Irv. Danny. Van. Carol. The men and women who’ve watched and listened to have become family enough that we only need their first names. Buffalo has a deep and rich broadcasting history. Here are some of the names, faces, sounds and stories which have been filling Buffalo’s airwaves since 1922.
Scroll to read more about Buffalo’s Radio & TV History from one of WNY’s most counted upon broadcasting historians or search for a specific person or station…
Having worked with Van Miller on Bills broadcasts on the radio and then as his producer at Channel 4, I spent a lot of time listening to his stories.
Van was a tremendous storyteller, and always delighted any crowd gathered around him with his ability to spin a tale about almost anything and make it interesting.
One of his favorites was “The Cookie Gilchrist earmuff story.” Ask people who’ve spent time around Van– Paul Peck, Brian Blessing, John Murphy… and they probably know the story as Van told it by heart as well as Van knew it himself.
The story goes, Cookie Gilchrist wasn’t really happy with the amount of money The Bills were paying him, so he was always looking for a way to make an extra buck. One time, he decided to buy a load of earmuffs and sell them as “Cookie Gilchrist earmuffs” at The Rockpile one Sunday.
“Well,” Van would say with a smile, “It happened to be one of the hottest December days on record, and the sun blazing at kickoff– he only sold about three pairs of earmuffs!”
It’s a classic Van story, quick and neat, and leaves the listener smiling.
The problem is, while there’s probably some basis in truth— Van was always more about telling a good story than about getting all the facts straight.
In a quick internet search, I found three different reports of Van telling the story. The temperature at kickoff was either 69, 57, or 60 degrees depending on which version you read. The number of pairs of earmuffs he had changed too– 5,000 in one telling; 3,000 in another; 15,000 another time.
The point is, there were probably earmuffs. Beyond that, it’s tough to tell where the colorful imagination of Uncle Van took over.
There’s another version of the story told to writer Scott Pitoniak by longtime Bills trainer Ed Abramowski. Published in 2007, Abe’s version is Cookie was trying to sell the earmuffs for the 1964 AFL Championship Game at War Memorial, but the headgear wound up getting caught in customs when Gilchrist tried to bring them to Buffalo from his home in Toronto.
The only contemporary earmuff story I could find was in the Ottawa Journal a few days after the Bills won that 1964 AFL Championship Game.
A reporter asked Cookie about the autographed earmuffs he said would be sold at the game. “I ran into problems there, and didn’t sell them.”– Ottawa Journal, December 28, 1964
That game was played December 26, 1964. It was a mild day with some rain and a high around 45.
Van Miller’s story is the only reason I know that Cookie Gilchrist ever tried to sell earmuffs, and that really makes me smile. Knowing the real story about how and why makes me smile, too.
Hamburg’s biggest contribution to the early history of rock ‘n’ roll might be more technical than musical, but it was from the 50,000 watts worth of radio waves flying out of Big Tree Rd. that Western New York and much of the east coast and Canada were introduced to the format.
The Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation opened its transmitter and tower facilities on Big Tree Rd. in July, 1941. The facility cost $350,000– $5.7 million in 2017 dollars—and was described as “truly a showplace of electric marvels.”
When the building first opened, a series of telephone lines carried programs from the Rand Building studios of WGR and WKBW to Hamburg for broadcast.
WKBW’s mainstays were the network programs of CBS with stars like Orson Welles, Hedda Hopper, Cecil B. DeMille, and Kate Smith. WGR carried Mutual Network shows like “The Lone Ranger” and talent like Milton Berle.
The local talent included Billy Keaton, Ralph Hubbell, and WGR Orchestra leader David Cheskin. Before Howdy Doody came along, Bob Smith hosted “The Cheer Up Gang” every morning, and before spending 35 years on WBEN, Clinton Buehlman hosted “WGR Musical Clock.”
After spending time at a few smaller stations, in the mid-1950s, George “Hound Dog” Lorenz took his rhythm and blues program featuring the music which would soon be known as rock ‘n’ roll to 50,000 watt WKBW Radio. The powerful signal allowed “The Hound” to introduce the evolving music genre to the entire northeastern United States.
WKBW would eventually be known as “one of America’s two great radio stations.” The voices of Stan Roberts, Tom Shannon, Irv Weinstein, Danny Neaverth, Joey Reynolds, Jack Armstrong, and so many others were sent out over the four and later six towers in our backyard.
Today, WWKB Radio and WGR Radio still transmit from Big Tree Rd. Both stations are owned by Entercom Communiucations, which is in the middle of a $1.7 billion merger with CBS Radio.
I grew up in Buffalo and Western New York in the 1980s. Irv, Rick and Tom were a big part of that. While many fathers and sons bond watching sports, from the time I was very small, my dad and I watched the news together every night. Irv’s news.
Long before I could actually speak many important words coherently, my mother reports that I, as a toddler, gleefully talked about ‘Irv Tine-Tine’ and would run around the living room vocalizing the percussive Eyewitness News theme at 6pm. Around that time, I also began to realize that Commander Tom, wearing that red jacket with gold epaulets, was quite possibly the coolest guy on the planet wearing the greatest outfit I’d ever seen. And of course, it was a highlight of my young life to meet THE Rick Azar at the Broadway Market one Good Friday with my grandma.
One of my early thrills in working in media was as a 15 year old WBEN intern, taking a phone call from Irv each day to record a radio commercial for that night’s 6 o’clock news. I also recall several years later, when I was working in a competing Buffalo TV newsroom, the euphoria the day it was announced Irv was retiring– euphoria because now we have a chance.
I could really talk about these guys all day, but before I get to embarrassing myself, I’ve limited my personal comments to one page. There’s not a lot of heavy lifting on the pages to follow; hopefully just cause for smiles and memories of the way things used to be, and the story of how Irv, Rick and Tom came to be Buffalo’s best ever.
Steve Cichon August, 2011
Chapter 1: Irv, Rick, & Tom.
Chuck Healy. John Corbett. Stephen Rowan. John Beard. Carol Jasen. Bob Koop. Kevin O’Connell. Rich Newberg. Don Postles. That’s just a partial list of the folks who appeared as a regular news anchor at 6 o’clock on Channel 4 during Irv Weinstein’s tremendous, nearly 30 year run at Number One on Channel 7. The list from Channel 2 is three times as long.
So what made Irv so special? It’s not an easy question to answer. Irv is loganberry, The Broadway Market, Sahlen’s hot dogs, Crystal Beach, Mighty Taco, Jimmy Griffin, knowing how to pronounce Scajaquada, and knowing it connects to not “Route 33,” but “The 33,” all wrapped up into a single 5’7” newsman. Irv is the embodiment of Buffalo.
But really, what makes Irv so special?
A 1990 study of local newscasts scientifically asked several hundred Western New Yorkers a series of in-depth questions about television news in Buffalo.
Without prompting a name, Irv was the runaway favorite news anchor in Buffalo. He was the favorite of more than a third of those with a preference, and was more popular than the numbers 2, 3, and 4 combined. He was the favorite newscaster of young and old, men and women, those making under $25,000, those making $25,000-50,000, and those making above $50,000.
He was the favorite newscaster of those of Polish descent, Italian ancestry, Irish, English, and African-American, too. Also in Buffalo, the Erie County suburbs, Niagara County, and Cattaraugus and Chautauqua Counties, Irv was on top. In every category that was analyzed, Irv Weinstein was a runaway pick as Buffalo’s favorite newsman.
One special thing about Irv; you had an opinion of him. He wasn’t just a haircut and a baritone reading the news. Of those who had a least favorite news anchor, Irv was named by 44%. He was the favorite, and the least favorite.
But now, more than a decade after leaving the Eyewitness News anchor desk, Irv has transcended completely the picayune tastes of Western New York’s television watching public.
Just like so many other Buffalo institutions of the past, the name Irv Weinstein conjures up different feelings and emotions in different contexts:
Like Bethlehem Steel, Irv reminds people of what a giant Buffalo once was.
