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John Zacherle and Joe Franklin: 130 Years and Counting in Show Business

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Posted: Friday, March 8, 2013 5:00 pm

    John Zacherle, 94 years young, is known as the “Cool Ghoul”. A pioneer in the hosting of horror film programs on TV, he hosted “Shock Theatre” from 1957-58 under the name of “Roland” in his trademark ghoulish makeup and attire. He moved from the popular WCAM-TV in Philadelphia to the top station in NYC, WABS in 1959. Among Zach’s many talents he had a Top Ten Hit (USA) ‘Dinner with Drac’ in 1958. He also hosted several concerts in Central Park during the 1960s and '70s. He was a heralded DJ on Pioneer Progressive Rock Station WNEW FM in NYC during the 1970s. In October of 2012, Zach was interviewed in the New York Times. He is currently living in his upper East Side apartment in New York City. Zach hosted his 37th Chiller Theatre Convention recently and he was inducted into the “Horror Hall of Fame” in 2011.

    Joe Franklin, 87 years and counting, has been listed in Guinness Book of World Records as having the longest running TV talk show in history. He is currently still hosting weekly radio interviews on Bloomberg Radio (Recent interviewees include Clint Walker, Neal Diamond and Robin Leach). During the 1980s he hosted a TV show on WOR channel 9 called “When Movies Were Movies” which showed the old classics. WABC channel 7 called Joe’s show, “Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane.” Even during World War II he maintained his connection to show business when, in 1944, he enlisted in the Army and served as a projectionist, showing training films and Hollywood entertainment films to thousands of soldiers in theaters on Army bases.

    During a recent visit to Joe Franklin’s office, I suggested an interview with him and Zacherle.  Joe agreed, and we called Zach, and along with underwriter Howard Rogofsky we went to the famous “Rosie O’Grady’s” restaurant for lunch. We then interviewed these two giants of the industry in a private room at Rosie’s.  We found them to be two kindred souls, deeply dedicated to their craft.

    JGN:  Joe, you began your career as a teenager. How did you get started?

    Joe Franklin:  I was visiting a Radio Station WNEW to have a drink with the receptionist. Martin Block came over and said, "Kid, how would you like to be my Radio Picker?” I didn't know anything about the greats so his announcer, William B. Williams, gave me a crash course on people like Dinah Shore, Sinatra, Crosby, Martin Block, etc. The ratings were astronomical. I created the phrase "collector item" when I announced a record by Al Jolson which we bought for five cents was worth $500. Channel 7 called and asked me to do a show. They also asked me what I would like to do. I suggested [a show with] kids dancing to records, but they said no one would watch it. So Dick Clark comes along, does it, and becomes the billionaire.

    JGN:  Zach, How did you get the nickname "The Cool Ghoul"?

    John Zacherle:  I came out of the Army and didn’t know what to do. I served behind the lines—but I did lose two cousins in the war. I was stationed in England, Africa, and Italy. When I came out, all I knew was that I liked football. I mean, I didn't even have a major in anything in college. My cousin got me into a little theatre group where I built scenery. Eventually they started giving me small parts, most with no lines.

    CBS had an open call for actors. They had a soap opera western called Action in the Afternoon. I got one of the parts, holding the horses. No dialogue, but later they gave me a speaking part, and in one episode I played an undertaker [and the man who did my] makeup was very good. Two years later, all the horror movies from the 1930s were re-released. The studio called me to be a host because they remembered my undertaker role.

    I wasn't allowed to see these movies as a kid. I watched them [later] on the little screen. I had never admitted that I hadn't seen them, but now I was introducing them. That's how it all began. We were making better experiments between movie showings than they actually made in the movies. That's how I became the “Cool Ghoul”. (He followed this with his trademark laugh.)

    JGN: Joe, you’ve been labeled the “King of Nostalgia.” What is it about the past that fascinates you?

    Joe Franklin:  Well as a kid, about eight or nine years old, a voice went though me. It was Al Jolson singing Alexander's “Ragtime Band”. It gave me goose pimples and I started collecting records. I bumped into George M. Cohan in Central Park and talked to him about old records. He brought me into his apartment on 5th avenue and showed me a record collection, and autographed a record for me.

