Emil Franzi: A passionate historian

By Harry Alexander

On Monday, July 10 there was a celebration of Emil Franzi’s life at a local club. More than 250 people–from both sides of the political aisle–came together to celebrate the late Editor-in-Chief/Publisher of the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Franzi was also a student of the history of the Old West. That’s one of the reasons he created the Voices of the West radio show, which won the 2014 Lariat Award from the Western Writers Association. It’s program that will continue to honor his legacy. The show will air on the internet at voicesofthewest.net every Saturday at 4pm Arizona time.

Those who came to celebrate Emil’s life included Arizona Congresswoman Martha McSally, Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry, former Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll, political consultant David Steele, Arizona Daily Star editorial cartoonist Dave Fitzsimmons, and frequent co-host of the Inside Track radio program Tom Danehy. Arizona’s Republican National Committeeman Bruce Ash hosted the event.

Not everyone there who wanted to speak about Franzi was able to do so because of time constraints. There were also a number of people Franzi knew around the country and had established lasting friendships.

One of those friends is Michael F. Blake, a make up artist in Hollywood and one of the original guests on the Voices of the West radio program. Blake is also a frequent commentator on the western shows aired on the History Channel. Michael’s piece will appear in the October issue of the Western Writers of America magazine, Roundup. He graciously gave me permission to republish here:

By Michael F. Blake

If I had to pick one word to describe Emil Franzi, it would be passionate.

Whether he was talking politics, opera or a John Wayne film, Emil’s passion and love for the subject was very evident.  Politics was his life blood, and in Tucson he was a force to be reckoned with.  A staunch Republican, he was never afraid to call out, as he once stated, “a wanna-be conservative” for not defending what he claimed to believe in.  Everyone in Arizona politics knew Emil.  Many admired him, others disliked him, and some even feared him.  Yet they all respected his opinion, passion and beliefs.  I spent one day driving around Tucson with him and there wasn’t a person he didn’t know or greet.  From Tucson patrol cops, waitresses or office holders, Emil cast a long shadow.  Even members of the political opposition admired and respected Emil.  They may have argued over policy or party platforms, but when the business was done, he was nothing short of kind and courteous, something sorely lacking in today’s society.

He invited me to be a guest on his “Voices of the West” radio show to discuss my book about the films on the OK Corral gunfight.  We immediately hit it off, sharing our mutual love of Westerns from the opening greeting.  He had me back on his show many times, and I soon became a semi-regular with Johnny D. Boggs, Cotton Smith, Robert Knott and Todd Roberts.  With Emil as our leader, knighting us the “Magnificent Six,” we’d often pick the Top Ten films of a certain star or director.  The one-hour would quickly fly by.  My wife could tell when I had finished Emil’s show because I was grinning like a fool.  We were like a bunch of high school buddies gathering around a lunch table and sharing what we loved.

Emil’s passion for the West was evident from his radio show, which he called his “therapy” after finishing his prior radio show dealing with local and national political shindigs.  He loved the west, the good and bad.  He never shrank from pointing out when our country mistreated the Indians, and he was equally honest in discussing the trespasses Native American tribes committed upon whites and other tribes.  You knew where Emil stood on a subject, whether you agreed with him or not.  He would defend his opinion with facts, not just ideology.  If you challenged him on any subject, you had better have accurate facts at hand, because he did and he would make a compelling case.  I think he would have been one heck of an attorney or teacher had he chosen either profession.

His radio show was an eclectic mix of history, movies and music.  One week a historian would be talking about a certain Native tribe, the next week featured a long-forgotten Arizona mining town.  He was extremely supportive of writers, whether they wrote about Western history or films, and gave them the full hour show to discuss their work and actively plug their book.  He was a champion for Western history, its people and the legends.

The Empire Ranch, in Sonita, Arizona, was one of his favorite spots.  One day he took me to the ranch, sharing his knowledge of how things worked.  As I listened to him, his passion for the place spilled out, and I thought he could have actually lived there at one time.  A ranch tour by Emil was very special, as he would let you handle many of the rare items.  He was indeed a proud father showing off “his baby.”  In my opinion, he should have been buried there because he loved it so much.

One thing that surprised me (but shouldn’t have) was his love and profuse knowledge of opera.  What I know about it wouldn’t fill a thimble, but Emil could carry on a conversation filled with facts and opinions that was astounding.  Ask him a question about an opera and he would tell you about the composer, its later influences, who originally performed the piece and why it was better, or worse, than the author’s other works.  He once explained to me the subtle differences between an opera written by a composer in Northern Italy versus one written by a composer in the southern part of the country.

He was generous beyond measure.  He’d correct you if your facts were wrong, explaining why without making you feel like a dunce.  When I said I’d see him in Sacramento at the WWA convention, he asked if I had arranged for a room yet, I told him I hadn’t.  “Well set you bags in my room, I have an extra bed and it will save ya some dough,” he stated.  He never would take a dime from me for the cost of the room, saying “Mi casa, su casa.”  At night, after we had talked everyone to death in the bar about various subjects, we’d spend another hour or two talking about a new subject.  One thing about Emil, the conversation was never lacking a topic to discuss.  He was like a walking encyclopedia.

I spoke to Emil just a few days before he passed on.  I was working on a movie and he was like a kid wanting to know where I was working on Universal’s back lot.  I could tell his health was failing, yet when I told him I was standing near the barn where James Stewart and Millard Mitchell stabled their horses in the opening of “Winchester ’73,” he was like a kid at Christmas.  He spent the next five minutes talking about various scenes from the film.  During that brief time, the illness that would eventually claim him disappeared and he was the Emil I have always known and loved.  He said he was looking forward to coming to the WWA convention in Montana and hanging out with “my guys.”  I realized how much all of us meant to him, and he to us.

As a friend, Emil Franzi was untiringly true and supportive.  He’d “argue over a game of cards, but share the last drop from his canteen.”  Godspeed Emil, you were very much “a gallant soldier and Christian gentleman.”  I was blessed to call you my friend.

Another friend who couldn’t make it to the event was Todd Roberts. He’s our Hollywood insider on the Voices of the West program. His dad produced both “Monte Walsh” movies filmed at the Empire Ranch in southeast Arizona:

Emil Franzi was at times a cohort, mentor, walking encyclopedia on various topics, someone to look up to but mostly my friend. He was one of the most unique people I have ever known. He could speak endlessly on Opera & switch to Western History without skipping a beat. He was well versed in so many subjects that when you were with him there was never a lack of interesting conversation. He was ALWAYS positive when calling me on the phone. Sometimes it might be at not the best time but you always felt better once the call ended. I whatever form you knew him you were richer for it, I know that I surely am. The one thing that I know about Emil was he sure wouldn’t want us all dwelling on his passing but instead his life, what it meant & whom he touched. In closing I would like to share this American Indian Saying;

“Do not at my grave & weep.    I am not there.  I do not sleep.   I am a thousand winds that blow.  I am the diamond glint on the snow.    I am the sunlight on ripened grain.    I am the autumn rain.   When you awake in the morning hush, I am the swift uplifting rush.     Of birds circling in flight.     I am the stars that shine at night.    Do not stand at my grave & weep.    I am not there.    I do not sleep.”

Todd Roberts

We’ve written a lot of words about Emil and will probably write additional words as needed. The man played an important role in politics in Southern Arizona. He also brought the history and issues of the Old West to the forefront.

That’s why we have a WEST section  in the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. No other publication–print or on-line–can make that claim.


Harry Alexander is the Managing Editor of the Southern Arizona News-Examiner.

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