The variety show started with its usual act, Pockets the Clown. He was stoned beyond belief, yet still managed to be creepy, like all clowns tend to be. His words were slurred, but most who were watching—and believe me there weren’t many—thought he never sounded better.
The Franklin Variety Hour had been entertaining Idahoans since 1953. But the heydays of airing on the local CBS affiliate were long gone, as was the show’s founder, Henry Franklin, whose smiling face still ended each program. Now the show he loved and labored over was relegated to cable access Channel 22, sandwiched between English as a Second Language and Gardening with Ida Snow.
Owen Franklin, his son and successor, sat backstage watching Pockets stumble through the show’s opening. He never wanted this life—his father’s life. But no matter how far away he moved, no matter what career path he chose, the road always led him right back to the show. It was, after all, his home, and the only real family he’d ever had.
The late Henry Franklin wasn’t Owen’s biological father; no one knew who that was. His mother, Lidia Floyd, was a regular on the program, performing in any capacity needed. And that eagerness to please is what got her pregnant at the tender age of 22.
After giving birth and rejoining the show, Lidia decided motherhood just wasn’t her thing, and she asked Henry if he would take the baby.
“You’re good with him, Henry, and I don’t want to put him in no home.”
Henry’s strength, or his weakness, was the inability to turn away anyone in need. And who was more in need than a helpless six-month-old baby. So the eternally single Henry Franklin became a father overnight, a job he loved almost as much as he loved being the Master of Ceremonies of a two-bit variety show.
Lidia stuck around for a little while after Henry unofficially adopted Owen. But she wanted to be a star. “I just feel like I’m destined to be one,” she told Henry. And when Owen was two years old, she left the show, and Owen’s life, forever.
Owen heard that Lidia had been a chorus girl in Vegas, but was now retired and living in Colorado with husband number five, her good looks long ago ruined by the booze she’d consumed in large quantities since his birth. Even though Owen had her address, he never went to see her. Owen wanted to remember his mother as the sweet, smiling young girl from the photo he still carried of her in his wallet.
“Owen, Henry’s in the hospital.” It was a voice Owen didn’t recognize, one that changed his life forever. He was in college when he got the call that his father was sick. Years of subsisting on little sleep, cigarettes and red vines finally took their toll on Franklin the Elder, who had a massive heart attack between his closing acts, The Great Zabinski and Lola the wonder dog.
Owen took a leave of absence from school and came back to help with the show until Henry could return. Owen was certain his father would survive, like he survived every other shitty thing life threw at him.
But Henry never made it back.
“The old man had the nerve to die on the operating table,” Owen told the heartbroken cast and crew, tears streaming down the faces of everyone in attendance.
“I’ll stay on for a little while,” Owen told the performers. “Until you can find someone to replace Dad.”
That was 30 years ago. And not only was Owen still hosting a show that had long outlived its expiration date, but like a captain, he was also going down with the ship.
Owen received the bad news on Monday from station manager Gerry with a “G” Potter, who showed up unannounced at the afternoon rehearsal. Gerry never came to rehearsals, so Owen knew The G-man, as he called himself, had some serious news to discuss—he just didn’t expect this news. “Friday’s your last show,” Gerry with a “G” said bluntly. “Ratings just keep sliding Junior. I’d love to keep you on, in honor of your dad and all, but . . .” He paused and spread his hands wide, his shoulders hunched in an apologetic shrug. Finally he said, “I just can’t afford to.”
Then he gave Owen the usual finger-gun, wink, with the added teeth clicking noise that signified the end of every conversation.
“Oh, and uh . . . Owen,” Gerry said before leaving. “We gotta pre-empt about 10 . . . maybe 15 minutes of your last show, to cover that Blood Moon everybody’s talkin’ about. That’s big news my friend, hope you don’t mind.” Big Gerry didn’t wait for a response; he’d already made up his mind. At least Owen got one more finger gun salute before he left.
“So folks, great rehearsal,” Owen said once The G-Man left. “Why don’t you all sit down a bit; we have some things to talk about.” Owen stood before the restless group. They could sense he had something serious to say.
“What was that bastard Potter doing here, Owen?” Someone asked.
Owen looked up. It was Claudio, the juggling act. “Looks like Friday will be our last show. Gerry just told me he’s shutting us down.”
Owen expected angry comments, people cursing Gerry’s name, like they did most days anyway. Instead he only saw stunned faces, and tears as the tight knit group tried consoling one another. They never thought it would end—and truthfully, neither did Owen.
“I’m going to call some of the old timers, you know, invite them back to help us close out the show. Doris, see if you can find Dad’s old binder.”
Doris was Henry’s old secretary. She was a dozen years past retirement age, but could never leave the job she loved.
Henry kept a large binder with addresses and phone numbers of everyone who ever performed on the show. Doris brought the book to Owen’s office and set it down on his desk with a loud thump.
She began rifling through the pages. “Owen,” Doris said, smiling, “remember the Douglass Twins?”
How could he forget? The Douglass Twins were some of the best tap dancers his father had ever booked. Then, just before they were about to do Ed Sullivan’s show, Chet went and got himself killed by the jealous husband of a woman he’d been seeing. Without skipping a beat, surviving brother Dewey enlisted the aid of their cousin Abernathy, and just like that, the Douglass Twins became the Douglass Duo.