    I made it my business to collect all of George M. Cohan’s records—Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Rudy Vallee, etc. I built up a collection of 100,000 78 RPM's, became the King of Nostalgia, and called myself the Joe Franklin Show. Fanny Hurst invited me to her home. We had a drink and she gave me a book called "Lummox" which she had written. In chapter one she had the title, "A Long Bunch of Memory Lanes." I asked her if I could borrow the phrase and she said yes. I borrowed the Trademark, Memory Lane, going to halls and colleges. I became the “King of Nostalgia” and I'm proud of it.

    JGN:  Zach, you did shock theatre as Roland. What are your memories of it?

    John Zacherle:  We were doing little talks around the commercials when there was a break in the film. We did experiments and blew things up in a comedy way. They found a way for us to do comments while a movie was going on. While playing an Ed Wood movie, a séance was going on and they popped me into it. It was hilarious! We started cutting into the films which we had permission for and it took some of the scariness out of it. Remember, there was no tape at the time so everything was live. Parents did not have to worry about us. The cut-ins became popular with the audience then I came to NYC and the director said that I should sing. I thought he was nuts but it worked. I changed the words of famous songs. Half way through the year following the news they told me they had something new. Tape! They showed me these big machines with big reels two inches wide.

    JCN:  Joe, you wrote jokes for Eddie Cantor and produced his Carnegie Hall Show. How did you get that position?

    Joe Franklin:  Well, I was multi-versatile at that time. I wrote a letter to Eddie telling him how I admired his work. He invited me to his suite at the Waldorf Astoria. We became friendly and I wrote jokes for him and produced his Carnegie Hall show. The first six rows were $100 per seat. That's like $1,000 per person today. Cantor was the man who made Whoopie. The reviews were incredible. We toured the nation. One night in Minneapolis the snow storm of the century happened. We were sold out but only seven people showed up. We asked Mr. Cantor to cancel but he said, "Those seven people came to see me." So he did the whole show. His showmanship was unmatched. As a talk show host I had the privilege to write 23 books—one with Marilyn Monroe which sells for $1,000. I'm not going to quit before I get it right.

    JCN: Tell us about the Monster Mash and how you got involved with the vocals.

    John Zacherle: Cameo Parkway was a successful record company in Philadelphia. The head of the company was watching my show and had an idea for me to do a song. He had a man write the lyrics, he promoted it and it became a hit. Dick Clark who was on American Bandstand in Philadelphia thought the song was a little too scary. He had us re-write the lyrics. Dick had a weekly night show in New York where he had me appear live to do the song. My performance created even more national attention. College kids loved it and later I did an LP with the Monster Mash on it.

    JGN:  Joe, you have a reputation of inviting new comers to your show which is unusual. How were you able to maintain that?

    Joe Franklin:  You held on by the ratings—you wind up in the gutter without them. I maintained it all those years. In one of my books, "Up Late with Joe Franklin" I talk about the ingrates, the has-beens, and the never-will-be's. You would be amazed—even to this day people tell me they watched my show to see the has-beens rather than to see the super stars like Elvis, New Kids on the Block, etc. There were many highlights. I introduced the [big hit] song Honeycomb by Jimmy Rogers.  I had five U.S. Presidents on my show, and stars like John Wayne, Cary Grant, and Bette Davis. I had the superstars and the old timers who got there last glow on my show.

    JGN:  Zach, tell us about the TV program you hosted live, Disco Team. That was something different for you, and you did it on TV for three years, then another nine years on FM radio.

    John Zacherle:  Fred Sales came along and had me in costume to promote the show. Busloads of kids from various schools came in. We had the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and they introduced me to something new—FM! I later found out that I got the Disco Team job because the producers teenage son said to hire me.

    JCN:  Joe, do you remember who your very first two guests were?

    Joe Franklin:  At Channel seven in New York City it was Fanny Hurst and Eddie Cantor. Garth Brooks was selling shoes before he made it. I was doing 40 years of radio from midnight to five am. We did it! We had all of the great stars on the show. Many of them were broke at the time. Bill Cosby always came to say thank you to me. What a wonderful and considerate man he is.

    JCN:  Zach, the very movies your parents kept you away from gave you a big success.

