"Big Joe" Rosenfeld

joerosenfields.jpg (9659 bytes)
(courtesy Don Browne)

Big Joe's Happiness Exchange was a time brokered program which first appeared on WABC in 1959. This was before WABC became a Top 40 Music radio station. His show then continued for a short time after the switch in December of 1960. His show was not a disc jockey music show as both David and Don point out.

We have a short aircheck from Big Joe an the bottom of the page.

 

David Fentress wrote:

"I don't know when your page was originated, but you refer to "Big Joe" Rosenfeld in passing. I recall a paperback book about him, titled, I think, "The Happiness Exchange." Did I read there, or elsewhere, he ran this street front social services agency until, one day, a little old lady, died and left him a million bucks(?) in her will and he disappeared. I recall he'd been a big drinker and on the air in New Orleans, before he came to NYC.

"So, can you add some more about him to your page? And where's he now?"

 

Donald S. Browne responded:

David Fentress wrote about the web site reference to "Big Joe" Rosenfeld on the WABC program schedule (Midnight to 4 a.m., 1959 to 1961).

"Big Joe" Rosenfeld (sometimes spelled Rosenfield) is one of those New York radio personalities who has been surrounded by a culture of mystery. The fact that he was usually heard "after Midnight," in that radio "no man's land" dedicated to time-brokered shows (as an alternative to "sign-off"), adds to his mystique.

I personally listened to his unusual program, called "The Happiness Exchange," on several occasions in the late fifties/early sixties. As a "radio person," the program was difficult to listen to. There was plenty of "dead air" during which times the audio processing of the period (Gates Level-Devil and Sta-Level) would bring up the studio "room tone" to a point where you could hear a creaking chair or paper rustling.

"Big Joe" hosted one of the first "telephone-talk" shows in early New York City radio. But you only heard his side of the conversation, then "dead air" while he alone heard the caller speaking, then he would paraphrase the caller.

"The Happiness Exchange" had been time-brokered on several radio stations prior to WABC. These included WMGM (1050 kHz) and WINS (1010 kHz). In fact, "Big Joe" was on WINS (Midnight to 2 a.m.) when Rick Sklar joined as a copywriter in October 1954.

Dave Fentress relates the story of "Big Joe's" street front social services agency, and a little old lady leaving "The Exchange" a million dollars in her will; others say that "The Happiness Exchange" was funded by The Salvationists (the Salvation Army folks).

I found a photograph of "Big Joe" in a book, "Pictorial History of Radio." He is seated in one of the smaller WABC studios at 39 West 66th Street, probably 2B. Our host is surrounded by New York society icons, all seated at a large table with RCA 44BX microphones hanging from booms everywhere. "Big Joe" looks about a foot shorter than all the other seated guests. He looked weather-beaten in this photograph from the period 1959-1961.

Bob Donnelly, a transmitter engineer at WHBI (105.9 Mhz, Newark, NJ) in 1962, reported that "Big Joe" time-brokered at that station for a time, but originated the program by landline from his Manhattan (storefront) office.

After that, "Big Joe" became a mythological radio figure.

Donald S. Browne

 

Additional information added on November 19, 2002 thanks to John J. Parenti:

I worked for Big Joe during the years 1957 – 1959.  I wish to give my observations of this great man, and correct some of the things as stated by Joe Fentriss, and Donald Browne. 

When I worked with Big Joe (Rosenfeld), he was broadcasting from midnight to 2:00am on WMGM, opposite Barry Gray, on WMCA who also had a talk show, but it wasn’t like Big Joe’s.  Barry Gray had guests who would discuss the issues of the day with him.  Big Joe’s guests were people in need of help. 

