Buffalo’s Last Staff Organist, Norm Wullen

       By Steve Cichon

Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 

His lasting fame might be as the Memorial Auditorium organist for the Sabres and the Braves, but that was Norm Wullen’s retirement job– after spending decades as one of Buffalo’s highest profile radio and TV organ and piano men.

Norm Wullen plays as the show goes on, on Ch.4

He grew up on Buffalo’s East Side as the son of a piano tuner. His music career started just after World War I  at the age of 15, behind a drum kit on the Crystal Beach boat. He soon moved on to piano, playing over the silent movies at the old Shea’s Court Street Theater. From there, he could be heard as the organ backdrop for the vaudeville circuit at the 20th Century and Shea’s Hippodrome theaters, appearing through the years with Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, George Burns, Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen.

Teamed with his brother Charley, he gained his first radio plaudits on WBEN in 1934. “The Wullen Brothers” act was a dueling piano team.

Norm replaced Bobby Nicholson as WBEN’s staff organist in the 1940s, and was constantly heard on WBEN and seen on Ch.4. On TV, he accompanied Rollie Huff, and later Dick Rifenburg, as they did their morning exercises.

On the radio he was a fixture on the live midday “breakfast” shows that broadcast live from the restaurants and tea rooms of department stores and hotels like the Yankee Doodle Room at AM&A’s, the Turf Room at the Sheraton, and the Grover Cleveland Room at the Statler.

Dick Rifenburg, John Corbett, & Norm Wullen

By the end of the 1950s, Norm and staff musicians at all the local radio and TV stations were being squeezed out by a change in musical taste, but while he was still playing, Wullen took his task of “setting the mood” for housewives during their morning coffee break very seriously.

“I deplore rock ‘n’ roll,” said Wullen in 1957, “not because it’s riding a crest of popularity, but because it lacks any real melody.”

The News called Wullen “the flower of WBEN’s Musical world,” even as Top 40 began to take a strangle hold of Buffalo radio.

“Radio listeners dialing about in search of good music these weekday mornings have been finding their quest satisfied by nothing more tried-and-true than harmonious organ music,” said Wullen.

Even as times changed, Wullen and crew evolved. A little, anyway.

Like the time in 1962, toward the end of the Breakfast Show’s run that host John Corbett called out for “a little Twist music.”

Wullen was ready. It wasn’t Chubby Checker, but Norm’s musical meanderings fit the bill, “bouncing out pleasant notes,” if not a Twist.

Along with fellow radio pioneer Elvera Ruppel, Norm Wullen was also a Buffalo television pioneer, playing piano and accompanying the soprano on the “Miss Melody” show, Thursdays through the late 40s and early 50s on WBEN-TV. 

Elvera Ruppel and Norm Wullen on Ch.4 in the early 1950s.

Ruppel sang at Shea’s Buffalo with the BPO, with those concerts frequently sent out around the country on the various radio networks. She was a regular star of the musical programs with pianist Al Erisman on WMAK Radio through the 1920s, and as a favorite of WGR musical director David Cheskin, her voice was heard frequently on Buffalo radio through the 30s and 40s as well.

Her most critically acclaimed moments in the spotlight came when she was half of “Buffalo’s Radio Sweetheart” team, as partnered with Smiling Bob Smith—later of Howdy Doody fame—on WGR.

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