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Joe Frank: Off the Radio

Joe Frank
Issa Sharp

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.”

Over the next two years he produced shows of increasing complexity, which drew a wide and devoted audience and led to an offer to host the weekend edition of NPR’s All Things Considered. “They’d decided they wanted to make the show more humorous and not so focused on the news,” says Frank, who relocated to Washington, D.C., for the job. “They’d heard my show on WBAI and thought I’d be an interesting host, but as soon as I’d done a few shows they decided they wanted it to be a news show.

“I had a one-year contract so they took me off All Things Considered and gave me my own show, and at that point I began doing my highly produced radio programs. My contract wasn’t renewed, so I spent the next eight years producing three or four shows a year independently and selling them to NPR Playhouse.

“What I was doing then really was groundbreaking,” he adds. “I’d take actors into a studio, tell them what a scene required and have them improvise, then I’d edit the best of what we’d produced into a show that also incorporated music and monologues of me speaking. The shows raised serious questions, often in an amusing way, and the listener never knew what the show would be like from one week to the next because there was no format. It was unreal, yet real, and people didn’t know what to make of it.”

In 1986, after Frank’s work began receiving national attention, KCRW general manager Ruth Seymour offered him his own weekly show. His first series, Work in Progress, was followed by In the Dark, which morphed into Somewhere Out There, and finally The Other Side.

“There were always hiatuses between the shows, when I’d go off and regroup,” says Frank. “It was incredibly demanding to create a new, original radio program every week with no support staff. It was challenging, expensive and all-consuming. I had virtually no personal life.” It was physically exhausting, too, and when Frank’s cancer recurred, in 1990, he began to question what he was doing.

Frank’s relationship with Ruth Seymour had always been tumultuous, but it was fruitful for both of them: Seymour provided Frank with a platform from which he could develop his work; and Frank produced prestigious radio that KCRW could be proud of as it grew to national prominence. Despite this, after 16 years, he was officially fired in 2002.

It wasn’t exactly how Frank wanted to end his career in radio, but by the time Seymour pulled the plug, he did feel he’d explored every nook and cranny of the medium. “I felt I had done everything there was for me to do in that form and I still feel that way — I’ve done it.”

This isn’t to suggest that Frank didn’t feel a little lost when he left radio. Over the next two years he created a handful of new shows for his Web site, and did two live shows at the Evidence Room, but mostly he struggled to figure out what to do next.

The question was put on hold when he became seriously ill again, in 2005. Frank had been functioning with one kidney for decades, so when a medication he was given for intestinal problems destroyed the function in his remaining kidney, it was serious. He received dialysis three times a week throughout 2006.

“I was in a dream state when I was ill — in fact, I have almost no memories of what happened,” he says. “I didn’t want to think about it because it was too scary. It’s like when you’re watching a horror film and you just can’t watch it anymore so you leave the theater. That’s how I handled the illness: I ran out of the theater.” Frank finally began to recover when he received a kidney transplant early in 2007, and officially resumed his life with his performance at Largo last fall.

Although Frank is best known as a radio dramatist, he was performing live long before the Largo shows. His first performance had a six-week run at MOCA in 1988, and he subsequently appeared at the Central Library, the Wadsworth Theatre and venues in Chicago and San Francisco. He feels he has yet to crack the form, however.

“All the live shows have sold out, so they were successful in that sense,” he says, “but I’ve never been happy with any of them. A major problem with the previous shows is that they all drew in part from the radio shows, and were sort of ‘best of’ pastiches. Just an Ordinary Man is an entirely new piece of material written specifically for the stage.”

In that regard, the upcoming performances will take him into uncharted territory. But the content of the piece is vintage Frank. “I’m drawn to difficult questions because of the life I’ve led. Death has been a major theme in all my work, and it’s a major theme in this piece, too,” says Frank, whose mother passed away over the summer. “I saw my father deteriorate and die when I was a child, and because I almost died at a young age, the subject became important to me much sooner than it touches most people.

“I’ve heard people say they’re not afraid of death but I never believe them — I don’t even believe religious people aren’t afraid of death,” he adds. “When a pope dies, people grieve. If they believed what they claim to believe, they would be celebrating the fact that the pope has gone to heaven. And the pope doesn’t want to die, either.”

One of Frank’s other major themes is romantic love, and it’s a subject he paints with a disillusioned brush. Is romantic love always destined to be disappointing? “Yes,” he replies, “because it’s based on unreality. When you fall in love with somebody, you don’t see the whole picture; then, as time goes on, deeper truths are revealed.”

The subject is at the core of Just an Ordinary Man, which could be described as a study of loneliness and romantic obsession. “The central character in the piece has created a fantasy about a woman he doesn’t know, but he’s created a fantasy about himself as well,” Frank explains.

“I think we all create a fictional version of ourselves, too,” he concludes. “I know this is bizarre, but when I look in the mirror, I see this handsome man looking back at me. But if I see a snapshot of myself that somebody took at a party, I see a pallid, grossly unattractive old man. It’s like when you walk down the street and catch a glimpse of yourself reflected in a store window and think, ‘God, who is that?’ A different version of ourselves exists in our minds and our imaginations — and who’s to say which self is the real one?”

Joe Frank will perform Just an Ordinary Man at 8:30 p.m. on October 1 and 8 at Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $30. (310) 855-0350 or largo-la.com.