Like Crystal Beach, Irv reminds people of the way things used to be– back when life was a little more fun.
Like AM&As or Marine Midland Bank, Irv reminds us that many of our once proud local institutions keep on keeping on, but never the way they once were.
Of course, Irv is only a third of the story. It was the combination of Irv, Rick Azar with Eyewitness Sports, and Tom Jolls with the Weather Outside that made Eyewitness News– and each man individually– wildly popular.
“IrvRickTom is what we called them,” said Phil Beuth, who was Channel 7’s General Manager in the 1970’s and 80’s before moving on to run ABC’s Good Morning America.
“For many years, that’s the way we considered them: IrvRickTom, one word, one person. We literally saw them as a seamless team. So close, so well knit so much an extension of one another.”
“It’s very hard to define chemistry,” Irv said when being inducted into the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame with Rick and Tom, “but we had it almost immediately, the three of us.”
Viewers saw not only news, sports and weather, but also three guys enjoying each others’ company– kidding around a little bit between segments.
Each complimented the other perfectly. Paired with others, Irv may have been too brash. Rick might have seemed too slick and polished. Tom maybe a little too folksy. But the honest human interaction between each of these men, as they came into our homes at dinner time and again at bed time was so obviously real and so obviously reflective of the people in our own lives, we accepted them as members of our family in a way that no other Buffalo television personalities had been accepted before, and none likely ever will again.
“You had Tom, every mother’s son; the flag, and apple pie, and all of those things that make for a fine American,” says Irv. “That’s what you saw, that’s what you got. That’s what Tom was, that’s what Tom is.
“Rick was more of a broadcasting personality,” says Irv in analysis of his anchor desk compadres. “Solid professional, knowledgeable, debonair, good looking guy. Very smooth, Mr. Smooth, the Latin Lover.“
So where does Irv fit in?
“Me? I’m an ethnic type,” says Irv. ”Definitely an ethnic type. I felt very proud of the fact in a heavily Catholic, heavily Polish town, this Jewish kid was accepted.”
The mix of these three seemingly disparate characters, added to the humble beginnings of the team on WKBW-TV in the mid-60s, makes the fact that Irv, Rick and Tom are adored two decades after the team broke up even more improbable.
Irv likes to say when he started at WKBW-TV; it was the number 4 station in a three station market. He often quips, “The ratings at Channel 7 were worse than the sign-off test patterns on Channels 4 and 2.” That’s not that far from the truth.
Irv moved from WKBW Radio to WKBW-TV in April 1964. Rick Azar was already there. He was the announcer who literally signed the station on the air in 1958. Tom Jolls had been working at WBEN Radio and TV when Red Koch, the program director at 7, talked Tom into coming over to WKBW’s Main Street studios in 1965.
The rest of the story is one that is permanently woven into the fabric of our community. But before we get to that story, let’s look at the experiences that lead three men from different backgrounds entirely to come together to become the longest running anchor team in television history.
The Eyewitness Newsgame
Buffalo’s own Irv-based board game hit store shelves in 1980, and was available at places like AM&A’s and Hengerer’s.
Promos showed Irv, Rick, and Tom playing the game so intently, they almost missed the 11 o’clock news.
The box reads:
Your chance to become a junior reporter for Eyewitness News! Be the first back to the station with all the facts and get your story on the air.
Proceeds from the sale of the game went to the Variety Club.
Chapter 2: Irwin Weinstein, Junior Announcer
“As Buffalonians, if we could be smart, we’d want to be smart like Irv,” Phil Beuth once said toasting Weinstein. “Smart enough to give us the news, but also using his brilliance to make everyone smile and to occasionally be a wise guy. He was the smart kid that always made the whole class… except the teacher… laugh.”
A high school teacher told Irv he’d wind up in jail or famous.
So begins a look back at the life of the man that Buffalo lovingly knows as just “Irv.”
Despite all the fame and success associated with Eyewitness News, Irv counts another era of his broadcasting career as the “most thrilling and glamorous.”
At a time before there was any such person as Irv Weinstein, Irwin B. Weinstein was a big man on campus at Ben Franklin High School in Rochester because of his regular appearances on the biggest radio station in town.
“I had actually started at WHAM radio in Rochester as a boy actor. That was perhaps the most thrilling and glamorous part of my entire life in broadcasting. My gosh, I would see these announcers– who go into the booth once or twice an hour– dressed in a suit, shirt, and tie; and deliver into the microphone the call letters of the station. And that’s pretty much all they did. And they were making tremendous salaries. It convinced me, at that time, that this was a profession that I would want to pursue. It wasn’t the money– I would have paid for the opportunity to be an announcer.”
WHAM was founded by Kodak’s founder George Eastman, and was later sold to Stromberg-Carlson, a dominant and wealthy player in the manufacture of radio and telephone equipment.
“WHAM was one of the most prestigious radio stations in the country,” remembers Irv. It was (and is) a powerful 50,000 watt station that can be heard all around eastern North America.
“They had, in the mid-40s, a palatial station. One studio could hold an audience of two or three hundred people, had a raised stage, a control room off of the stage, and room for a studio orchestra.”
After answering an ad in the newspaper looking for teenagers willing to act on the radio, the man who’d 25 years later be Buffalo’s top newsman became a kid playing bit parts in radio dramas– and loving every minute of it.
“In those days, they would call me up and say, ‘We have a part for you as a state trooper,’ in a series called True Stories of the New York State Police. Because my vocal equipment was pretty much developed at 15 or 16, I would play adults—a state trooper, a bank robber, a farmer in Weedsport who was directing police to the scene of a crime.”
“I was getting $7 a show, which was pretty good money for a kid in the mid-1940s. Plus, I was a star at Ben Franklin High School.”
Young Irwin was one of The WHAM Junior Players as well, on a show that was mostly young people performing basic comedy skits. “It was similar to the things you’d see on sitcoms today,” says Irv, “except they’d run 5 or 7 minutes instead of a half hour.”
Memories of those days– the raw thrill of scripts flying, last minute changes, and being a teen actor couldn’t be matched even as Irv became the most celebrated personality in the history of Buffalo television.
“Possibly the apogee of my career at WHAM was when they brought some of the network shows to Rochester. They had done some remodeling at the station, and one of the shows they brought to originate from Rochester was the Henry Aldrich Show. It was a radio sitcom, and Henry Aldrich was supposed to be a 16 or 17 year old kid. The actor was, in actuality, a man about 40 years old named Ezra Stone.”
“My line was four words. I was the Ace Cleaners Boy. You heard the screen door open, and I scream up into the house, ‘Ace Cleaners, Mrs. Aldrich!’ and she yells back, ‘They’re in the closet, Harry.’
“This was pre-audio tape. They did two live shows, one for the east coast, one for the west coast. I was fine for the east coast, but for the west coast, 3 hours later, I blew one of the four words; which has embarrassed me my entire professional life. I don’t remember what word it was… maybe ‘cleaners.’ That would have been a difficult word for me at that stage. But I’ve never forgotten it. Those are the things that happen in your career that are of such an embarrassing level, that you just never forget it.”
“Nobody ever mentioned salary, and that was fine. I just thought they needed me for a bit part in this show– and that was fine. Now, about a month later, an NBC envelope arrives in the mail. The letter says, ‘Thank you for taking part in the production of the Henry Aldrich Show,’ and with it, a check for $230. Again, if there was any doubt about what I wanted to do with my life, $230 for 4 words? It was pointed out to me years later, that Winston Churchill wasn’t making that much for his speeches around the same time. I just had a great time.”
This was the big time for a high school kid during the mid-1940s; as big, he thought, as it could possibly get. “There was a chief announcer at WHAM at the time, Bill Hanrahan, who was leaving for New York City and NBC.”
