Wrestling from Memorial Auditorium

       By Steve Cichon

Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 

Starting in 1949, Friday night meant Ralph Hubbell, Chuck Healy, and TVs tuned to live wrestling from Memorial Auditorium—with the action and antics of folks like Gorgeous George, Ilio DiPaolo, Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer, Coco Brazil, and the Gallagher Brothers and dozens of others.

During pre- and post-match interviews, the athletic Healy would often find himself somehow entangled with the wrestlers he was trying to interview— handling the headlocks from “bad guys” with the grace of a professional broadcaster.

There’s little question—especially in Buffalo, wrestling helped make TV and vice-versa in those early years.

In 1951, Ed Don George was promoting wresting in 30 cities, including Buffalo. “Let them try to besmirch the wrestling profession as much as they’d like,” said Ed Don, “But what other form of sporting entertainment gives as much to the fans as wrestling?”

He was proud of wrestling’s showmanship, which had blossomed since he had been the world’s heavyweight champ 20 years earlier. “Sure, there is showmanship in wrestling. We try to dress up our business just like the downtown merchant decorates his shop windows to attract customers.”

Wrestling with Ralph Hubbell & Chuck Healy

Wrestling, of course, goes way back in Buffalo. Crowds sold out Friday night matches through the 30s, 40s, and 50s; first at the old Broadway Auditorium (now “The Broadway Barns” and the home of Buffalo’s snowplows) and then Memorial Auditorium when it opened in 1940.

“This was a shirt and tie crowd,” said the late Buffalo News Sports Editor Larry Felser, who remembered when Wrestling at the Aud was one of the biggest events in Buffalo.

“Not that many people had TV sets back then,” remembered Felser in 2001. “People were crowding into Sears and appliance stores to try to see this thing on TV, because the place was sold out.”

And with all those big crowds, there was no wrestler who could draw them in like Gorgeous George.

Gorgeous George

“When Gorgeous George would wrestle, they’d pack the Auditorium for this guy,” said Felser.

“The Human Orchid,” as George was known, was the first modern wrestler, said retired Channel 7 sports director Rick Azar, saying he “changed the face of professional wrestling forever.”

As someone who called himself “Hollywood’s perfumed and marcelled wrestling orchid,” it’s clear that George knew how to make sure he set himself apart.

“He had an atomizer, and he’d walk around the ring with perfume, supposedly fumigating his opponent’s corners,” said Felser, who also remembered George’s flair for marketing outside the ring.

“His valet drove him around in an open convertible around Lafayette Square, and he’s got a wad of one-dollar bills, and he was throwing money to people. It was a show stopper. He landed on page one. TV was just in its infancy then, but they were all over it. It was like World War III. That’s how big a story it was.”

Gorgeous George is credited with ushering in the Bad Boy era of sports– and even inspired Muhammad Ali, who told a British interviewer, “he was telling people, ‘I am the prettiest wrestler, I am great. Look at my beautiful blond hair.’ I said, this is a good idea, and right away, I started saying, ‘I am the greatest!’”

Wrestling was cheap, flashy and easy to televise — and Gorgeous George was the performer that people loved to hate. It was said that in TV’s earliest years, Gorgeous George’s appearance on TV sold as many televisions as Milton Berle’s.

Another of TV’s favorite early sports was bowling. Chuck Healy was the host of “Beat the Champ” through the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Nin Angelo and Allie Brandt would become among Buffalo’s most popular athletes because of their feats of bowling prowess on the show. All-American Bowler Vic Hermann’s family still proudly talks about the day Vic rolled the first 300 game in the history of the show.

Chuck Healy also hosted “Strikes, Spares, and Misses,” Buffalo’s show for lady bowlers. Phyllis Notaro was just as popular as any of her male counterparts as one of the program’s great champions. Her family ran Angola’s Main Bowling Academy, and from there, she became one of the country’s top amateur bowlers and a US Open champ in 1961.

The WBEN sports team included Chuck Healy, Dick Rifenburg, Ralph Hubbell, and Don Cunningham.

This page is an excerpt from  100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon

The full text of the book is now online.

The original 436-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York. 

©2020, 2021 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon

Buffalo in the ’40s: Advances in WNY helped usher in modern era of bowling

       By Steve Cichon

Just after World War II ended, American Machine and Foundry moved into the former Walden Avenue plant of the Buffalo Arms Company, just east of Harlem in Cheektowaga.