As far as I know, Big Joe never received any funding from any organization, especially the Salvation Army.  His funding came strictly from tax-exempt donations by his listeners.  His earnings came from sponsors.  He sold products over the air, that his listeners either sent for, or purchased at their local store.  There were no shipping or handling charges, and if it cost $2.00 in the store, it cost the same amount by mail.  Some of the products, as I recall, you could by at most drug stores.  There was Koch Skin Cream, One For All Vitamins (one of the first one a day vitamins to hit the market), Sur-A-Sleep sleeping tablets (non-prescription), Choo-Choo perfume (named after his wife Dolly, who was from Chattanooga Tenn.), and a book that is still being sold today, published by the Life Fellowship society, “With God All Things Are Possible”.  There were a few others but these were the major items.  A big part of my job was shipping these products to the listeners who sent for them as well as hand delivering to stores that stocked them. 

When I worked with Big Joe, we were not working out of any storefront.  We worked from the 9th Floor of the NEW AMSTERDAM Theater, on 42nd street.  His broadcasting studio was from his office, at this same location.  It was not sound proof, and of course listeners could very well hear external sounds.  He had 4 or 5 phones on his desk, which he would take calls during the broadcast.  Most of the calls were listeners, who wished to donate money to the particular needy or cases of that broadcast.  True there may have been some seconds of silence, but not to any great degree, as in those days, the technology of today didn’t exist.  I do recall him putting the phone to the microphone on several occasions when someone had something important to say. 

100% of all the money donated was actually used for the purpose it was donated for.  The only exception would be when he would get a donation marked “do as you wish”.  This would go into a general fund that would be used to feed or house someone in an emergency. Many a time, he had me take someone to a local restaurant so they could eat something. Listeners would also send in clothing, and it was part of my job to inventory the clothing and his secretary MARY would usually be the one to distribute the clothing to the needy who appeared on a daily basis at our office.  One would often hear Big Joe, shout on the air, when he would get a caller from a new area, “Mary stick a pin in the map for......”, and Mary would actually do this on the map hanging on the wall of his office. 

Donald Browne mentions the mystique of Big Joe.  In order to understand why he broadcast at midnight, one needs to understand why he was broadcasting in the first place.   

True, he was an alcoholic, a very bad alcoholic.  He talks of this at length in his book “The Happiest Man In The World”, not the Happiness Exchange as reported by Joe Fentress.  That was just the name of his radio show.  He stated that one day after a real bad drinking spree, he woke to find himself lying in the muddy street.   He swore that if God would help him, he would never drink again, and would dedicate his life to helping others.  He joined AA, and stopped drinking completely.  He often said, “One drink is too many, a thousand is not enough.” 

Since he was now a happy person, who wanted to exchange his happiness with those who weren’t, for whatever reason, be it financial, physical, spiritual, etc..  He came up with the name of "The Happiness Exchange", so his listeners could also exchange their happiness by helping someone less fortunate than themselves.  And where did one find these unfortunate beings?  They were the ones who couldn’t sleep at night.  When the clock struck midnight, they were awake.   

You have a sound bite at the end of this page, with the start of his theme song.  The full bit goes like this. 

Have no fear, Big Joe is here.   I don’t wanna be rich, I can’t be good looking....All I wanna be is happy, and what do you want to be.   You do, well good, until four o’clock in the morning, let’s be happy together, because somebody cares. 

                                    Somebody cares about you
                                    And every little thing that you might do
                                    Somebody cares if you sleep well at night
                                    If your dreams have gone wrong
                                    Or your day has gone right
                                    Somebody cares if you’re blue
                                    And worries til the sun comes shining thru
                                    Please believe me it's so
                                    But in case you didn’t know
                                    Somebody Cares.

 David Fentress, asked the question, “...And where is he now” 

When I worked with Big Joe, he was in his 60’s.  The question answers itself.  Donald Browne reports that in a picture of him, taken between 1959 and 1961, he looked weather-beaten. That’s how he always looked.  I’m sure it was all the years of drinking that caused that appearance.  But in the early seventies, I’m not sure but I think it was 73 or 74, I met Moondog in front of the ABC studios.  Moondog, you might recall, was a blind  musician and poet who garbed himself in an army blanket, and wore a Viking helmet.  I first saw him when he used to hang around Times Square, but later moved uptown to the ABC studio building.  I met him personally when he was a guest on Big Joe’s show, discussing his lawsuit against Alan Freed for stealing his name and music (which he eventually won).   From time to time, I would see him on the street and chat with him for a few seconds.  The last time I saw him, in 73 or 74, I asked him about Big Joe...he simply said, “Big Joe [with] us no more.” 

