John Franzreb III, 75, can profile a horse in a heartbeat. “You look at its eyes and watch it move,” he said. “Just watch it move.”
His most recent public appearance with an animal was in association with a smaller creature, Staten Island Chuck, the lowly groundhog at the Staten Island Zoo, who Franzreb summons for the annual Groundhog Day event (he did not see his shadow this year, which is good). But he’s been thinking about horses for his whole life. Born, raised, and still living in the Sunset Hill neighborhood of Staten Island, Franzreb grew up on a horse farm. “All of my life I’ve been with horses,” he said. “All I think of is horses.”
It was his great-grandfather and grandfather, Franzreb says, who started the horse farm where he grew up, just three miles away from the Staten Island Ferry. Back when they did that, “this whole valley was dirt and water,” Franzreb said, pointing from his deck to the 40 acres of land that his family used to own. “That was all our property, down to the bottom of the hill.” He’s a friendly and outgoing man, on this day wearing a buttoned-down shirt and khakis, sitting at his dining room table at his welcoming and comfortable home in Sunset Hill on Staten Island.
The family business and farm, called Clove Lake Stables, had 100 horses, all for teaching horseback riding. According to Franzreb, the farm worked closely with schools in the area. “A lot of the local colleges came and sent their physical education people to us,” said Franzreb. “At 8 a.m., instead of going to the gym or running in circles, they would learn how to horseback ride.”
Along with teaching riding, Franzreb’s family farm also provided horses for film and television productions. As a result, Franzreb said he has met and given horseback rides to some of the most accomplished theatrical performers of the 20th century, including Walter Matthau, George C. Scott, and Luciano Pavarotti. “When I was a kid, my father would get a call from an agency in New York that would need a horse for a picture,” said Franzreb. “One of the stable guys would take the horse and we would go to the location where they wanted a picture. After doing that for a while, we told them about Staten Island and what it offered for them. So they started to come here.”
One of the films Franzreb takes credit for bringing to Staten Island was The Godfather. “We shot the Godfather right up there,” said Franzreb as he pointed out his back window. “The don’s house was up on that hill.” According to Franzreb, it happened this way: One of his horses was featured on the set of the Academy Award-winning film Hello Dolly, filmed in West Point, N.Y. “The props man from that movie was going to do The Godfather and Francis Ford Coppola wanted to do the movie in New York. He wanted to find a place for the don’s house. I said I think I know a house.”
Franzreb then went to see a childhood friend whose grandparents had just died, and their house was up for sale. “I told him that we might want to use it for a movie,” Franzreb said. “I told him if you just hold off a bit, they’re going to come in and look at the joint. The people from Paramount Studios came and saw the house, and they loved it.” Franzreb says many of his friends were extras in the movie, and the final scene was shot at a local church. “Everybody in it made a lot of money.”
Some of the commercials Franzreb says he worked on with his horses or other animals included Land Rover and the Ajax White Knight, the man who famously zapped dirty laundry while riding horseback. In addition, Franzreb says that he led the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1976 on a horse and went across the Brooklyn Bridge on its 100th anniversary with 23 horse-drawn vehicles depicting businesses from that time. That time, Franzreb had an elephant from the circus lead the way. “The man who built the bridge said it was strong enough to hold an elephant, so we thought we would give it a shot,” Franzreb said.
By the age of six, Franzreb said that his father had him working on the horse farm whenever he wasn’t at school. Horses became his life. “You learned how to do stuff around the farm because it was the family business,” said Franzreb. “If you live with horses, you learn and know horses.” One thing led to another, and at the age of 17, Franzreb says, he became the ringmaster at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden.
After graduating from Cornell, Franzreb says he wanted to become a veterinarian. He was ready to go to vet school. But the death of his father forced Franzreb to change his plans and return home to run the family business. “My mother was there, and I had a younger brother and two younger sisters who helped, but it was kind of thrown at me.”
But returning home to the farm on Sunset Hill allowed Franzreb to continue his involvement with the National Horse Show at MSG. After serving as the ringmaster for the show, Franzreb became the assistant manager and then manager of the horse show.
The 1980’s brought a lot of change to Franzreb’s life. For one thing, a real estate developer bought Franzreb’s 40-acre horse farm and family business. “Someone made me the offer I couldn’t refuse,” Franzreb said. “It was a big change because I was at the stables 7 days a week at 5:15 in the morning with over 20 people working for me. We had people cleaning stalls, doing carpentry, and teaching horse lessons. That was going on for years. And now it was over.”
But Franzreb said that the end of the family business allowed him to focus more on horse shows around the country. That, he said, has allowed him to meet even more celebrities, including Michael Bloomberg and Bruce Springsteen. Both the former mayor’s and rock musician’s daughters are horse riders.
It was through horses, too, Franzreb says, that he met his wife, Judy. “My father-in-law to-be owned a service station down the corner and that’s where my father would take our vehicles to get fixed,” said Franzreb. “At times when business wasn’t too good and we couldn’t pay the bills, my father would give free riding lessons to his daughter. So Judy came to the stable and learned how to ride.” Married for 51 years, John and Judy have three boys as well as six grandchildren.
His latest animal adventure was Groundhog Day at the annual ceremony at the Staten Island Zoo, where Franzreb is tasked with summoning Staten Island Chuck by sounding the same horn he uses to summon horses into the ring at his shows.
It’s not the horse show and Chuck is not a horse, but the event’s connection to Staten Island is why Franzreb does it. “I’ve always been there because I enjoy being there and it’s good for Staten Island,” said Franzreb. “What’s good for Staten Island is fine with me.”