Hanrahan would go on to be an NBC staff announcer for the next 40 years, best known as the voice of the Huntley-Brinkley Report, and later NBC Nightly News. His voice became synonymous with not only nightly news broadcasts, but with special news programs involving elections, political conventions, Watergate, and space and lunar exploration.
To young Irwin, however, Hanrahan couldn’t have done much better than the biggest station in the Lilac City. “I can remember thinking to myself, ‘Guy must be crazy! How could he want to leave a great job like this to go to NBC?!?’ That was my serious thought.”
It was also his serious thought that the glamour of WHAM was the life for him.
“When I got out of school, I thought that the natural thing was, I had worked two or three years at WHAM, and maybe there might be a job for me there. The chief announcer interviewed me, and he advised me that radio probably wasn’t the best vehicle for any future career for me. He just didn’t think I had it.”
At 18, it was the first of many professional let-downs for Weinstein.
Right after graduating from Rochester’s Ben Franklin High School, with no promise of a radio career on the horizon, teenager Weinstein hopped a train to Hollywood, with the idea of breaking into the movies.
“It was a two and a half day trip by train. Rochester to Chicago on the Empire State Limited, and then changed to the Santa Fe Railroad for the rest of the trip,” Irv recalls. He says it was trip that might have gone by faster with a little company. That’s the way it was planned, but it didn’t work out that way.
“I had a high school buddy who was going to take the trip with me, but he had chickened out at the last minute, so I was alone. I’d never been away from home. I had $400, which I had strenuously saved for this trip.”
He wasn’t sure how he was going to break in, but thought it might be easier than it actually turned out to be. “I didn’t think I would just walk in and they would sign me up to a long term contract, but I thought if I got an audition, maybe… I just had no idea, I didn’t have a clue.”
It was true in the 1940s just as it’s true today. Just about everyone in Los Angeles is an actor, writer, producer or director– even if they are shampooing your carpets or rolling you a burrito between jobs “in the business.”
Irv discovered this when the man who kept him from becoming a literal “starving artist” delivered him his greatest brush with Hollywood greatness.
“Now I wasn’t drinking that young, but I met a bartender, whose bar was near the place where I had a room. They served food, which was free. If you bought a drink; you got a sandwich. So I’d have a ginger ale, and have lunch.”
“I struck up a friendship with this bartender, who had told me that he was once an assistant director at Columbia Pictures. And, as young and unsophisticated as I was, I thought to myself, ‘Yeah right, and the moon is made of green cheese.’”
“One day he calls me up and says, ‘Irwin,’ -which is what my name was at the time, before I changed it professionally to Irv- ‘Irwin, how would you like to go to the studio?’”
“I said, ‘Sure,’ I put on my bar mitzvah suit, and we went out to Columbia Pictures. The whole time, I’m thinking this guy is pulling my chain. We go to the gate, the guy says, ‘Hey Art, how ya doin?’”
“Holy Mackerel, I thought to myself, this guy really did work here. We go into the studio, and go to a sound stage, where they’re shooting a Tarzan movie, with Lex Barker and Denise Darcel. Cheetah was on Lex Barker’s shoulder, and, well, did a doo-doo, so they had to stop the scene.”
“I’m just glowing with pride. He introduced me to Lex Barker, and Denise Darcel, and then he said, I think Bob Mitchum is shooting a film at another sound stage.”
“So we go to that sound stage, and there’s Mitchum, and Janet Leigh, shooting a scene from a movie called Holiday Affair. I was stunned. They had recreated a part of Central Park for this scene. “Art says to me, ‘When they break this scene, we’ll go to Bob’s trailer and I’ll introduce you.’ You can imagine what this is for an 18 year old kid from Rochester, NY. The scene breaks, we go to the trailer, and Mitchum says, ‘Hey Art!’ and he says, ‘Mitch, I’d like to introduce you to a young friend of mine, Irwin Weinstein, who’s out here trying to get into the business.’
“Now, Mitchum was probably about 6-foot-5, and I pull myself up to my complete 5-foot-7, maybe 5-7-and-a-half in heels. He sticks out his hand, ‘Good to meet you, Irwin,’ ‘Thanks, Bob.’ Then he asks, ‘How ‘bout a drink?’”
“Well, sure, I said, thinking, ‘I always have a drink at 9 in the morning to hold myself together.’ He pours me a gin, vodka, I don’t know what it was. But I was drinking it very slowly, believe me.”
“Finally, I’m thinking to myself, this is the opportunity of my life to talk to a professional and get a real answer. My voice raised several octaves when I asked, ‘Well, Bob, how do you get into this business?’ and he looked down at me and said, ‘To tell you the truth, I can’t tell ya. I’m having a hell of a time staying in the business. There’s always somebody climbing up the grease pole behind you.’”
“I thought to myself, well, he’s just kind of mentally patting me on the head. I wasn’t angry or anything, it’s just what I thought. This is great; at least I’ll have some great stories to tell my family.”
“Years later, when I really got into broadcasting, and I met some people in the business, and I had a greater variety of life experiences, I realized that he was being absolutely straight with me.”
“You are never, no matter how big you are, in the movies, in radio, in television, secure. There’s always somebody climbing up that grease pole behind you. You never have total security. From that time on, Mitchum, not just as an actor, has been one of my idols.”
In the end, he spent a year and a half in California, with nary a sniff at the silver screen; working instead at a shirt factory, department store warehouse, and meat packing plant.
“The closest I got to being in the movies, was at the Pantages Movie Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard watching Kirk Douglas up on the screen in the movie Champion.”
Leaving Hollywood, Irv was left with figuring out what to do next.
“At the point that it became obvious that the world was not waiting for a short, facially challenged kid for a starring role in an MGM musical, I had to change direction.”
A decade before the Queen City sat enraptured as he informed us of spectacular blazes, and careening cars, Irv was a furniture store salesman working odd jobs, and kept his hand in the business as a part-time vacation fill-in disc jockey.
“I was into my 20s, when I went to the School of Radio and Television Technique in New York City. I thought to myself, growing up in a middle class Jewish home, that maybe I should be doing something more practical than acting.”
Television, Take 1
The impudent child taking in this story might be asking, “Is this where Irv becomes a big TV star?”
The answer, with a grandfatherly chuckle is, no, not yet. After learning the finer points of television production, Weinstein broke into the nascent medium not as an anchorman– but as a director. That is, the man who calls the camera shots and runs a broadcast from a technical standpoint.
It was another difficult and humble beginning.
“My first TV job was in Waterloo, Iowa. I took a bus out there for the interview. I didn’t even have a job offer, and I took a bus. I sent out about 2,000 resumes, and I got 3 replies. One was at KWWL-TV in Waterloo, another was at a station in Missoula, Montana, and I don’t remember the third.”
It was an inauspicious beginning to the now-celebrated Irv Weinstein television career.
“I went out to Waterloo, and I got a job as a director. I wasn’t a very good director.”
After only 90 days of working in television, Irv was once again on the outside looking in.
“Basically, directing in television is hitting the right button and thinking very quickly,” Irv explained. “I lacked the digital facility. So, three months later, I was fired.”
There was little else to do but look for another job.
“I was married by that time, and Elaine and I took a barnstorming tour across the country, from Waterloo, Iowa, to my in-law’s home in Miami Beach. I have to say, my wife ‘the saint’ was very supportive during this difficult time. I hit every station, big market, small market, medium market, nothing.
“I have a memory of changing my pants on a road outside of St. Louis for an interview with a big station there, nothing.”
There were no television jobs to be had, but there was the comfort of home.
“We wound up in Miami Beach, and sponged off my in-laws for three months, and decided that wasn’t working. So we moved back to Rochester and sponged off my parents.”
During this rough patch, Irv Weinstein, later to be known as a peerless purveyor of staccato alliteration, tried to “go straight.”
“I had a couple of jobs. One was as a paint salesman for Sears Roebuck. After about a month, the supervisor said to me, ‘Irwin, you don’t seem to have the Sears spirit.’ I said, ’You know what, you’re absolutely right,’ and I can’t tell you how happy I was to get out of there.”
