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With Strings Attached

A guitar belonging to the late Andy Kaufman is up for auction on EBay, put up by a former New York talk-show host.

January 19, 2002|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Comedian Andy Kaufman's guitar is item No. 1501446139 on the auction Web site EBay (www.ebay.com). The opening bid, last Saturday, was $100; as of Friday, with 20 hours and five minutes left before the bidding closed, the price had grown to $3,850, although the seller didn't sound too proprietary about the item.

The seller, in fact, didn't really seem to know what the guitar was worth.

"I'm not that emotionally attached to it," said Joe Franklin, on the phone from New York.

He is the same Joe Franklin whose contribution to the 20th century was 43 years of talk-show memories, otherwise known as "The Joe Franklin Show," a late-night fixture of the New York airwaves. Franklin interviewed everyone from the sublime to the legitimate, and some of them more than once. According to Franklin, he had Otto Preminger on 175 times, Rudy Vallee 125 and Morris Katz, "the world's fastest painter," 800.

It's all captured in Franklin's 1995 book, "Up Late with Joe Franklin: Stories of the Greats, the Near Greats, the Ingrates, the Has-Beens and the Never Weres."

In all, Franklin says, he conducted more than 500,000 interviews, though most sources, including Franklin himself, have cited it as around 300,000. "The Joe Franklin Show" aired on WABC and later on WWOR, which, thanks to the early heydays of basic cable, introduced Franklin to a nation that probably asked, in unison, "Who is this guy?"

He was, it turns out, a show-business institution of a sort, with suspiciously pasted-down hair, arcane show-biz banter and "Broadway Danny Rose" for a booking agent. The earnestness with which Franklin would introduce his nobody guests was lampooned by comedian Billy Crystal, who did Franklin on "Saturday Night Live," increasing his cult profile.

But Franklin will tell you that his guests, back in the day, also included the actor Ronald Reagan and the singer Bing Crosby. When Franklin, who says he is 71, retired from TV in 1993, he decided to sell off his considerable stock of memorabilia.

Like nostalgia's junk man, Franklin had collected reams of stuff from guests, asking them things like: "Could I have that tie clip?"

In this way, Franklin says, he came into the possession of Charlie Chaplin's cane and Harold Lloyd's straw hat.

And Andy Kaufman's guitar.

According to Franklin, Kaufman liked to stop by his office. In all, they had 25 lunches together, he said. "He used to drop in here with John Travolta and Andrew Dice Clay," said Franklin, creating a somewhat dubious picture. "They were like a trio, all good friends."

Still, the EBay literature makes a persuasive argument for the guitar's authenticity. Thematically, it asserts the logical connection between Kaufman and Franklin--both were attracted to show business' lunatic fringe. It says the guitar is from an appearance Kaufman made on the show in 1974, when the comedian was an emerging but unknown oddball on the New York club scene, honing his trademark bits: an Elvis Presley impersonation, his character Foreign Man.

Of course, the actual value of the guitar, forgetting Kaufman's notoriety, is not promising. For one thing, it has only five strings, and its strap is made of "ordinary household twine."

But Lynne Margulies, Kaufman's longtime girlfriend, figures the guitar at least has to be functional enough to play "The Cow Goes Moo," one of the songs Kaufman liked to play.

Margulies, who runs an art gallery in Hollywood, regularly trolls EBay to see what phony piece of Kaufman ephemera is being sold as real, particularly as it concerns a figure whose death people thought was staged. Kaufman died in 1984 of cancer. He would have been 53 last Thursday.

There was a rash of items for auction around the time of "Man on the Moon," the 1999 Kaufman biopic starring Jim Carrey, but much of that activity has since died down, Margulies says.

When she saw the guitar listed, "my first instinct was, 'Oh, that's [nonsense].' Andy never told me about giving him the guitar. But Andy did have a real soft spot for Joe Franklin." Last month, Margulies says, the guitar appeared on EBay, but the bidding stopped at $4,082, with the "reserve not yet met" notation, meaning the owner's minimum price hadn't been met.

Bob Zmuda, the Kaufman intimate who for years helped the comedian perpetrate his stunts, said that early on in his career, Kaufman "had quite a few cheap guitars."

"Joe Franklin gave him a chance to go on the show [when] he wasn't famous at all," Zmuda said. "I wouldn't doubt it if Andy even suggested to Joe, 'Hey, I can give you some props for your museum.' "

Franklin, for his part, said that a friend was handling the EBay sale for him. "I gave him maybe 75 items and I said, 'Play around, have a good time.' "

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