But even though Big Joe, is gone, his memory will always be with me.  He was the one who taught me some of the greatest lessons of life one could learn.  He introduced me to the theatre, by taking me to my first Broadway show “The Fragile Fox,” with Lee Marvin.  He would always take his staff places.  He also took us to my first real fancy restaurant, Mama Leone’s.  

His staff which consisted of me, Mary (whom I mentioned earlier), Bobby his bookkeeper, a couple of others whom I can’t recall, and John Ridgley.  John Ridgley was an actor who played in many movies with Humphrey Bogart, but was also an alcoholic.   Big Joe helped him, for a while, until one day when he disappeared.  He went to the Post office to get the mail, as he usually did, and he never returned.  It was assumed he took some of the money that may have been there, and went on a drinking binge, but it was never proven.  Ridgley and I for a couple of years would give out Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets of food to the needy.  

It was a great time in my life.   From my visits to his penthouse apartment on 72nd street to the many famous people I met while working for him.  Marilyn Monroe, Tom Ewell, Jackie Gleason, all the radio personalities on WMGM at that time.   I think the biggest name I met was Sophie Tucker, who was on his board of directors.  I could go on and on, but in summary let me just say Big Joe was a great person, and I have nothing but fond memories of him. 

John J. Parenti

 

Additional information added on November 26, 2002 by Don Browne:

John J. Parenti wrote about his work experiences with Big Joe (Rosenfeld) during the period when the Happiness Exchange was on WMGM (1957-1959). These work memories provided pleasant remembrances long after Big Joe passed on. However, the nature and persona of Big Joe had a major "sea change" in 1959!

But let me provide a "timeline" to the career of the legendary Big Joe:

Big Joe had a "street-name" that was the complete opposite of his actual size. Big Joe was diminutive in stature...about five feet tall without "lifts". Perhaps the "big" referred to the size of his heart.

The success of "Big Joe's Happiness Exchange" on a New Orleans radio station, probably WNOE (1060 kHz), brought Big Joe's brokered radio program to NYC.

Big Joe was first heard on WOR (710 kHz) from 2 a.m. - 5 a.m. between 1949-1954; then on WINS (1010 kHz) from Midnight - 2 a.m. between 1954-1957; then on WMGM (1050 kHz) from Midnight - 2 a.m. between 1957-1959; then on WABC (770 kHz) from Midnight - 4 a.m. between 1959-1961; and finally on WHBI (105.9 MHz, Newark, NJ) from Midnight - 2 a.m.? between 1962-1964.

There were many "urban legends" about Big Joe during his long career on time-brokered NYC radio.

One persistent story, that Big Joe's "Happiness Exchange" was bequeathed a million dollars from the estate of a loyal female listener.... is absolutely true!!!

And this is the "sea change" that I referred to earlier.

In 1959, the "Happiness Exchange" received a bequest of 22,060 shares of General Motors stock, then worth $1,213,300, in the will of Mrs. May Rockwell Page of Bristol, CT, widow of a General Motors vice president. She had been a loyal "Happiness Exchange" listener on WMGM.

Several years ago, I had a conversation with Bill Rice concerning his memories of 39 West 66th Street, the original building that contained the radio studios of ABC, ABN, and WABC-AM/FM.

Bill Rice was hired as a summer-relief staff announcer at ABC circa May 1961. He was immediately assigned to the "Happiness Exchange" program as staff announcer and news reader, and had an "in-your-face" exposure to Big Joe and his cronies, until the termination of the WABC time-brokered contract in September 1961. Those five months are encapsulated in Bill Rice's own words

"Joe's guests were a polyglot group of taxi drivers, hangers on, sick and injured from out of town who would spill their stories over the air and Joe, then would ask the audience to contribute to help them individually. He too would add dollars to their cause and send them on their way."

