I've carried with me through the years. Radio. Collecting. Silent movies. Vaudeville. And when the time came, of course, Television.
There was a neighborhood kind named Bernie Schwartz who would come to my house and tell my mother we were leaving to play basketball. Then we'd go to the movies. Every single day. Later, Bernie changed his name to Tony Curtis, who you are probably familiar with. We were best friends.
The collecting bug came from my father's side, he was a dedicated stamp collector. Myself, though, I collected old movie programs and souvenir books. The radio, though, was number one on my list of priorities, from the time I was a very small child. I'd listen avidly to shows like "Uncle Don" and "Dr. IQ, the Mental Banker." The comedy shows were favorites, fellows like Eddie Cantor (to whom I sold my first joke), Bob Hope, and Jack Benny. Al Jolson was the King of them all.
Why - when - how did you get interested in the radio - television business?
I think we have "Why" covered. When? Well, in 1943 I sold my first material to the "Eddie Cantor Show." That was my first big break. I actually hosted my first radio show in the U.S. Army while stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey in '44. The same year I was discharged from the service and did a program called "Vaudeville Echoes" on WHOM Radio. After that came some assistant positions on shows like "Kate Smith Sings" and "Kate Smith Speaks", as well as "The Paul Whiteman Club" and "Make-Believe Ballroom" with Martin Block. Walter Winchell coined the term "disk jockey", referring to Martin Block.
When did you start for television at ABC in New York?
Actually, my first television show began earlier than my years with ABC, in January of 1951 on WJZ-TV (NY Channel 7), Monday thru Friday from noon until 12:30. It was called, originally, "Joe Franklin - Disk Jockey." In May of 1952, "Spotlight to Stardom" aired, also on WJZ-TV and the show's motto was that it "Gives new faces in show business a chance to exhibit their wares before the TV cameras." Then, in October 6, 1953, "Joe Franklin's Memory Lane" debuted on WABC-TV at one in the afternoon. I was on the air continuously, never missing a day, from 1953 until my retirement from television in 1993.
Elvis must have been a guest late 1955, that's when Tom Parker (Elvis Manager) just contracted Elvis to be his personal manager?
Yes, that is correct. Although the exact date of Elvis's appearance on my show has been lost to "the mists of antiquity" due to, unfortunately, poor record keeping and a lack of a kinescope machine at the w. 66th Street studio, it was shortly after August of '55, which is when Elvis had hired Tom Parker as his manager. It was almost certainly during the holiday season, as it was only a short time later that Elvis was booked to play on State Show on the Dumont Network. It's unfortunate that the records of appearances were not preserved, but between '53 and '93 I hosted over 300,000 guests! Some, like Jayne Mansfield, appeared some 20 times as opposed to Elvis's single appearance, yet it is nearly impossible so many years later to track down the exact dates. Admittedly, we were a small show. We were not the Ed Sullivan Show. We did, however, attract all of the big stars that Sullivan got, and sometimes even better ones.
Did you invite Elvis? Or was it Tom Parker who contacted you (or ABC)?
I didn't personally invite Elvis to do the show, rather I had a production staff that handled the individual bookings. At the time, neither I nor they would have been familiar with Elvis or what little music he had recorded. The show had been contacted by Tom Parker's office and they said that they had young talent who they wanted to get some exposure for. I'm sure that they sent us some audio tape of Elvis, because we didn't just put on performers without at least previewing what they had to offer, but I don't believe that I ever personally reviewed his music. That would have been left up to the booking department, and they rarely let me down. I can't say "never", but rarely.
Did you knew at that time who Elvis was?
I have to admit that I did not. But then, not many people did. Elvis was not "ELVIS" at the time he performed on my show. Not by any stretch. I know this may be difficult for some fans to believe, but Elvis was virtually unknown outside of the American south, outside of the Southern states where he had achieved some popularity. But in New York, or even the rest of the United States, he was definitely not the household name he would later become. Not to belittle him at all because all future stars start out in bleak anonymity, Elvis was just one of hundreds of guests I would have on the show over the course of every single month. On my show, you would find the biggest names sitting right alongside people that no one had ever heard of. it was a true "variety" show. Ann Margaret was on the show with Elvis and so was Jimmy Rogers. These were two tremendously talented people. But at this point in time time, Elvis fit right into the category of "People No One had Ever Heard Of." He would change all of that not long after.
What was you first impression when you met Elvis?
Elvis was very, very shy and, I thought, quite nervous. He called everyone "Sir" and "Ma'am." He hadn't had very much public exposure, I realize now, and so it was not unexpected. I would see this in many other guests who made their first appearances on my show, who would then go on to achieve major stardom. People like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Julia Roberts and Barbra Streisand, to mention a few.
Was Elvis accompanied by Tom Parker?
Yes, Colonel Parker was with Elvis, and paid a tremendous amount of attention to him. A doting sort of attention, not paternal but definitely going on, very intently, but most particularly he watched Elvis. I wonder if he had any idea at that time just how Elvis would become in less than a year's time. I suspect that he did.
Did Scotty Moore and Bill Black play along with Elvis on the show?
No, there were no other musicians accompanying Elvis when he visited my show. He came solo other than Tom Parker, and he left the same way. Very quickly, as well. As soon as his "set" was finished he was basically out the door, and this I attributed to his nervousness (Elvis was in such a hurry he forgot his guitar and music-sheets, that's how I came in the possession of it). He hadn't acquired any expertise in the art of small talk. That was something else about Elvis that would change over the years.
Can you recall any reviews - in newspapers or magazines?
Reviews I do not recall at all and would doubt that anyone had been troubled to write one. This may sound harsh to the ea