Both men had been semi-retired and living in Reno for years when they got the call from Owen. “We’d be more than happy to come O’, your dad was always good to us.”
Then there was the comedy act of Jordan and McAllister. They always made little Owen laugh, and often took him to places where no kid should’ve gone. Henry nearly fired the two when they got twelve-year-old Owen so drunk he passed out in a puddle of his own vomit. But Henry relented after the duo came to him and apologized profusely. They continued to perform on the show until Jordan began forgetting the punchlines. McAllister still visits his old friend at the home, even though Jordan doesn’t always remember him. “I’ll be there, my boy,” McAllister told him. “You know Jordan would love to, but he just can’t.”
The call Owen was more eager to make than any of the others was to Gloria Laughton. Back in the early days of the Variety Hour, she was one of Franklin’s Beauties, part of a stable of young women who sang and danced each week. Gloria, however, was a standout, and soon became a soloist on the show.
She had the voice of an angel and a face to match. And Gloria remained a regular part of the Variety Hour until she retired in 1987. During her time on the show, she had become a mother of sorts to Owen, and he still visited her regularly for dinner and stories about the old days.
Now in her mid eighties, Gloria sometimes sang on the old-timers circuit, and she still had that hauntingly beautiful voice audiences loved. “I’ll be there, honey,” she told Owen. “Wild horses couldn’t keep me away.” In fact, she did a cover of the Rolling Stones’s song “Wild Horses” on that final night.
Nearly two dozen former acts returned for the last show, and Owen was genuinely touched. Wish you were here, Dad, Owen thought. He knew his old man would’ve been thrilled.
Owen was deep in thought when Pockets the Clown came off after his warm-up. “Why so down in the mouth, Owen? You look like the guy who got a vasectomy at Sears . . .”
“. . . And when he makes love, the garage door goes up. Ba-dum-bum.” Owen smiled as he finished their long-standing joke.
Pockets chuckled and sat down beside Owen. “That Henny Youngman, he was a funny one.”
Both men sat in silence for a while, then Owen said, “Potter’s cutting into the show tonight to cover the blood moon.”
“On our last night!? That sommamabitch!” Pockets took out a joint and lit up. That’s how he handled stress, or frustration, or anything inconvenient for that matter.
Pockets’s real name was Willard Jenkins. He was 67, and the last of the original line up of the Franklin Variety Hour. He was given the name Pockets by the elder Franklin because, surprise-surprise, he auditioned wearing a cartoonish jacket with dozens of different sized pockets all over it. He still wore that damned jacket.
Willard had been with Henry and Owen through the ups and downs of the show, as well as the roller coaster that was his own life. Through four marriages and four divorces, through every stay in rehab and every relapse, either Henry or Owen was there for him until he could resume his duties as Pockets the Clown. Ten years his senior, Pockets was the big brother Owen never had, and the two only grew closer after Henry died.
“What’s the big deal about this blood moon?” Pockets asked.
“Well, it’s pretty rare,” Owen said.
Pockets took a heavy drag on the joint, holding his breath in as he spoke. “Yeah, so’s a variety show that’s going off the air after sixty years.”
Owen laughed. The old clown had a point.
Everyone gathered in the parking lot for a Blood Moon/final show cast party. The atmosphere was festive, with plenty of food and wine, and of course Pockets providing everyone with his seemingly endless supply of pot.
They all readied themselves for the event. Pockets was still in costume, and about to light up his third joint of the night. He offered it to Owen, who declined. The two sat silently taking in the increasingly darkening night. Then Pockets said, “I know I ain’t no good as a clown, but I ’preciate you keepin’ me on after your pops died.”
Owen glanced over at the man who’d worked on the program even longer than he had. “That’s what dad would’ve wanted.”
“Is dat what chu wanted?” Willard asked.
Owen thought about it for a minute, then said, “You’re like a brother to me, Will, and I had no intention of replacing you because my father died.” Owen was the only person who ever called Pockets by his real name.
The old clown smiled. “You Franklins was always good people,” he howled, patting Owen on the back so hard, it nearly knocked him over.
The party had reached a fever pitch as the Earth cast its shadow on the full moon and eclipsed it. Everyone put out their candles and shut off their cell phones, turning the parking lot into a wall of darkness.
Owen could still see the glowing ashes at the end of Willard’s joint, but the silence was palpable. In the quiet, the realization of the night finally hit everyone pretty hard. As the moon slid out from behind the shadow of Planet Earth and the night began to return to normal, one by one they all drifted back into the studio to finish the show.
It was the best night in a long time, and before anyone knew it, the final act had taken its last bow ever on the Franklin Variety Hour. Instead of his usual “I’ll be seeing you next week, folks,” Owen announced to the small Idaho audience that this would be their last show.
The tears were plentiful, but surprisingly so were the smiles. As they bid each other farewell, it all felt right somehow that the show, their show, ended on a night of an eclipse—a time often attributed to new beginnings. And for Owen and his makeshift family, there was definitely a distinct change on the horizon.