"I remember going to the bathroom after a newscast and finding a man with bleeding ulcers actually bleeding from the mouth. Joe helped this guy and his wife get back down south where they had other family."

"One of the cab drivers called himself "Silver Dollar Jake" or something. He would see you in the studio and say "I'm Silver Dollar Jake, take a dollar", upon which he would hand you and anyone else nearby one silver dollar each. What a case."

"Joe himself was a charismatic person who had a spellbinding way of phrasing his commercial pitches for such products as "Kotch," an over the counter salve. He would say, "Now this is the last time tonight I'm gonna be able to talk to you about "Kotch". And he pronounced "Kotch" like he was saying crotch, giving the "ch" a full push."

Bill also told me another "urban legend" that he remembered about Big Joe......that he actually purchased Midnight to 6 a.m. from WABC...and would stay in studio 5C only until 4 a.m....and gave back the final two hours (4 a.m. - 6 a.m.) for local programming!!! Not true!

And yet another "story" that Bill had remembered about the Big Joe mystique

"One female listener who gave Joe a little money perhaps, was mentioned as requesting in her will that a portable radio be placed in her casket, tuned to "Big Joe"."

Bill also mentioned that "Happiness Exchange" was a very noisy program, with guests and visitors coming and going while the microphone was "live". And this in the only WABC radio studio with a double "sound lock"! (Readers who were in broadcasting prior to 1965 will remember "sound locks", and especially "double sound locks" with fondness!)

Many people who worked with Big Joe (Rick Sklar at WINS; John J. Parenti at WMGM) knew him by the name "Rosenfeld".

But the IRS knew him by his real name, Joseph Rosenfield, Jr. and this name appeared on his indictment (filed by an "Information"), for income tax evasion in 1966.

In papers filed in U.S. Tax Court, the IRS alleged that the Happiness Exchange Foundation, granted tax exemption status in 1954, was being operated to the benefit of private shareholders or individuals associated with it. When the government began their inquiries, Big Joe transferred huge sums from the Foundation to another fiduciary that he controlled through his relatives, the American Chia Trust.

Big Joe was not available during his Foundation's trial.

He had returned to his original stomping-grounds, New Orleans.

I believe the case was "plea-bargained" in 1968, and the Chia Trust paid the penalties incurred by the tax deficiencies of the Happiness Exchange Foundation.

If you wish to read more about this final chapter of the "Big Joe" story, the "New York Times" wrote an extensive article, naming names and listing financials, from the Tax Court records. Check the microfilm of the NYT archives at your local library. Article dated Tuesday March 7, 1967.

Donald S. Browne

 

Additional information added June 11, 2003 by Gail Nelson:

I was one of the kids Big Joe helped.  My name at the time was Gail Weintraub.   I had burns over 90% of my body from an accident in 1952.  Thanks to him doctors, and hospital services were given to me free of cost.  My mother would never accept money, but donated it back.  I was at all the parties given to promote donations and important people such as Eleanor Roosevelt were on the Board.  Every New Year's the Times Square street sign was changed by Mrs. Roosevelt to the Happiness Exchange Square.  I personally met hundreds of people Big Joe helped.  I lost touch with him after his wife Choo Choo died when I was about 16.  He may have had his bad times, but he helped thousands of people over the years.  My mother & grandmother were on the Board and helped with a lot of the projects.  There are 2 hard cover books, Have No Fear & the one mentioned by John.  There were monthly soft cover magazines given out, and I was featured in several.

Big Joe called me his adopted daughter Joy. I now use that as part of screen name because it reminds me of the the many things I learned from him.

I cannot say the man was perfect, but helped a lot of people without making it seem like charity

I hope you meant it when you said that you would add any comments to the web sites. I would like to see mine there.

