Thursday, January 29, 2015

Joe Franklin RIP

Long before late night television became a big money battlefield, most late night TV was local (even the mother of all late night talk shows, Tonight, began as a local NYC show in 1954). While Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson hosted Tonight between 1954 to 1992, here in NYC one guy had them beat for longevity: Joe Franklin, who hosted his own eponymous late night  show from 1950 to 1993, mostly on WOR. Many credit Joe Franklin for really inventing the TV talk show as we know it.

His show was wacky -- and totally New York. Joe Franklin did not have a band or do an opening monologue. Instead, he sat behind a desk, with a gigantic microphone sticking into his face, and interviewed a parade of eclectic guests, including movie stars, US presidents, rock bands, plate twirlers, restaurant owners, and men dressed as tomatoes (as some have called them, they were the greats, the near-greats, the not-so-greats, the ingrates, and the never-weres).  Joe Franklin interviewed an 18-year old Julia Roberts, interviewed Ronald Reagan five times (before he was president), and was one of the first shows to feature Bette Midler and Barbra Steisand. He was so admired by Billy Crystal that Crystal did several sketches imitating Joe Franklin on "Saturday Night Live." (In the 1970s and 1980s, when WOR was a "superstation" carried on cable systems around the country, Joe Franklin was technically national.)

Joe Franklin was New York. His carried the city in his voice and his show seemed to reflect the city in its glamor and grit, its highs and lows, its beauty and strangeness, the fact that this was a city of the rich and famous as well as the ordinary and totally weird. Honestly, his show's production values were little better than public access but that was part of its charm -- it was low-rent and democratic, just like NYC used to be.

As a kid, I recall seeing Joe Franklin a few times, usually during the summer or during school vacations, when I was allowed to be up at 1 AM or whatever un-Godly hour his show was on. There was something so reassuring about his manner, you felt like you had a friend at that time of night who was looking out for you. He was great.

Joe Franklin died a few days ago at the age of 88 and, like the New York that his show used to broadcast to on those late nights, he will be missed.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Mario and Bess RIP

Two iconic New Yorkers just died, a man and a woman, both of whom were representatives of their eras and yet, in many ways, were also ahead of their time. 

Mario Cuomo was New York State's governor from 1983-1994 (and father of the current governor). His record was a modest one -- infrastructure, building prisons, making spending deals -- but he is best remembered for his rhetoric and high ideals. Cuomo was governor during much of the Reagan/Bush years and he was an outspoken, unapologetic liberal Democrat during a time of Republican dominance. Whereas Reagan, the "great communicator", was talking about how greed was good and government was bad, Cuomo, another great communicator, was saying just the opposite. He talked about the importance of the social safety net, of extending opportunities to the poor, sick, and marginalized, and of abolishing the death penalty. Cuomo was a bright light at  a very dark time. And he was ahead of his time since, today, policies like universal pre-k and gay rights are no longer left-wing fantasies but mainstream realities. Cuomo was a great man, a great governor, and we were lucky to have him.

Bess Myerson made history in 1945. In the same year that allied forces where conquering fascism in Europe and liberating the death camps that murdered millions of Jews, America showed its greatness by making this Jewish girl from the Bronx the first and -- to this day -- only Miss America. Still, Bess Myerson had to fight against anti-Semitism (many in other parts of the country couldn't stand that a Jew had become Miss America) and she did her fellow Jewish Americans proud. Myerson also had a wild life: she was married twice to the same man, worked a TV hostess and personality, served in the administrations of both John Lindsay and Ed Koch, and was put on trial in 1987 for "conspiracy" to bribe a judge (for which she was ultimately acquitted). Bess Myerson was a real personality, a trailblazer, and an only in New York kind of gal. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Susan Sontag Remembered

Ten years ago the American writer Susan Sontag died of cancer at the way too early age of 71.

Sometimes called "The Dark Lady of American Letters", she was, in fact, a modern day Renaissance Woman. Besides writing cultural and political criticism as well as novels and plays, Sontag also directed experimental films and directed theater productions -- for example, in wartime Sarajevo in the 1990s. Unlike many other writers and artists who live in metaphorical ivory towers, writing knowledgeably about the world while having actual little contact with it, Sontag embraced life with vigor. She pursued her talents across a wide variety of media and dived into the controversies of late 20th century, early 21st century America. She lived her art, engaged her world, and thrust herself into the world that she wished to criticize and save. She also had a very colorful person life which, one might consider, another part of her art.
Sontag was a polemicist. She took radical positions and issued strident opinions -- for example, bemoaning the wars and evils that the "white race" had inflicted upon the world. After 9/11, she challenged American to examine its Mid-East policies and see how they had contributed to the attacks -- a view that was not, to say the least, a popular one at the time. But she never apologized and never backed down from her positions. She was tough.

