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.