Fate almost landed Irv a life as a civil servant– until Mrs. Weinstein stepped in.
“I was offered a job as a permanent at the Post Office. I had been working there as a temporary. I came home and told Elaine, ‘Hey, I could make a hundred and a quarter a week, steady, very secure.’ She said, ‘That’s very nice, but I didn’t marry you because I wanted to be married to a Post Office worker.’”
Reinforced and re-energized in trying to make it in the world of show business, Irv went back to work, making contacts, sending out resumes, and finally landing work.
“I got a job at a UHF station, WTAP in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Elaine at this time was 7 months pregnant. It was a terrible station then, and I was again hired as a director.”
“Again, three months later, I was fired; only this time there was a complication: In the interim, Elaine had given birth to our son, Marc. I’m thinking, ‘this is awful.’ Maybe I’m in the wrong business. Maybe I’ll go back to Rochester, and my mother will have some hot soup and some comforting words.”
But once again, it was because of the love and support of Elaine Weinstein that the Irv Weinstein story continues.
She encouraged Irv to go knock on the door of a radio station and ask for a job. It was to be the easiest job he’d ever received.
“I wound up at WCEF Radio. C-E-F stood for Clarence E. Franklin, who was the station owner, general manager, sales manager, chief engineer, and he had a show on the air called the ‘Friendly Frank Show.’”
“I asked him if he had any openings, he said, ‘When can you start?’ I asked, ‘Don’t you want to audition me?’ to which he replied, ‘Nah, I know an announcer when I see one.’ So, there I was, at WCEF.”
It was there, in the mountains of West Virginia, that Irv took on what he considers the “watershed job of his career.” For $60 a week, for the first time ever, he was a newscaster, but he wasn’t yet Irv Weinstein.
Borrowing the name of his infant son Marc Robert, Irwin Weinstein became Mark Roberts on the air.
“I was about 27 years old the first time I did news. It was interesting, the station was a daytimer. I did news from 9 in the morning, for about 6 hours.”
“But then late in the afternoon, I hosted a music show called, Candlelight and Gold. Now this was a rock and roll station, but I really loved doing the news.”
After a week or so as the station’s only news anchor, he was named news director, even though, says Irv, “I was the only one doing news at the station; I was essentially director over myself.”
“I was there about a year, and continued to send out resumes, when I got a call from WBOY-TV in Clarksburg. I got the job there, and I found myself directing again. Not doing very well at it, but directing none the less.”
But Irv wasn’t going to spend too much more time as a TV director, and his family wasn’t going to spend too much more time in West Virginia.
WKBW Futursonic Radio
So it’s 1958, and Irv Weinstein is finally a newsman. But he’s not Irv Weinstein yet: On the air, he’s known as Mark Roberts. But he’s also in the coal mining country of Clarksburg, West Virginia, a situation he was looking to change.
“I got a call from a good friend of mine, a deejay, Russ Syracuse. Well, Russ ‘The Moose’ Syracuse had gotten a job at KB Radio. He told me there was an opening in the newsroom. I told him I didn’t have much experience, but he told me to send in a tape.”
“The Program Director, Dick Lawrence, got my tape, we exchanged a few calls, and I was very anxious to get out of West Virginia. There was no way we were going to raise our son in the Mountain State, and Buffalo was an ideal market, close to family in Rochester.”
Thus began Irv’s news career in Buffalo. But once again, it almost didn’t happen.
As Irv told Sandy Beach on Majic 102 in 1988, “I drove into the parking lot of KB Radio in a beat up DeSoto. Dick Lawrence called me in Clarksburg, West Virginia, and he told me I got the job.”
“So we loaded up the DeSoto, all of our furniture, Elaine and Marc (their son), and we drove up to Buffalo. We get to Buffalo, and I pull into the parking lot, go in and tell the receptionist that I’m here to see Mr. Lawrence. She says, ‘well, Mr. Lawrence is no longer with us.’
It was another of those moments you just can’t make up.
“My whole life began to pass in front of my eyes. Elaine is out in the parking lot with our infant son, all of our possessions are in the car, and I’m thinking to myself I’m out of a job. I quit this great job, making $75 a week in Clarksburg, and here I am; out of a job, again.”
“I seriously may have been hyperventilating when Clint Churchill, Junior, the son of the owner, walked out into the hall, wanting to know ‘what’s happening here.’ I explained the situation, and he said to me, ‘Don’t worry, you’ve got a job.’”
“Whew, I thought, catching my breath. ‘Can you do the next newscast?,’ he asked. ‘Certainly,’ I said, though maybe I wasn’t quite so certain. I was wearing jeans, I really wasn’t prepared.”
“But 10, 15 minutes later, I did the next newscast, and the rest of the newscasts; apparently someone had just left. At that time, KB Radio had newscasters and news writers, people who wrote the newscasts. That day, the person who was writing the casts was Art Wander. That’s enough to make a guy nervous right there, the Tiny Tot of the Kilowatt.”
“He wrote one of these wild stories about an accident, where the victim was killed. He wrote that she was whiplashed to death. Well, at that point, I didn’t even know my name. Whiplashed to death?!? Well, I read it, what was I going to do? I didn’t even have a chance to pre-read the copy.”
“So I get off the air, and Churchill called me into his office. He said to me, ‘I heard your newscast.’ He said it was ok. He said, ‘This is a top 40 station, and you sound too much like Walter Cronkite.‘ I’m thinking, ‘and that’s a bad thing?’”
“My whole terrible broadcast career passed before my eyes, but luckily it worked out.”
That early boss may have tossed the name Walter Cronkite his way, but it was another famous radio host who made an impression on Irv.
“In terms of style, I was sometimes asked who my idol was in radio, and that was an easy one: Paul Harvey. Paul Harvey was not fast paced, but he had a pace of delivering the news that was compelling. I like to think I was Paul Harvey only a lot faster.”
Faster… with flagrant, more outrageous writing. It might be hard to believe for those who don’t remember, but in the early rock ’n’ roll days of KB Radio and Pulsebeat News, the pace and the shocking pointed style of news writing and delivery made Irv’s later Eyewitness News persona seem comatose.
It took some time to develop that sound, though. Irv readily admits, when he first arrived at KB, he sounded different. “My style was upbeat, but not the on-air style that I developed; which was basically, a Top 40 news guy; fast paced.”
It was in its fetal stage, but it was early development of the personality Buffalo would come to cherish over the next 50 years. It was also at KB Radio that Irwin first unwrapped a sleeker sounding version of his first name, and became forever more Irv.
“Over time I developed a writing style that had sizzle and alliteration, and the type of thing to grab the audience. I learned along the way, that before you can get people to listen to you, you have to catch their attention. One way to do that is in your writing– make it compelling. Sometimes it was overboard, frankly, but it was ok. It did the job.“
It was the perfect co-mingling of man and circumstance that put Irv in the position to really invent the style of newscasting he made famous in Buffalo; one that was copied around the country.
“My theatre background had a lot to do with it. I understood what they wanted. They wanted the listeners to barely discern the difference between Russ The Moose Syracuse and Irv Weinstein in terms of basic sound; the pace. And that was fine with me.”
News was still serious; different from the disc jockeys. But the KB newsmen, and Irv in particular, would leave that line blurred.
“Russ Syracuse would try to break me up during the news; he’d walk by the studio window doing an imitation of a fish. I must have had a death wish, because we had a cough switch, but I never hit it; I’d just laugh on the air. We used to get requests at the station, people wondering when I was going to laugh.”
Were it just his delivery, reading scripts written for him by Art Wander and others, Irv would still be remembered today. But it’s that unparalleled ability to turn a phrase while churning out news copy that was to become synonymous with Irv Weinstein over the next four decades of informing Buffalo.