    John Zacherle:  It's been a great life. I never worked for a living. We both enjoy what we do. I worked in a bank. Now, if you work in an office all day, they say it’s not good for you. I think it was a lucky break that I got involved in Horror Movies.

    JGN:  What do you feel makes it hard to be a talk show host?

    Joe Franklin:  Sometimes we were asked the impossible—and people ask me who I didn't get along with. For instance, I saw Man of La Mancha on Broadway, and Jose Ferrer was singing in it. I had his ex wife, Rosemary Clooney, on the show and told her about his performance. She said, "Joe, we're not married anymore". I just wanted to tell her Jose Ferrer's a great singer. She said, "Good-bye Charlie", and walked away. She made up with me on another occasion.

    I also had Jerry Lewis on the show and asked how Dean Martin was doing. Jerry said, "I thought you were the nostalgia king", and took a swing at me. Later, we made up too. Many of these stars are making the rounds promoting their books, living in their ivory towers. If you want to sell books you have to put your heart and soul into it.

    My job is to mesmerize the guests, look into their eyes, hypnotize them, make them feel comfortable to open up, and make them forget they're on TV or radio.

    JGN:  Joe, your office phone is constantly ringing and people are in and out all the time. They come unannounced and without an appointment. Still, I never see you lose your cool.

    Joe Franklin:  I get 200 phone calls a day from people who want to be on my radio show, Bloomberg Radio. They all want something. I never learned how to say no. I wish I did know how, but it could cause hard feelings. It's my way of life and you can't change me. I'm an original, I'm from the Bronx.

    JGN:  Zach, on the east coast, the most successful show by far is Chiller Theatre. It has taken place for over 20 years, twice a year. How did you get hooked up with entrepreneur, Kevin Clements, who made you the mascot. Despite all the big stars who attend, everyone asks, “Where’s Zach?”

    John Zacherle:  (Laughing) I met them [the Chiller people] through Famous Monsters magazine. Kevin and his staff treat me like gold. I started doing the Halloween show on CBS Radio. I brought my LPs and they had nothing to play it on. Chiller Theatre is an experience I treasure every year.

    JGN:  Joe, if you had not become a talk show host, what do you think you might have become?

    Joe Franklin:  My early dream was to be a newspaperman, a journalist. My father went to school with James Cagney and Commerce High School with Lou Gehrig. I would have been in that field of business if things had turned out different. I was lucky and I wouldn't change my life for anything in the world.

    JGN: Zach, let's say you didn't get the breaks. What would you have done?

    John Zacherle:  My dad put me in the University of Pennsylvania studying pre-med. I didn't last too long, so I went to business school and scraped through there. I majored in English and managed a band. If things had turned out differently I guess I would have gotten involved in some way with bands—I've always enjoyed it.

    JCN: Joe, any parting words for your fans?

     Joe Franklin: To aspiring talk show hosts, be bold and be different. It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice. Here is to our wives and sweethearts—may they never meet. Life is a cycle. Maybe the best is yet to come. To my fans, thank you.

    JCN: Zach, any concluding words?

    John Zacherle: It's been a wonderful life. I don't know if we come back again after we die, I don't think so, but if I had to do it over again, I would [live it the same way]. I enjoyed myself and made a lot of fans. Pat Boone was a big fan of mine—everyone is always very pleasant to me. I keep getting calls from retirees who reminisce with me. It was fun then, and its fun now. To my fans, many blessings be upon you.

    JGN:  I want to thank the both of you for this privilege, and to thank our underwriter, Howard Rogofsky.

    Joe Franklin:  Howard is a legend.

    JGN:  My daughter Jesse for helping us out—I am extremely proud of her.

    Joe Franklin:  I was impressed with your questions. Dare to be different, don't be shy, be daring!

    John Zacherle:  Thank you, I had fun.

    So Zacherle hailed a cab and went uptown to his lair. Joe hailed a cab and went downtown for his three o'clock appointment.

130 years of show business and counting!

    Author's Note: The full 52-minute interview is available on CD and comes with two 8X10 color pictures for $30, S+H included. E-mail: JerryandAna@yahoo.com or call (239) 223-0104.