by JASON POLICASTRO
Artist and poet David Franks was found dead January 14. The famed “Poe Toaster” failed to show up on January 19. Coincidence, or the final flourish of a dedicated prankster?
David “Footlong” Franks was found dead in his Hampden apartment on Jan. 14. In a city that loses many of its most gifted artists to other artistic strongholds along I-95, Franks was firmly entrenched in Baltimore’s artistic community. His passing was deeply felt in a city that cherishes its own, especially ones as memorable as the inimitable Franks.
From tugboat engineers to art gallery owners, Franks left an unmistakable impression on those he knew.
Manuel Alvarez worked as an engineer on the old Baker-Whiteley tugboats that used to dock at the city recreation pier in Fells Point. For a time, Franks had a place on Thames street, and stood out among the tugboat men for having “the prettiest girls on the Point.”
One day in 1976, Franks approached the tugboat men with his idea: to line up several boats and have their whistles go off as indicated in “Whistling in the Dark,” a composition Franks had written for just this purpose. The men were dumbfounded, but allowed it. Alvarez remembers the reaction of the other men as eight tugboat whistles sounded in the harbor.
“They thought he wasn’t playing with a full deck, if you want to know the truth,” Alvarez said.
Over the course of his career as a performance artist and poet, Franks had a knack for the grand gesture. There was the time he was fired by a collaborating composer for insisting that his portion of the performance included Franks putting a wedding ring on every woman’s finger in the audience. Or the time he was fired from the Maryland Institute College of Art for having his students paint with their own feces.
There is seemingly no end to stories like these. But those who knew him well say that as in-your-face and edgy as Franks’ art could be, Franks the man was more nuanced.
Eric Mithen, now living in Seattle and working as a graphic designer, met Franks in 2004. He began following Franks around with a video camera documenting his various readings and projects.
“If I hadn’t heard those stories, I never would have believed them,” Mithen said of Franks’ outsized reputation. “I just never saw the wild performance artist stuff. He was very subtle.”
Minas Konsolas remembered David’s ability to totally engage people he talked to.
“He was very accomodating,” Konsolas said. “He focused on every word you’d say, and always let you have the moment.”
Konsolas noted how much power Franks wielded with his soft-spoken demeanor when performing, or interacting one-on-one.
“I’m Greek, and my culture says that whoever yells loudest is heard,” Konsolas said. “David taught me that a whisper is the loudest sound you can make.”
Glenn Moomau met Franks in 1991 while living in Fells Point. A few years ago he found himself in the middle of one of Franks’ patented “is-it-real-or-is-it-not” moments. Franks was undergoing radiation therapy for cancer, and the treatment had left him weak. Franks asked Moomau for help with household chores, and Moomau found himself being filmed by Eric Mithen as he swept up the kitchen floor.
“There was a real need there, but at the same time, I felt I had been pranked,” Moomau said. “That was David.”
The duality of Franks’ nature was such that even though he was capable of making you feel like the only person in a crowded room, his penchant for the “grand manner”, as he often put it, endured.
It would be just the sort of duality needed to keep secret a very public tradition: the identity of the Edgar Allen Poe toaster, who failed to show up at the writer’s grave this week for this first time since 1949. There is a theory afoot that Franks was the famed anonymous visitor to Poe’s grave.
Rafael Alvarez, president of the Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore, appeared on WBAL AM the morning of Jan. 19 to discuss the possibility.
“It fit David’s love of the prank and the practical joke,” Alvarez said. “Particularly stunts that involved literary high wire acts.”
Joe Wall, facility manager of the Bromo Seltzer Tower and a longtime Franks friend and collaborator, saw the connection.
“I’m not going to say anything too detailed, except that it would not be outside the realm of possibility,” Wall said. “I mentioned to him once that I would occasionally visit the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was very interested in that, in a way now that makes sense. The timetable is awfully suspicious.”
Jeffrey Savoye, secretary and treasurer of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, was more skeptical.
“There are many eccentric characters in Baltimore, that doesn’t make them the Poe toaster,” Savoye said. “In the genre that Poe created, this would be called a false lead.”
“It would be the kind of gesture Franks would have done, but he liked more public displays,” Moomau said. “It is a provocative coincidence.”
A web page (http://davidfranks.ning.com/ has been started as a place for Franks’ friends to post photos, memories, and other ephemera that he left behind, leading up to the Jan. 31 memorial celebration at the Creative Alliance. The event is from 3 – 7 p.m.