“Again, I discerned what they wanted; and I gave them that, plus. I’ve often been quoted with lines like ‘Pistol packing punks pounded a Polish plumber into the pavement.’ I never, ever said anything like that. Close, but that phrase, ‘pistol packing punks….’ We did some outrageous things on radio.”
“I think the news was an integral part of KB Radio’s enormous success. There were a lot of rock stations around, but I think what really defines a station, what gives it some personality, some credibility, is the news. People hear the news, they trust the newscaster. KB knocked off WBEN Radio, and it took a while, with people like Clint Buehlman so entrenched, but we knocked off the other stations.“
KB was ‘number one’ across the board, one of the most successful radio stations in the country. Without question; Syracuse, Dan Neaverth, Tom Shannon, Joey Reynolds, Stan Roberts, and all the KB disc jockeys are due much of the credit for that success.
But it would be shortsighted to not also heap credit on Irv, Henry Brach, Jim Fagan, John Zach and all of the Pulsebeat Newsmen who gave the gravitas needed to bump off some long established Buffalo legends like Buehlman and newscaster Jack Ogilvie at WBEN among numerous others.
Remember, at this point, Irv Weinstein was a radio newsman. He could go shopping at the A&P or grab a coffee at a Deco lunch counter without fans mobbing him. His voice was familiar; his face, not so much.
Early on, after having listened to Irv and his big voice, people were surprised whenever he made public appearances. People heard that booming authoritative voice come through the radio; meeting the diminutive Irv in person didn’t always quite seem analogous.
“A Rabbi sent me a note after meeting me for the first time,” Irv recalls. “He wrote, ‘You know, you’re a very talented young man, because after listening to you for so many years, I’ve always pictured you as a tall, blonde Gentile.’ I wrote him back a similarly funny note.”
Soon, all of Buffalo would know exactly what Irv looked like.
Part of the experience of going to a Bisons game at North AmeriCare Park in the late 1990s was the 7th inning stretch presentation of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll (Part 2), where it was understood instead of yelling “Hey!” for the refrain, the ballpark yelled “Irv!” in unison, as a pixilated image of Buffalo’s favorite newsman flashed on the scoreboard. It was all part of one of the last great promotional campaigns for Irv and Eyewitness News.
From a 1977 Eyewitness News Promo
Irv: Do you have this in blue?
Salesman 1: FanTAStic!
Salesman 2: Its…. its….
Salesman 1: Right! Would you mind repeating that again?
Irv: Do you have this in blue?
Salesman 2: No one’s ever said it like that before!
Salesmen: (singing)…. And that’s why we say…
Irv Weinstein, you’re really a pro…You got all the news, that we want to know… You tell it like it is, and never throw us a curve, Nobody says it Like Irv…. Eyewitness News!
Chapter 7: Beyond the News
It’s tough to imagine Buffalo of the 70s, 80s, and 90s without Irv Weinstein, just like it’s tough to imagine Irv without Rick and Tom.
When Irv and his young family arrived in Buffalo in that old DeSoto back in 1958, he couldn’t have known that 3 decades later he’d be a part of the fabric of the community.
“From the standpoint of where I was, Buffalo was the glowing city on the hill, a real toddlin’ town. Things were really happening in Buffalo.”
As a young man growing up in Rochester, Irv had some experience with Buffalo, enjoying the city’s shows and restaurants. But after spending some time working in Buffalo, he found the area’s greatest asset was something no economic downturn or political misman-agement could scuttle: The spirit of the people.
“One of the things that makes the Buffalo market a delight to work in, is that your audience is really tuned into what you’re saying, or what you’re showing. Because the city is buried under snow, or at the very least, extreme cold, for about 9 months of the year, they’re not going outside to play tennis, or jog down the street. They’re listening to radio. They’re watching television.”
“The day after a story ran, I’d have people say back to me, word for word, what was on the air the night before. So I knew that they were with us.”
Though it’s an overused expression, Irv, Rick, and Tom, over the decades they came into our homes, really did become like family.
“When I talk to people,” says Irv, “when I receive correspondence from people, they talk about that they had dinner with me, every night; that I was a friend, and I’m glad.”
“I think that is the highest compliment someone in broadcasting can ever get,” says Irv, “that your audience thought that you were a part of the family. “
It’s a feeling that continues for each Irv, Rick, and Tom to this day.
“When I come back to Western New York after over a decade of retirement,” says Irv, ”one of the things I love is that it’s a great ego booster. I walk into a grocery store or a restaurant, and it’s like I never left. ‘Hey Irv, how ya doin?’ Some people think I never left. Some people tell me they watch me all the time, and I haven’t been on in a decade.”
It’s something these working men had to come to grips with, a little bit anyway. Right after his retirement, Rick was having dinner at a diner in Amherst, and really didn’t know how to take it when a waiter became almost inconsolable, gushing about the effect that he, Rick, had had on this waiter’s life.
“It was hard for me to deal with; I had to ask him to stop. I was just a guy on TV. I had no idea that people would have these kinds of feelings about us,” says Rick.
“That’s when Irv and I started to talk about this kind of stuff, and try to understand this kind of thing. We think about that now, after the fact. I think it’s one of the reasons we were so successful, because we didn’t think about it then. It’s who we are. It always has been. We’re just who we are.”
But unlike some Hollywood types or big name athletes, Irv would be disappointed if he knew you thought about saying ‘hi’ but didn’t.
“I thrived on that, communicating with people,” says Tom. “Looking back, I think about how lucky I was. Not just to do it all for a while, but to do it for close to 40 years; very, very fortunate.
“I’ve never shunned that part of the business, people saying hi, or wanting to chat. I knew it was going to part of the business, and I had to be gracious to these people, because that’s what mattered: the people who were watching. If you weren’t nice to them, then you aren’t doing your whole job,” says Tom, who loved meeting people at the Erie County Fair so much that they named the park from which he broadcast there “Tom Jolls Park.”
Still to this day, Commander Tom loves when someone says hi or offers a kind word.
“It never fails to amaze me, and I always try to say to them, thank you for remembering. It’s just so ingrained in people that they didn’t forget. And that’s just so nice.”
It gets a little complicated for the Commander occasionally.
“The funny thing for me is, nowadays, you never know if someone is going to remember you or not. Some people don’t always say something right at the beginning. I went through a big project with a salesman a few weeks ago, I asked a lot of questions, and he was very helpful. Just before we parted and signed the deal, he made some off the cuff comment like, ‘So how does it feel not to have to stand outside anymore?'”
“I wasn’t sure that he had any inkling. After 10 years, a lot didn’t watch, and a lot of people don’t remember. People remembering makes it all worthwhile.”
Irv says, “People ask, doesn’t it bother you when people come up to you in a restaurant, or in line somewhere, and I say, ‘Bother me?!? I love it!’ Yes, the ratings are nice, but when people want to come over and talk to you, and feel that they can, it makes you feel like you must be doing something right. The satisfaction of having done a pretty good job; you can’t buy that.”
Part of the satisfaction for Irv was that it was such a varied group of people who would come up to him over the years.
“I knew that Buffalo was and is a very ethnic conscious community. Just look at the festivals and parades. Irish, Polish, Italian, Greek, and on and on. Generally, the people in those ethnic-type communities enjoy an individual who does something out of the box. And in a town where ethnicity is important, with a name like Irv Weinstein, I’m immediately identified as an ethnic person. And not necessarily Jewish, either. I was sort of like the universal guy, a universal anchor, everybody’s anchor. Both from a philosophical stand point and a factual stand point.”
And that was true; the numbers bore out, for not just the blue collar guys down at the plant.
“The Eyewitness News audience was everybody. People would say to me, ‘Yeah, Irv, you’re alright, you have the guys at Bethlehem Steel,’ but that’s bull. Lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists.”
People from all walks of life couldn’t get enough of Irv, Rick, and Tom.
“You talk about ratings, and at one point, we had higher ratings than the other two stations combined. That’s phenomenal.”
And again, that is not something that is lost on Irv.
