It’s been six years since radio dramatist Joe Frank stopped producing new episodes for his weekly show on KCRW, The Other Side. His fans haven’t forgotten him, though. That was evident last year, when Café Largo presented Frank’s The BlueRoom, a performance that quickly sold out its four-show run. Although episodes from Frank’s archive of radio shows, created over a period of 26 years, continue to air in cities throughout the U.S., for the true Frankophile there’s nothing like new work from the man many consider a master.
And Frank is certainly the master of a unique domain. His métier is the eviscerating tragedy that marks human experience, which he examines with an unflinching gaze. Cited as a source of inspiration by artists as diverse as Ira Glass, Charlie Kaufman and Beck, Frank’s shows are invariably freighted with surreal comedy. But the laughs do little to disguise the fact that Frank swims in treacherous waters. The depth of his work — essentially a philosophical inquiry — is what gives it its real significance. Beneath every surreal flourish is a search for something to believe in, a yearning for love, a quest for self-acceptance.
These themes are all present and accounted for in Just an Ordinary Man, a new theater piece Frank will present at Largo at the Coronet on October 1 and 8. Anyone familiar with his writing can testify that there’s no point in describing it or laying out the plot. It’s definitely a case of the singer, not the song, with him, and you either climb aboard and take the ride or you don’t. Just an Ordinary Man is one of the most provocative pieces Frank has written, and is definitely a ride worth taking.
Born in Strasbourg, France, the only child of a wealthy shoe manufacturer, Frank and his family fled the Nazis during World War II; he had a privileged Manhattan upbringing in an apartment overlooking Central Park. Yet he was a sickly child, and only 5 years old when his father died; this tragedy proved to be the first of many that would shape his worldview.
“I failed at pretty much everything when I was growing up,” says Frank. “I was expected to take over the family business, but I never even went to look at our factories because I knew I’d ruin everything my father had built. I had to go in another direction because I could never achieve what he’d achieved as a businessman.” He recalls being a poor student, and after graduating at the bottom of his high school class, he got into Hofstra University by cheating on the entrance exam.
While at Hofstra, Frank began thinking about being a writer but was forced to put those aspirations aside when he was diagnosed with cancer. He was 20 at the time and wasn’t expected to survive; the illness proved to be a turning point in his life. During a long convalescence, he became a serious reader, and recalls “seeing the world in a different way after I came through that. I no longer felt shame and guilt about my failures, which were many.”
After earning a degree in English, Frank spent two years at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied with Philip Roth. Again he had to put his writing ambition on hold, when he took a teaching job at Dalton, a posh private school in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “I was there for 10 years, and during those years my dreams of being a writer disappeared because teaching was an all-consuming job,” he recalls.
Frank left Dalton in 1974, formed a one-man management company and spent the next two years producing acts for the Academy of Music in Northampton, Massachusetts. Because he continued to live in Manhattan, he spent a lot of time driving to and from Northampton at night, and it was then that he began to grasp the power of radio.
“The radio became a real comfort and companion on those drives,” Frank recalls. “I particularly loved listening to baseball because the announcer wouldn’t just say, ‘He hit the ball to third base.’ He’d talk about the history of baseball, the weather, the lives of the different players — it was like being with somebody I liked. So I started thinking about being on the radio myself.
“During the mid-’70s there were several people doing interesting work at WBAI, in New York, and I heard they were short of engineers so I got my FCC license and started engineering programs for them,” he continues. “It turned out that I was pretty good at editing, so in 1976 I was given my own show, from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m., every Tuesday. I figured nobody was listening at that hour so I felt free to do whatever I wanted, and that was the beginning of the idea of telling stories on the radio. The show was well-received, so they moved me up to Saturday night.”