Also if you know any what to contact his granddaughter Neil, I would like to correspond with her.

Thank you,

"Big Joe's Adopted Daughter" JOY

 

Additional information added October 20, 2003 by Jay Tell:

My wonderful dad Jack Tell passed away in 1979. He was on the editorial staff of the New York Times, an old friend of Big Joe's going back to the mid 1940's.

The year was about 1955. I was maybe 11, brother Mike 10. Dad took us to Big Joe's radio program late at night -- very late for two young boys!

We got there just before midnight. I don't remember the Manhattan address, but it was an old building. Except for those on the floor from which Big Joe's program was aired live from midnight to 4 am, the elevator operator may have been the only person left in the building.

The ancient lift had one of those creaking, accordion grids, diamond-shaped, as the inside gate. I turned to my dad and wondered aloud why he didn't tell the operator what floor we wanted.

Dad smiled, as only he could. The kindly white haired gentleman and he exchanged knowing grins. Dad explained that anyone coming to this building at this hour could only be there for one purpose -- to be on Big Joe's radio program.

When Mike and I met Big Joe we were surprised to see a small man, average looking in appearance and so tiny in stature. He couldn't have been more than five foot tall. Where was this "big" Joe we had heard about for years?

He welcomed us smiling ear to ear, radiating kindness and sincerity. He exuded a good heart. My Yiddish grandma would have called him a goota neshuma, a real mensche. We boys knew we were with someone truly warm and special.

He spoke with a relaxed, articulate, pleasing southern accent. Many listeners erroneously thought he was black. Thousands sent him money. He set up foundations for eye glasses, hearing aids, wheel chairs, etc. One woman left him over a million dollars in General Motors stock.

Dad told us the story of Big Joe. In New Orleans he was a fall down drunk, a homeless, hopeless, hapless alchoholic. Probably when over 50, one day he was touched by God. He decided to make something of himself, and help others.

Everything he accomplished was during the last chapter of his life. Wow, he had such impact on the thousands of families he helped. And even bigger influence on millions more during the wee hours on radio. His was possibly the world's first radio talk show. Back in 1955 I recall he was heard in 13 eastern states, later achieving national coverage.

We Tell boys had known we were going to be on the famous program. Dad had asked us to memorize the capitals of all 48 states. We were so excited to be soon going on radio, and told our school friends and teachers!

From a book at home we studied state capitals. We questioned each other constantly. In order, out of order, Vermont, Idaho, Alabama, Maine, and so on. We knew every capital cold, each brother just as good as the other.

Sitting outside his broadcast area, we waited patiently for Big Joe to begin. I remember part of his radio greeting, with which he opened each show "...I don't wanna be rich, I can't be good looking, all I wanna be is happy...." And his theme song, "Somebody Cares About You".... He took a few guests first, but kept glancing over to us, knowing he shouldn't keep Jack Tell's boys up too late.

Each guest had a real emergency. Maybe their electric or heat was turned off, which is pretty serious when its below freezing outside. Or they needed a wheelchair, eye glasses, a hearing aid, or bail money for a loved one. Or the hospital wouldn't admit them without insurance. Or the landlord was evicting them tomorrow. Whatever the need, it was immediate. Without any red tape -- Big Joe would help, right now.

But he was no pushover. He questioned each person carefully, like a kind but seasoned lawyer. He spent years on the streets and was hard to fool. When he was convinced the person was sincere, he'd tell their story and make an appeal for help. Then he'd start getting phone calls from those touched by that guest's particular emergency.

In those days, studio technology was limited. The radio audience could hear Big Joe, but could not hear the caller's voice. After periods of silence, Big Joe would recite a summary of what the caller had just said.

When that needy person's 10 or 15 minute segment was over, he'd move on to the next person or couple waiting for assistance. The way it worked was simple Big Joe gave out money needed that night, in cash. His callers replaced the sum with phone pledges, cash or checks to be sent by mail.