“In the days before the remote control, people actually had to get up out of their chairs to change the station, and fine tune it, move the hanger on top of the set to get better reception. So viewers really had to want to see you at a specific time to get up and change the channel.”
“It wasn’t, ‘Boy, look at us, guys…’ We never felt like stars,” says Rick. “We never realized until after we left, after the fact, the impact we were making in our community.”
And it wasn’t just Buffalo. An entire generation of Torontonians made their assumptions about Buffalo, Western New York, and even the United States as a whole based on Eyewitness News.
WIVB-TV reporter Rich Newberg discussed it with Irv during an interview.
“People sometimes equate Buffalo with Irv Weinstein,” admitted Newberg who spent some time in direct competition with Irv when he anchored Channel 4’s 6 o’clock newscasts.
“People in Toronto would sometime mock the newscasts, and the city,” Newberg continued, ”wondering if there was a Western New York town left that hadn’t burned, or if there was a person walking around who hadn’t been shot at least once…”
Irv responded with a laugh, “I would tell these Torontonians, and I have, don’t be so snotty! It was just a roll of the dice that Buffalo had such a high number of wood frame constructions. Toronto had a huge fire years ago (The Great Toronto Fire of 1904) which burned much of the city’s downtown. Buffalo actually sent fire fighting apparatus to help put out the blaze. To their credit, in Toronto, after that fire, an ordinance was passed limiting the amount of wood allowed in new structures in the city.”
But it’s not all acrimony from Canada. Just as the stars of local Toronto and Hamilton televisions had and have a cult following in Western New York; Irv, too, is well loved on both sides of the border. Irv remembers a Toronto radio promotion ran on the basis of his popularity here and there.
“CHUM Radio ran a promotion in 1988, at a time when the US Presidential election and the Canadian Parliamentary election coincided. They decided to run a contest and run me for either President of the United States or Prime Minister of Canada. It was a lot of fun, spending a day on the media circuit in Toronto.”
Irv fully admits that Toronto wasn’t the only outside market that came calling for his services when Eyewitness News was one of the most highly rated newscasts in the country.
“Over the years, I had some opportunities to leave for a lot more money. I learned something from my experiences in Waterloo, Iowa; and Parkersburg, West Virginia, and also the brief times I worked in Portland, Oregon and San Diego. What you learn is, when you have a good professional situation, that leaves you fulfilled and satisfied professionally, you can’t buy that.”
“There were anchor people making more money than me in the Buffalo market, even though I was number one in the ratings. Did it bother me? Yeah, but not enough to really make any difference.”
It was a wonderful professional situation. But it was also that Buffalo provided a great place to raise a family. What was it like to call Irv Weinstein ‘dad?’
Irv talked about his family, and his family about him, in an early 1980’s broadcast of PM Magazine, at the time hosted in Buffalo by Debbie Stamp.
“If you compare me with Robert Young from Father Knows Best , I probably don’t do too well,” Irv said, “because early on in my career, when the children were small, I did not have a great deal of time to spend with them. And to be perfectly honest, on my days off, I wasn’t the kind of dad who went out in the street and played ball. I have guilt feelings about the time I didn’t spend with the children when they were small, and when I was trying to make it in this business.”
As Debbie Stamp put it, “The Weinsteins lived not in a mansion, but in a typical house, in a typical neighborhood in Kenmore.” Irv really is the typical guy we’d expect him to be watching him on television.
“I think my wife and I have an unusually good relationship. She has a very even disposition, as opposed to myself. I tend to be a little more volatile. Not as volatile as I used to be.”
“She thinks I’m the funniest guy in the world. I broke her up from the moment we met, she just laughs and laughs, and when you’re laughing, it’s difficult to become angry.”
“He’s got a great sense of humor, and he’s fun to live with,” said Mrs. Weinstein of her husband. “I know his image is very often very businesslike and dignified, and he is that too, but, I was originally attracted to his sense of humor.”
The time since Irv, Rick and Tom sat together in our living rooms every night can now be measured in decades.
Rick Azar was the first to leave in 1989, making 25 years the mark to beat as the longest running anchor team in history. He’d been at Channel 7 since that first broadcast, 31 years before. Tom Jolls was the last to leave, a few months after Irv did in 1999.
On New Year’s Eve 1998, Irv Weinstein ended his 34 year run at the helm of Eyewitness News with a heartfelt final sign off:
Finally… Yes, finally. Is there anyone in the western world who doesn’t know that I’m retiring? Well apparently, there is. This e-mail arrived on our station manager’s computer a couple of days ago. It reads, quote, ‘I noticed on the TV tonight, on your channel logo saying Remembering Irv. I went to your internet page and there is no mention of your passing. Can you send me information on this?’ End quote.
Well, sir, if you’re watching, you’ll notice that I appear to be alive, in a manner of speaking, anyway. Things have been a bit hectic, recently.
Now then, for the rest of you, I’d like to answer some questions that I’ve been getting since I announced that I’m retiring. Am I planning to move? No. Am I going to write a book? No. What am I going to do with myself? Well, I’m going to kick off my shoes and goof off. Read books, go to the movies weekday afternoons, watch lots of television news, spend lots of quality time with our children and grandchildren, and drive my wife crazy. The usual stuff.
Seriously though, friends, even though I’ll no longer have a day job, I suspect that I’ll pop up from time to time on television and radio, and I plan to continue to take an active role in the life of our community.
Now, it’s time to thank some of the people without whom I would not have had the broadcast career that I had.
At the top of the list are my wife and children. Their unwavering love, support, encouragement, and honest criticism have always been there during the good times, and the not so good times.
And a big thank you to a couple of TV station managers, who hired me at the dawn of my career. If it wasn’t for them, I might now be directing a cooking show in Waterloo, Iowa, or live wresting in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
I’m grateful to all the Buffalo and Canadian newspaper columnists, and radio and TV personalities, who, in the last few weeks, have showered me with the kind of accolades normally reserved for people who break sports records or walk on the moon.
None of the last four decades would have happened for me without the owners, managers, and staff at WKBW Radio and Television, who were, and are, the best in the business.
But you, you the viewers were the key element whatever success I’ve achieved. We connected, on and off the air, you and me. I can never thank you enough. You made all of my dreams come true. May all of yours come true as well. Good night.
I once asked Irv about his legacy.
“You don’t think about everything you do, every single day. It’s a compilation of weeks, and months, and years of work that you hope has had some impact on people. And when it appears that it does, and that it has, it’s a very rewarding thing.”
“I was the original Irv Weinstein, that’s all I was really. Each person represents a particular talent, a particular ability. The impact I had in the market, may have set a fairly high watermark in the marketplace.
“For that, I am very grateful.”
Tom’s final words on the weather outside: “May all your days be salubrious.” A wonderful thought and one he meant from the bottom of his heart.
In many respects, it was a unique relationship Irv, Rick, and Tom shared, one not too different from brotherhood. One that continues to this day.
“We now keep in contact constantly over e-mail,” says Tom. “We were all together last summer, at Chef’s. It was the first time were together, all of us, in 14 years. We’ve seen each other separately of course, 14 years since we’d all been together. It was great, and it was like we’d never been apart. It was the same relationship there, and it will never go away.”
“We laugh, we cry. I can still make him cry at the drop of a hat,” Rick says of Irv. “Like a bag of mush. He comes on like this tough news guy, but he’s a mush. We’re in touch every day.”
Irv, Rick, and Tom. They really love each other. And we love them.
Loved him in the booth. Nothing was ever about him in his broadcasts, ever smiling and humble.
He wasn’t there to make you think he was smart or clever, just to tell you what was happening on the field and ask his color guy what he thought about it.
There was an honesty and earnestness about his on air demeanor. He wasn’t some overly-sportsed knucklehead… you could imagine him as a loan officer at a bank during the week who just happened to have some cool weekend gig.
I miss that. Even his catch phrase… OOOH MY! was mild mannered, and you got the impression he really meant “oh my,” and wouldn’t have said anything stronger on TV or not.
