Workers scramble through Joe Franklin's Memory Lane restaurant at West 45th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan to get things ready for the grand opening, installing last-minute lights to stocking the bar. When Joe Franklin makes his way in, only a handful of the 30 or so people seem to take notice, even though the restaurant bears his name.
Physically, Franklin is exemplifies the concept of the mild mannered man better than Clark Kent ever did, hiding behind a slightly pudgy appearance and a career almost as spectacular as Superman's.
Few might have guessed - except for his exceptionally well-tailored clothing - that this man's face had appeared nearly daily on television for almost 50 years, even though he looks only marginally older than he did when he started.
Franklin, the first and longest-running television talk show host, made The Guinness Book of World Records for his 43-year non-stop television broadcasts. He worked for two New York television stations, interviewing in excess of 300,000 guests. Although rarely credited, Franklin was, in many ways, the pioneer of the modern TV talk show format, and has influenced everyone from Johnny Carson to Howard Stern. Franklin is also considered one of the world's leading authorities on nostalgia.
In some ways, Franklin served in a role as star-maker, helping other people to become celebrities. His late night show that ran from 1950 to 1993 helped people like Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Streisand, Liza Minnelli and others. Elvis Presley's first television appearance was on Franklin's Show. Over the years, Franklin brought everyone from John Lennon to the New Kids on the Block onto the show. Frank Sinatra made four appearances on Franklin's show.
Franklin, who retired from WOR in Secaucus in 1993, has become somewhat of a cult figure on college campuses, where he does about 12 speaking engagements a year.
"That was Billy Crystal's doing," Franklin said. "When he did the mock of me of Saturday Night Live, I became a cult figure, but I also fixed in many people's minds as the person who put kooks on my show."
Franklin has appeared on other people's TV shows such as "The David Letterman Show," "Live With Regis and Kathy Lee," and has been mentioned several times on the hit cartoon series "The Simpsons." Franklin has played himself in the films "Manhattan," "Ghostbusters," "Twenty Ninth Street," and "Broadway Danny Rose." If that wasn't enough to make him a household name, Franklin's profiles have also appeared in such prestigious publications as The New York Times, Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, and The Village Voice. He was recently honored by The Museum of Television and Radio.
Later this month, Franklin will be honored locally by the Hudson County's Sheriff's Department and will be given the keys to the city in Secaucus.
Although the date has not been set for the ceremonies - town officials said numerous other activities such as the possible ground-breaking of the library are still pending - the town wanted to mark Franklin's achievements.
"Joe Franklin has been in the national broadcast business for so long, we thought we wanted to recognize his accomplishments," said Town Administrator Anthony Iacono. "Because he ended his television broadcast career here, Secaucus can claim him as a hometown hero."
Fascinated with stars
Franklin has been fascinated with celebrities since he and Tony Curtis grew up in the Bronx together, each of them sneaking off regularly to a local theater to catch the latest flicks. While Curtis - who attended the official press night at Franklin's restaurant a week before its grand opening - vowed to become a movie star, Franklin seemed to go off in a different direction. Curtis seemed to like contemporary stars; Franklin liked everyone who was famous, even the old times like Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson.
"I used to follow Al Jolson around as a kid and would stare at him through windows." Franklin said.
He often wrote letters to Cantor and other celebrities such as Kate Smith, Jack Benny, Fred Allen and others, and haunted their offices.
"They all awed me," he said. "I think I still get awed when I meet someone like that. But I learned how to deal with them."
Eventually, his persistence paid off. He began to sell jokes to The Eddie Cantor Show.
"My biggest thrill of all time was when I produced the Eddie Cantor Show at Carnegie Hall," he said. Indeed, his experiences led him later to handle booking for his TV show, rather than leaving it up to some assistant.
"I could feel the pulse and knew whether the chemistry would go well," he said, though he admitted that sometimes, special guests awed him more than others. While he had no special feeling for the Beatles, he was stunned when meeting Bing Crosby for the first time.
"Bing Crosby was my idol, and meeting him for the first time in flesh and blood was an incredible moment for me," Franklin said.
Franklin, often described at "The King of Nostalgia," remembers a time when he stood on the sidewalk outside a restaurant called "Jack Dempsey's" in Manhattan and watched through the window as the famous boxer dined with the numerous celebrities.
"He would just sit there and hold court," Franklin said. "I remember thinking at the time how I wouldn't mind if I could do the same thing if I ever became famous."
A restaurant that bears his name
Early in 1999, Franklin got his chance, when Dennis Reise, the largest restaurant operator in Manhattan with a portfolio of clients throughout the northeast regions of the United States including TGI Friday's, Houlihan's Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and others, set up the project, thinking that it could possibly become a national or even international chain.
"They came to me with the idea," he said. "I thought it was a good idea to have a restaurant with a nostalgic theme. They seem to think it can be a model for places just like it around the country."
"Joe Franklin's Memory Lane Restaurant is a physical tribute to the career of one of America's greatest television and radio celebrity interviewers," Reise said later.
The Restaurant has about 215 seats and serves lunchtime crowds as well as people seeking late night meals. The establishment is seeking to draw in the theater crowd before they go into see the nearby shows and after they come out.
Clips from the thousands of Joe Franklin shows will run on monitors throughout the restaurant. The restaurant will also serve as the new home to the millions of pieces of memorabilia Franklin has collected over the years. "I have three warehouses of stuff," Franklin said. "We will be bringing down a lot of it for people to see." Franklin is contracted to appear at the restaurant for a minimum of two hours per week, but with the place so close to his office, and his fascination for meeting people - especially famous people from the theater district who might show up - he says he intends to spend much more time there than his contract calls for.
He also intends to make use of the elevated broadcast booth that has been installed in a tri-angular section in the center of the main dinning area, where he will conduct taped interviews for his two regular radio show broadcasts.
Although he gave up his WOR television program in 1993, Franklin can still be heard Saturday nights broadcasting on WOR's "Memory Lane" (710AM in New York City, 12 a.m.) and daily on Bloomberg Radio's "Lifestyles" segment.
"We may even do live broadcasts from here," he said.