Buffalo’s Christmases Past: Channel 4’s Santa Show

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

From 1948 to 1973, the children of Buffalo knew who the one, true Santa was — and it was the guy who read their letters on Channel 4.

During most of the 25 years the show aired, Hengerer’s sponsored the show to run from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve for 15 minutes on weekdays, a little longer on Saturdays. In 1956, the show that delivered approximately 50,000 letters to Santa through its run became Buffalo’s first locally-produced show regularly presented in color.

Two men played Santa on Channel 4. Announcer Ed Dinsmore was the first St. Nick from the show’s inception until his death in 1954. Station program director Bill Peters — who was also known on the Van Miller Show as Norman Oklahoma — played Santa from 1954 until the end of the show’s run 19 years later.

Santa, however, was barely the star of the show. Forgetful the Elf, played memorably by WBEN copy writer John Eisenberger, was there for the entire run of the show from 1948 to ’73. Not only was the elf he played forgetful, but he was silly. Most shows revolved around Forgetful trying to paint Santa’s sleigh with polka dots, or trying to convince Santa to get rid of his “old fashioned” red suit for something as bit more modern. Hundreds of times through the show’s quarter century, Forgetful was seen greasing up the reindeer’s antlers, with the hopes of making them go faster.

This clip is the only known remaining video from the long run of the Santa show. It’s not from the broadcast of the show– but from 8mm home movies shot by a Channel 4 crew member.  This brief video shows Peters as Santa, Eisenberger as Forgetful, and Brook as Grumbles.

The soundtrack for the film is Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” which was used as the show’s theme song. It was also frequently used during the Christmas season by WBEN’s legendary morning man Clint Buehlman.

No full episodes or even short clips of this show — which ran for 25 years — are known to exist. The show was usually presented live, and recording was a more costly and difficult endeavor than it is today.

Santa and Forgetful had plenty of helpers through the years, all of whom — just like Peters and Eisenberger — had other jobs around the station. Grumbles the Elf was played by executive director Gene Brook and then floor manager Bud Hagman. Another director, Warren Jacober, played Freezy the Polar Bear. There were countless other puppets and guest stars, but none rising even close to the popularity of Eisneberger’s Forgetful.

The show ended along with Bill Peters’ death in 1973. Eisenberger died in 1984 at the age of 72.

Eisenberger as Forgetful and Peters as Santa. (Buffalo Stories archives/Steve Cichon collection)

 

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. writing about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and is the News Director at WECK Radio. A 25 year Buffalo media veteran, Steve's contributed more than 1400 Buffalo History stories to The Buffalo News, worked at WIVB-TV, Empire Sports Network, and spent ten years as a newsman and News Director at WBEN Radio. He's also put his communication skills to work as an adjunct professor, a producer of PBS documentaries, and even run for Erie County Clerk. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.