I distinctly recall Big Joe telling his listeners that 98 or 99% of pledges came through. His audience was special. Often he received more than promised. Sometimes he received one dollar to $20.00 or more from people who listened but never called in a pledge. Sometimes the phone or mail donor referred to a specific guest, sometimes they left it up to Big Joe to give it to someone needy.

Now it was our turn for "stardom".

Big Joe introduced Jack Tell as his good friend, a distinguished New York Times journalist, and his two boys Jay and Mike, who attended the Robert Fulton School in North Bergen New Jersey.

Early in Big Joe's radio career dad had helped him with stories and photos in the New York Times which launched Big Joe's growing fame. They became close friends. Dad asked his friend Walter Winchell, the world’s most powerful newspaper columnist from 1925 to the 1960, to publicize Big Joe's program. He did, in 600 papers all over the world.

When our segment began, Big Joe assured his trusting and faithful audience that he had no materials in front of him. He informed his legions of loyal listeners that we boys had practiced memorizing the state capitals, and that we had no paper or book in front of us either.

It impressed me that he and his audience had such an unbreakable bond of trust. He simply exuded truth and confidence. Regular listeners knew for sure he was on the up and up, and they were right.

Well, the moment had arrived, the quiz show was on! Big Joe announced that Jack Tell would donate $5.00 to the Happiness Exchange for every wrong answer. Dad then whispered to us, "Don't get a single one wrong -- I didn't bring any money except bus fare home, so get every one right!" At that moment I thought it was life and death....

Then the biggest surprise, Big Joe didn't have any list of states and capitals. He recited, one by one, every state from memory --- and, get this, in alphabetical order! One question for Mike, one for Jay, he alternated back and forth. We knew very soon he was a really brilliant man.

Near the end of the states' names, Big Joe realized he had left one out. He went back, thinking out loud, looking skyward, trying to recall, to capture the "missing state" -- which he did.

When he finished the 48th and last state, we had gotten every single capital correct. What a relief! We had been nervous at the start, but quite relaxed and "at home" at the finish. Big Joe had a way of making everyone feel comfortable, instant best friends, a rare gift.

By far the most relieved person at the station was dad. Whew… he didn't need to file bankruptcy, but now he needed to get his sons home for bed.

We shook hands. Big Joe thanked us for coming. He congratulated us for a "perfect" performance. Then he called up his next guest with yet another emergency. Alas, the memories of childhood, a very special moment in our lives.

More stories about Big Joe. Dad told me that Big Joe aired his very first broadcast sometime in the early or mid 1940's. His first word was "BANG!" -- shouting it loud, right into the microphone. He then explained to his startled radio audience he always dreamed of a radio program of his own -- and wanted to start it off with a bang!

In discovering this and other web sites devoted to memories of Big Joe Rosenfeld's Happiness Exchange, I recalled another gem. In 1957 at age 13, at my Bar Mitzvah celebration, Big Joe and his wife Choo Choo gave me a Jewish prayer book.

I still have the siddur, packed away in boxes (we are moving), so I can't find it to quote his signed inscription in the front. Later I'll find it and re-read it, and once again remember the man who helped countless thousands of folks in need.

I remember as if it were yesterday, Big Joe talking on the air about his alchoholism. I recall him saying "...for the alchoholic one drink is too many, a thousand drinks are not enough...."

My dad published the Las Vegas Israelite from 1965 to his passing in 1979. The world-famous newspaper is still published, first by brother Don, and since 1980 by brother Mike. In the 1970's I published the Las Vegas Free Press. Every time I was fortunate enough to help someone with a problem, I thought of Big Joe and his treasured influence on our entire family. The slogan in my masthead was "Voice for the Voiceless."

Big Joe wore both a Jewish star and a cross on a necklace. Each night he said "...there is but one race, the human race...."

Big Joe Rosenfeld, Jr.'s countless good deeds and his memory lives on....

 

 

Here is a brief audio clip of Big Joe's show:


Mp3


Real Audio

 

 

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