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Teams come and go, but he's a mainstay at the Coliseum

October 18, 2009|JERRY CROWE

USC football fans young and old smile at the sight of the crinkly old man, brighten at the sound of his sing-song pitch.

Kids love the Goofy cap.

Adults admire the longevity.

All cherish the familiar cry:

"Git yer SOU-venir PRO-gram."

Charles Franklin, despite suffering severe brain damage as a young child, has hawked programs at Coliseum events for almost six decades -- at virtually every USC home game as well as countless UCLA, Dodgers, Rams and Raiders games.

All those other teams cleared out long ago, but the Trojans and Franklin remain. He worked his first game in 1952.

For longtime USC fans seated on the north side of the stadium, the 72-year-old Franklin is as much a part of Trojans tradition as Student Body Right, Traveler and song girls.

"People kind of root for him," said Rick de la Torre, who calls himself a Cal fan but knows Franklin's history through friends. "I get the sense they give him momentum to keep going.

"It's a fascinating legacy."

Though Parkinson's disease causes his hands to shake and transactions are painstakingly slow because Franklin stubbornly insists on digging into his wallet with each sale rather than making use of the pockets on his vendor's apron, the happy hawker draws a steady line of customers to his stand outside Tunnel 21.

"Good to see you here again this season," said one, later explaining that, after nearly 60 years, attending USC games wouldn't be the same without visiting Franklin.

Another said that, en route to the game, all his kids asked about was whether they would see the program seller.

"People love him," said Marc Forman, who started peddling programs at the Coliseum in 1961 and now co-owns the stadium's program distributorship. "I think he's kind of like a landmark, and everybody knows that high-pitched voice.

"When you walk through the gate, even when I was a kid, the first thing you hear is, 'Git yer SOU-venir PRO-gram.' Using the word in a very positive sense, he's quite a character."

Though most of Franklin's colleagues sell programs in greater numbers and at least one has been on the job even longer -- Donald Buschhoff, 78, started in the 1940s -- Forman said Franklin is the only one who is routinely tipped by his customers.

"He's got a steady clientele," said Forman, noting that Franklin sells about 100 programs on a typical Saturday. "He likes his little spot because it's not overwhelming.

"I think if he were to work outside, where a person could sell 400 programs, that would be too much for him.

"He doesn't want that."

Franklin's sister, Carol Avner of Sherman Oaks, is grateful that her brother has carved a niche for himself.

When he's not at the Coliseum, Franklin lives alone in an apartment west of downtown.

He works odd jobs in the garment district -- "stuffing of envelopes," as he calls it, is a particular favorite -- and devotes time to a charitable foundation.

"He's done very nicely for himself," his sister said. "That's something they said could never happen."

Avner said that she and her brother, three years younger than her, grew up in the Beverlywood section of Los Angeles with their parents, who worked in the garment industry.

Though Charles seems to have no recollection of it, his sister said he chased a ball into the street when he was about 3 years old and was struck by a hit-and-run driver. Dragged down the street under the car, she said, he suffered brain damage.

"He is mentally disabled because of that," she says. "He literally had to learn to walk and talk all over again, so it was a very hard time. My parents would not institutionalize him, which is what [others] wanted them to do.

"They felt they could make a person out of him again, and they did. But it took a lot out of them.

"They devoted their life to him."

Her brother was drawn to sports at a young age, Avner said, and as a teenager got his job at the Coliseum through a family friend, longtime Southland concessionaire Danny Goodman.

He has been at it ever since, these days pocketing a 10% commission on each $6 program, plus tips.

Jeff Michel of Long Beach, a USC graduate, has taken Franklin under his wing and offers him tips on how to expedite program sales, but the veteran hawker is set in his ways.

"He knows what he's doing," Michel said.

Another friend started a website, program21.com, where T-shirts, aprons, mouse pads, mugs and steins bearing Franklin's likeness can be purchased, all proceeds going to Franklin.

Said Michel, "He's just a lovable guy we've tried to help."

Though Franklin occasionally clams up, as he did when a reporter recently approached him, he also can be a "chatterbox," Michel notes, and show off a remarkable memory.

"He's got a mind like a steel trap," Michel said.

"He knows more about USC football than I think John McKay ever did."

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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