He’s also one of the few big-time folks who didn’t disappoint me upon meeting him. What you saw was what you got. He was more interested in my having worked with Van Miller than whatever I was asking about.
We’re opening up the Buffalo Stories audio archive vault in search of Christmas memories today.
Up first are two selections from the John Otto collection. These recordings were found in Otto’s personal files. The first is a series of Christmas stories told by listeners during the Christmas season in 1986.
The stories are great, and of course, listening to John listen to the stories is great as well.
These all come from Otto’s short-lived Nightcall program on WWKB radio. He returned to WGR the following year.
The second Otto selection is a WGR Production from 1963. This radio play has John Otto as “Live in Bethlehem,” and covers the birth of Christ as if it were being covered by modern journalistic means. Featured are many voices of WGR in the early 60s.
Another selection is a listener submission, audio as aired on WBEN-TV on December 24, 1955, featuring the Sylvania Choraliers.
Jonathan Kinney writes:
My grandfather, Edmund Koval, graduated Penn State as an Electrical Engineer, did a stint in the Navy at the end of WWII. My grandparents moved to The Town of Tonawanda from Franklinville in 1955 when they built their new house in the suburbs.
He got a job as an electrical engineer at Sylvania. The chorus rehearsed at the Wood & Brooks Building on Kenmore Ave near Ontario-had the big ivory tusks on it. (See that Riverside landmark here.) He was always very proud of this recording, and he’d play it for me as a child near the holiday season.
Here are a few selected highlights from the audio only recording from Channel 4:
Other sights and sounds of Buffalo Christmases past from Buffalo Stories:
It’s tough to imagine Buffalo without Jim Kelly… but if he would have had it his way at the beginning of his professional career, he never would have become a Buffalo Bill.
Today, two decades after taking his last snap, Kelly remains one of Buffalo’s most beloved personalities and one of Western New York’s biggest backers.
He was one of us in the pocket. His on-field grit reflects what we hope we see in ourselves individually and as a community.
Our admiration for him was forged as we watched him blow into his hands in Rich Stadium cold– and seemed to enjoy it.
Kelly and those great Bills teams embraced the cold and the snow and made it a part of their physical and mental advantage over the rest of the AFC during the greatest ride Buffalo sports fans have ever known.
Fresh out of college, though, Kelly had another path to greatness planned. It was lined with palm trees and beautiful people, not snowbanks and Zubaz.
It took a couple of turns in the road to get him here.
Jim Kelly was drafted by the Bills out of Miami three years before he made Rich Stadium his home.
There were plenty of very good quarterbacks available in the 1983 NFL Entry Draft. Three of them, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, and John Elway, are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“My agent looked at me after Elway got picked and the problem that arose from it and he said, ‘Hey Jim, is there anywhere that you don’t want to play?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t want to play for the Minnesota Vikings. I don’t want to play for the Green Bay Packers and I don’t want to play for the Buffalo Bills.’”
-Jim Kelly to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010
The Bills picked Notre Dame tight end Tony Hunter with the 12th pick. Watching on TV in his parents’ living room, Kelly celebrated not being picked by Buffalo.
“I remember jumping up out of my seat and I hit my mother who was sitting on the right arm of the recliner and I knocked her right off the chair. I felt so bad, I quick picked her up off the floor and I’m apologizing, ‘Sorry mom I’m just glad I’m not going to play for Buffalo.’”
-Jim Kelly to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010
But the Bills also had the 14th pick in the first round. With that pick, they took the Miami quarterback.
“I couldn’t believe it. Within minutes the phone calls came and with me being politically correct I was saying how excited I was to be a Buffalo Bill. And when I hung up I said, ‘We need to call the USFL and see what other options we have.’”
-Jim Kelly to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010
One of those immediate conversations was with WBEN Radio’s Stan Barron. You can listen to that conversation below.
The polite young quarterback impressed one of the old salts of Buffalo sports by saying all the right things, though his heart clearly wasn’t in it– because he had an alternative.
The United States Football League was founded in 1982. The original idea was to capitalize on the country’s growing love of professional football by playing games in the spring and summer during the NFL’s off-season. The league wasn’t going head-to-head with games, but they were going head-to-head in trying to sign talent.
Kelly’s agents worked out a deal with the Bills, and then took two weeks to meet with USFL teams. Bills interim General Manager Pat McGroder was unabashedly optimistic.
“They (Kelly’s agents) said we’ve got a hell of a chance of getting him,” McGroder told reporters as USFL brass wined and dined Kelly and crew.
The Bills were taken by surprise when Larry Felser wrote in The Buffalo News that Kelly would sign with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers “for an enormous sum of money.”
“There are risks in doing what I’m doing, but I made up my mind,” Kelly said. “Everybody has to take a risk once in his life. But I’m happy I did it and I won’t regret it.”
The folks at One Bills Drive were upset that the team was never given a chance to meet or beat the offer from the upstart league.
“We considered three different offers that they threw at us, and they were very happy with the offer we made to them,” McGroder told reporters after Kelly signed the five-year, $3.5 million deal . “I want the fans to know it was not the Buffalo Bills who let them down.”
“It was very cold in Buffalo.”
-Jim Kelly to reporters in Houston
When he signed, Kelly told reporters in Houston that he was never pleased with what the Bills were offering and that part of his decision to join the Gamblers was that he liked the people in their organization better than he did those with the Bills.
When Kelly’s signing was announced in Houston, his agent, Greg Lustig said, “There were several reasons not to sign with Buffalo. For one, it’s one of the most depressed areas in America. The opportunities just aren’t there. I understand Joe Cribbs made under $500 in personal appearances there in the last three years.”
Associated Press, June 11, 1983
The Bills moved on, but the woeful play of the quarterbacks on the roster and a pair of 2-14 seasons in 1984 and 1985 meant Kelly was never far from the thoughts of anyone connected with the Bills.
Joe Ferguson played quarterback for the Bills in 1983, and part of 1984, until Joe Dufek took the starting job. Bruce Mathison was on the roster at quarterback, too. The Bills also brought in veteran Vince Ferragamo in 1985. The day Ferragamo became a Bill, he was asked about Kelly.
“I think you definitely look at that with suspicion,” Ferragamo said of the possibility of Kelly coming to the Bills. “There’s nothing concrete behind that and your approach to the game can’t be decided on the fact of what happens a year from now.”
The Bills thought of Kelly with hope, but Kelly’s thoughts of Buffalo weren’t happy ones.
“There are a lot of off-the-field endorsements I can get here (in Houston) that I couldn’t get in Buffalo. Plus I could come right in and play and make a name for myself and not have to sit behind Joe Ferguson for three years playing in the snow in Buffalo.”
Jim Kelly, a year into his USFL contract, 1984
Kelly was enjoying his time in Houston– setting league passing records and driving a brand new Corvette every few weeks in a deal with a local Chevy dealer– but the future of the upstart USFL was becoming cloudy.
So with a murky prognosis for the league and the team that Kelly played for, the quarterback’s stance softened somewhat, saying that while the Bills weren’t his top choice of NFL teams, he’d “play for them if necessary and give his best.”
It still wasn’t a homerun. As late as February, 1986, Kelly was still openly hostile to playing in Buffalo.
And month before signing with the Bills, Sports Illustrated started a feature article on the Houston Gamblers quarterback with “Jim Kelly, the best quarterback nobody has ever seen play…”
The article went on to describe the close knit Kelly clan that Buffalonians of the ’80s and ’90s remember well– the quarterback’s parents and brothers who eventually seemed to fit right in here despite their Pennsylvania accents.
During the summer of 1986, the USFL was embroiled in lawsuits and court cases. Play was suspended for the league, and on paper, Kelly’s Houston Gamblers had merged with the Donald Trump-owned, Doug Flutie-quarterbacked New Jersey Generals.