AMF Automatic pinspotter, manufactured in Cheektowaga

Almost immediately, workers there began churning out a device that would allow bowling to become one of the great American pastimes of the postwar era.

AMF had been petitioning the American Bowling Congress to give approval to its automatic pinsetter, and that thumbs up came only weeks before the annual tournament, held in 1946 at Buffalo’s Connecticut Street Armory.

Bowling on Buffalo’s West Side

At a small garage across the street from the armory — now the site of a 7-Eleven store — AMF set up the first public display of the “most revolutionary piece of equipment in the fastest growing of all participant sports.”

The mechanized pinsetter and ball return eliminated the jobs of thousands of boys around the country who acted as pinsetters, but also allowed for the popular sport to be played 24 hours a day.

“Operating as rapidly as the bowler wishes, it automatically runs the gamut of bowling services setting up the pins, returning the ball to the player, and sweeping the alley of fallen pins,” read a press release that was reprinted on sports pages around the country.

The equipment still wasn’t practical for mass production, but four lanes were installed in a Depew bowling alley in 1947 to begin working out the kinks. In 1952, Amherst Lanes was one of the first two bowling alleys in the country to have the final production model pinsetters installed.

By 1953, AMF’s Cheektowaga plant was cranking out 100 automatic pinsetter units every month. Three years later, there were more than 9,000 machines in use around the country.

The automated pinsetting devices that were first unveiled to the public in that West Side garage in 1946 and then produced on Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga catapulted bowling into the national phenomenon it was for several generations, making it a billion-dollar industry when the pinsetter turned 25 years old in 1971.

Bowling lessons from legendary champ Phyllis Notaro

       By Steve Cichon

Forty years ago this week, one of professional bowling’s great all-time champions was at Hamburg’s Airways Leisureland on Camp Rd. offering free lessons.

During her childhood growing up in Brant, Phyllis Notaro’s family opened “Main Bowling Academy” bowling lanes in Angola. From there, through the ‘40s and ‘50s, she became one of the country’s top amateur bowlers, going pro in 1958. She won the tournament known known as The US Open in 1961, and in 1963, she bowled a 300 tournament game.

Known for having ice water in her veins and an unequalled ability to concentrate on nothing but the pins in front of her, Notaro’s concentration and confidence were complimented by her graceful delivery and smooth finish.

A member of the National Bowling Hall of Fame and the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, Notaro also wrote a series of articles published in dozens of newspapers around the country giving aspiring bowlers easy-to-follow tips for better scores.

If improving your bowling game was on your to-do list 40 years ago this week, and you weren’t at Airways Leisureland, you missed a great opportunity.

Buffalo in the ’60s: Bowling was a big business in Buffalo

By Steve Cichon

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.

Sattler’s and bowling– two entities that made Buffalo great in the 1950s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Buffalo Stories archives

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.

WEBR’s Ed Little with bowling highlights weeknights at 6:30. (Buffalo Stories archives)

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.”

A Courier-Express photo illustration bringing together many of Buffalo’s great bowlers of the late 1950s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

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.

Bowling shirts from Al Dekdebrun, who became famous in Buffalo as a quarterback for the Buffalo Bills of the All-America Football Conference of the 1940s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Laux Sporting Goods sold bowling shirts from their original location at 441 Broadway on Buffalo’s East Side. (Buffalo Stories archives)

One of Buffalo’s biggest sellers of custom bowling balls was on the city’s West Side at Buffalo Rubber & Supply, Niagara Street at Pennsylvania. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Buffalo in the 60’s: Big business in bowling shirts

By Steve Cichon

We Buffalonians don’t bowl anywhere near as much as we used to. Even though most of our blue-collar jobs have been gone for decades,  we still consider ourselves a blue-collar town, and we still sentimentally feel a link to the blue collar game our parents and grandparents played.

Bowling was a game that was as much about smoking and drinking and socializing as it was about rolling a ball down the lane.

As we watch bowling alleys regularly close around the region, it’s fun to look back to a time 55 years ago, when it wasn’t just bowling alleys that were plentiful: On August 28, 1960, the pages of The News had no fewer than five decent-sized ads for custom bowling shirts.

17 aug 1960 nat nast bowling shorts at Laux

23 aug 1960 Bowling shirt Buffalo rubber supply

23 aug 1960 bowling shorts dekdebruns