Sontag was an original -- sometimes right, sometimes wrong, always interesting. It's a shame that she died before Twitter became a thing -- she would have had a doozy of a feed.

In the mid-1960s, Songtag shot to fame with an essay she published called "Notes on Camp" where she posits that "camp" -- low brow cultural and trivial things -- in fact, have great societal and cultural value. It's a brilliant, revolutionary piece of writing and, in many ways, it changed the very culture she was observing. Sontag bridged high and low culture, the crass with the beautiful, and saw the goodness in both. I'm sure that, in 2014, if she were still alive, Sontag would have been a fan of both "Masterpiece" and the Kardashians.

Recently on HBO, there was a new documentary called "Regarding Susan Sontag" that's both very good and "warts and all", like the woman herself. It's worth a look.

If only we still had Susan Sontag today, the world might make a little bit more sense. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Eddie Murphy's Last SNL Appearence

Hard to believe but it's been 30 years since Eddie Murphy last appeared on Saturday Night Live. 

Murphy was 19 years old in 1980 when he joined SNL. The original 1970s cast, as well as series creator Lorne Michaels, had left the show which then went into a sudden ratings and creative collapse. NBC was threatening to cancel the show except that this featured player, this young black kid from Brooklyn, was so good that they kept it on for another year. Murphy totally revitalized the show and, thanks (or not) to him, SNL survives to this day. By 1984, Murphy had a huge movie career and had left SNL but he came back one last time, in December 1984, to host. This classic sketch, "White Like Me" was one of his last SNL efforts.

Since then, Murphy has kept far away from the show that made him famous. In the mid-1990s, when Murphy's career was at a low, then SNL cast member David Spade made a crack about Murphy's woes on Weekend Update ("Look kids! A falling star!). Deeply offended that the show that he had saved was making fun of him, Murphy vowed never again to appear on the show and he has kept good to his word. One day, I hope, he'll put his grudges aside and come back on SNL.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Classic Mr NYC

The legendary Man Who Made Mayors, David Garth, died yesterday at age 84. He's the political mastermind who helped to elect four of our city's last six mayors. 

I blogged about him in 2010. Read it here.

Luvin' NYC - and how!

This week's New York magazine published its annual Reasons to Love New York issue. It's a cute compendium of stuff that is awesome about NYC -- although why this should generate feelings of "love" is another subject entirely.

It's generated some contre temps, however. Namely, Reason #12 tells the story of a Stuyvesant High School student who made $72 million trading stocks during his lunch hours. Pretty unbelievable and, in fact, it shouldn't be believed at all since it's not true. New York has had to publish an apology to their readers. Like New York itself, the reasons to love it are as much hype as reality.

More importantly, it makes you wonder what kinds of kids are being admitted to what is supposedly our city's best high school. 

But wait -- there's some good news! 

The Lonely Planet travel guide has released its Top 10 US Destinations to Visit in 2015. Guess what the #1 travel destination in the country is? 


Not NYC as a whole, not specifically Manhattan or Brooklyn -- but Queens. The garden borough, the boroughs of our two major airports, the borough of the 1964 World's Fair, the borough where yours truly lives. Queens is on the rise with massive numbers of people moving in. It's also one of the best places to eat -- in the whole friggin' world. Queens is the biggest secret in NYC hiding in plain sight. It's an amazing place. A city unto itself.

So you gotta love New York -- for whatever reasons, good, bad, true ... or sometimes untrue.   

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Royalty in NYC

Landmarking NYC

Interesting conversation on WNYC yesterday about landmarking.

One of the legacies of the 20th century and Robert Moses era was that lots of wonderful old buildings, buildings that told the history of NYC, were destroyed in the name of progress and replaced by ugly monstrosities. 

Since then, the city has done an admirable job through the Landmarks Preservation Commission preserving older buildings but it's a constant battle between those who want to retain the past vs. those who want to create the future.

Both should always have a place in NYC. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014