The future was up in the air. USFL team mergers could have been haulted. The USFL could have been forced to fold. The USFL could have merged with the NFL.
Kelly talked about all of these possibilities in SI. It didn’t leave Bills fans hopeful.
”I’d like to play for the Raiders. I’d like to live in California,” Kelly says. ”But what I’d really like to do is play for the New Jersey Generals and Donald Trump and merge with the NFL and take the run-and-shoot with Herschel Walker in the backfield and just kick ass.”
Kelly himself says he might play for the Bills if the USFL folds, if they pay him a lot, or he might sit out the 1986 season and become a free agent next year and go where he pleases for a trillion dollars. ”Buffalo needs more than me, more than a quarterback,” he says. ”I’d get the tar beat out of me, and it would shorten my career.”
-Sports Illustrated, July 21, 1986
About a month after the article hit mailboxes in Western New York and around the country, Jim Kelly was a Buffalo Bill and the NFL’s highest paid player.
“I’m being paid to play football, and that’s what I want to do,” Kelly told the Associated Press as the USFL stalemate seemed indefinite during the summer of 1986. Kelly and the Bills started the wheels in motion to make that happen.
In mid-August, Bills General Manager Bill Polian received written permission from Donald Trump– whose team owned Kelly’s rights in the USFL– to negotiate a deal with the quarterback. Kelly sat with Ralph Wilson in a suite during the Bills first preseason game against the Oilers in Houston.
In the following days, Kelly signed a five-year, $8 million contract. The approximately $1.5 million per year pushed Kelly’s salary past Joe Montana’s $1.3 million, making the new Bills quarterback the NFL’s richest player.
“What we’re really interested in is rebuilding this franchise to respectability,” Bills owner Ralph Wilson said at the time of the signing. But it was bigger than that for Buffalo.
Jim Kelly’s deciding join the Bills might have been Buffalo’s biggest event of the 1980s. It was a Buffalo prodigal son story if there ever was one. Jim Kelly spent three years sniping at Buffalo and taking shots at our weather– but a switch was flipped when he climbed off a private plane into a limousine and got a police escort down the 33– with fans waving and cheering at overpasses– to sign the contract that would make him not just a million-dollar arm, but our million dollar arm.
Kelly took a break from signing autographs in the lobby of a downtown hotel to officially sign that contract in a spot only blocks from where a billboard sponsored by Bethlehem Steel employees famously asked “the last person leaving Buffalo to turn out the light.”
It hadn’t even been ten years since that billboard had come and gone, but things had grown worse. The steel plant had closed and the Bills had just played two 2-14 seasons in a row.
It was bleak being a Buffalonian.
The signing definitely made Buffalonians hold their heads a little higher. Bills General Manager Bill Polian spelled it out at that first press conference.
“The fact that Jim is sitting here to my left is an enduring monument to Ralph Wilson’s commitment to building a winner for the city of Buffalo,” said Polian.
Jimbo’s arrival rekindled an almost extinguished sense of civic pride and brought a measure of hometown hope to Buffalo, and the feeling is mutual. Kelly has called signing with the Bills “the best decision of his life.”
Three decades removed, its tough to imagine what Buffalo would have been without his presence.
We Buffalonians don’t bowl anywhere near as much as we used to, but just like we still consider ourselves a blue-collar town (even though most of the blue-collar jobs have been gone for decades) we still sentimentally feel a link to the game our parents and grandparents enjoyed over pitchers of beer in leagues all across the city.
While for many bowling was a game that was as much about smoking and drinking and socializing as it was about rolling a ball down the lane, it was also serious business in Buffalo.
There was a time when Channels 2, 4, and 7 all aired local bowling shows– and Channel 4 had two shows– “Beat The Champ” with men bowlers and “Strikes, Spares, and Misses” with lady bowlers. WBEN-TV’s Chuck Healy was in homes six days a week for two decades as Buffalo’s bowling emcee as host of those programs. This 1971 ad describes “Strikes, Spares, and Misses,” which aired daily at 7:30pm, as “Buffalo’s most popular show.”
When local TV bowling was at its zenith in the 1950s, even radio stations promoted their coverage of the sport. Ed Little, who spent 62 years working in radio, most of them in his hometown of Buffalo, read the bowling scores on WEBR Radio before he took the drive down Main Street to host live broadcasts with the stars performing at the Town Casino.
Buffalo’s best bowlers became celebrities– well known from their exploits as televised. Nin Angelo, Allie Brandt, Phyllis Notaro, and scores of others became some of Buffalo’s best known athletes.
Sixty years later, families still beam with pride when relating the stories of their family’s greatest athletes, even when an elder has to explain most of the fuzzy details. All-American Bowler Vic Hermann’s family still proudly talks about the day Vic rolled the first 300 game in the history of “Beat the Champ.”
We live in an era where we’re watching the numbers of Western New York bowlers and bowling alleys dwindle rapidly. But five or six decades ago, it wasn’t just bowling alleys that were plentiful: The sports pages of The Buffalo Evening News and Courier-Express were regularly filled with ads for the all the accouterments of bowling.
Bowling was big, and judging by the pages of the city’s newspapers, there was big money to be made as well. The run up to league time in 1960 saw no fewer than five decent-sized ads for custom bowling shirts…. because it wasn’t just about your score, it was about looking good at the social event of the week at your neighborhood bowling alley.
WEBR’s “Amanda” interviews an AM&A’s buyer on her midday shopping and fashion tips show at the WEBR-970 studios, 23 North Street, in 1951.
“Amanda” was actually Dorothy Shank, president of the local chapter of American Women in Radio & Television. She later worked in marketing for AM&A’s, had a show on Channel 4, and was a host on WJJL in Niagara Falls through the 1980s. She was 81 when she died in 1989.
But my favorite part of this photo: in the middle, just to the left of the phone, Buffalo’s 1950’s equivalent of a Tim Horton’s cup– a glass “to go” coffee cup/milk bottle from Buffalo’s ubiquitous Deco Restaurants (there were more than 50 Deco locations around WNY when they were most popular.)
I was interviewed by The Buffalo News Editorial Board today. It’s difficult to know what to expect walking into such a meeting–so it was great to see two of my great friends and mentors staring at me from the wall behind the six questioners.
Two amazing writers, amazing men, amazing Buffalonians. Renaissance men who wrote about sports but wrote about community and life.
I learned so much from Larry Felser and Jim Kelley– and several times have wished to have their counsel as this race has gone on, and here they are–unexpected and unexpectedly together– on a day where I probably would have called for advice, chitchat, and some idea of what to expect.
Brilliant guys both. Both looking at me from photos on the wall of The News and from the heavens today… the same way they used to look at me through the glass in our radio days together.
In the chaos and uncertainty of a political campaign, unexpected moments of reflection and reminders of the incredible people who’ve helped put me where I am in life are spirtually gratifying and calming.
Longtime Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark was exactly the man he appeared to be in the quick soundbites you saw on TV or heard on the radio.
Like most who’ve held the title “District Attorney,” Frank Clark had an insatiable passion for justice and very little time for those who tried to side-step it.
The difference with Frank Clark was the way he expressed that passion. His style displayed the grit forged as former Marine prosecutor, but also the humanity and humor of a man who clearly loved people and loved his job.
When he retired from the DA’s office, I spent a day or two combing through WBEN’s archives to put together a couple stories that were emblematic of Frank’s style and also my appreciation for him– covering him and his office was one of my great joys in 20 years of broadcast journalism.
These stories won an Associated Press Award for Best Feature in 2009, and I’ve never been any more proud of an award. Frank loved it too– which made it one of my favorite stories, ever.
This is Frank Clark at his finest– making a point and turning a phrase. After he retired from the DA’s office for health reasons, he remained a valuable legal resource for us at WBEN, and it was clear that he loved talking to us nearly as much. He loved getting worked up during a phone interview– which were often done while he was undergoing dialysis.
Brilliant, never plain in his plain-spokenness, a genuine good guy.