The soft-edged memories of AM&A’s Christmas Windows

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Like so many of our great cultural traditions in Buffalo, trying to pin down the concise history of our collective amber-hued fuzzy memories of Downtown Christmas shopping is difficult and can even get combative.

AM&As Christmas windows, 1980s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

For many of us, all those warm recollections seem to get lumped into a generic category of “AM&A’s Christmas windows,” and to imply anything else is often met with side eye looks, and sometimes with outright hostility.

Looking south from Lafayette Square on Main Street in the 1950s. All the stores to the right in this photo were torn down to make way for the Main Place Mall in the mid-60s. To the right is the home of JN Adam & Co, which would become the home of AM&A’s in 1960. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Through the decades, some stores moved, some changed names, all eventually closed. Taking the fuzz off memories and bringing them into focus with the actual names and dates can be dangerous business, but that’s the dangerous business we’re in. So here we go.

AM&As on a snowy day in the late 1960s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The tradition of decorating downtown stores for Christmas dates back before anyone reading this can remember. Downtown’s department stores were fully decorated, for example,  for Christmas 1910.

Click this 1910 image of AM&A’s at Christmas time to see about a dozen 1910 department stores decorated for Christmas… along with what those places along Main Street downtown look like today. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Since those stores—some with familiar names—decorated their windows more than a century ago, plenty has changed along Buffalo’s Main Street, especially in the areas where generations did their Christmas shopping.

The most tumultuous change came between 1965 and 1985, the time when most of our memories were forged and influenced. The buildings we shopped in for decades came down, new buildings were put in their place, and traffic was shut down with a train installed in place of the cars.

The Wm. Hengerer Co., 1960s Christmas time (Buffalo Stories archives)

The one constant through all of that, our collective memory tells us, is those wonderful AM&A’s windows.

AM&A’s is one of the few traditional Buffalo retail giants which survived into the Metro Rail age on Main Street. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Adam, Meldrum, and Anderson was a Buffalo institution between 1869 and 1994, when the Adam family sold the chain to Bon-Ton. That being the case, for as long as anyone can remember, people off all ages would line up along the east side of Main Street, looking in those big AM&A’s windows, before going inside and taking the escalators up to AM&A’s Toyland starring Santa himself.

Well, here’s where the hostility sometimes comes in.

If you remember looking at windows in that spot before 1960—you weren’t looking at AM&A’s windows, you were looking at the windows of JN Adam & Co.

What, what?

For more than 90 years, AM&A’s was located directly across Main Street from the location where the store’s flagship downtown location was for the final 34 years of the chain’s existence.

The home of AM&A’s for 90 years was directly across Main Street from the AM&A’s store we remember from 1960-1994. This original AM&A’s home was torn down as a part of the Main Place Mall project. (Buffalo Stories archives)

JN’s closed up in 1959, so AM&A’s moved into the larger, newer building. Soon thereafter, the original AM&A’s was torn down to make way for the Main Place Mall.

JN Adam’s in the late 1950s, with Woolworth’s to the left, and Bond Menswear , Thom McAn, and the Palace Burlesk to the south (on the right.) From Bond south were torn down to make room for the M&T Headquarters and green space. AM&A’s made this JN Adam store its flagship store in 1960. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Adding to confusion is the similar name of the two stores. JN Adam and Robert Adam—the Adam of Adam, Meldrum & Anderson—were Scottish-born brothers who founded department stores which would eventually compete with each other across Main Street from each other.

 

Both stores also took their window decorating—especially Christmas window decorating seriously. But so did all the Main Street Department stores. On the same block as JN’s and AM&A’s, Kobacher’s, which had a location in a spot now occupied by the Main Place Mall, had a memorable giant animated, talking Santa in its window. Hengerer’s, a bit further north, always had well decorated windows.

“Kobacher’s each Christmas propped a huge, stuffed Santa Claus in its front window. This Santa rocked and bellowed a half-witted laugh that throbbed up Main Street. The puppet’s eyes rolled, and shoppers smiled grimly because the general effect was a little spooky,” wrote the late Buffalo storyteller and pop culture historian George Kunz in 1991.

Still, AM&A’s and JN’s made the spot just south of Lafayette Square the epicenter of Christmas décor in Buffalo. As early as 1949, JN Adam was promoting “animated Christmas windows.”

JN Adam, 1949 ad. (Buffalo Stories archives)

AM&A’s decorating team, eventually headed by Joseph Nelson, started adding animated displays as well, although it wasn’t until the 1960s—after AM&A’s moved into JN Adam’s old space—that AM&A’s made the presence of the windows a part of their Christmas advertising.

AM&A’s animatronic window displays were a beloved part of Buffalo Christmases for generations. Click to read more about AM&A’s 1970 holiday display. (Buffalo Stories archives)

It’s tough to tell even if the “AM&A’s window displays” which have popped up around Western New York over the last couple of decades were originally created for and by AM&A’s. AM&A’s took over not only JN’s building, but also many of its traditions, and quite possibility the actual displays and accoutrements of those traditions.

Another JN Adam yuletide tradition which also became an AM&A’s tradition after the move was the full-floor Toyland.

Click to read the toys available at JN’s Toyland in 1945. (Buffalo Stories archives)
AM&A’s was advertising the Toyland idea in 1967. Click to see the toys being advertised. (Buffalo Stories archive)

All this is to say, if you walked down Main Street in mid-December 1955, the magic and wonder you were filled with was only partially Adam, Meldrum, and Anderson-inspired.

In this 1954 ad, these AM&A’s shoppers were NOT heading to the exact place you remember as AM&A’s. Buffalo Stories archives)

But AM&A’s was the survivor—which is why we remember.  But just keep in mind– it’s very likely that 1955 window you remember was a JN Adam’s window.

Buffalo Stories archives

But no matter which store displayed these windows when, they have always been a universally beloved Buffalo institution, right?

a 1930’s Kleinhans Mens Shop Christmas window. Kleinhans was around the corner from JN Adam/AM&A’s, facing Lafayette Square. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Well, once again… not exactly. As traditional Main Street retailing was gasping its last breaths in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Christmas windows were often derided as a part of the larger problem—rehashing the same ideas instead of trying to appeal to a new generation. The dated, tired animatronic scenes seemed out of place and woefully out of date in the Nintendo age.

There were fewer kids and more nostalgic adults looking at the windows in the 80s and 90s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

When this snarky review of AM&A’s holiday decorating efforts appeared in The Buffalo News in 1993, the writer probably didn’t realize he was looking at the penultimate effort of a nearly-dead Buffalo institution.

In the AM & A’s window downtown, the same (manger scene) figures are placed in front of a set of free-standing Baroque pillars, all marbleized in green and gold. Lofty, that. If Gianlorenzo Bernini were around today, that’s what he’d be doing for a living: AM & A’s window displays…

A mid-80s AM&A’s manger scene. (Buffalo Stories archives)

(And) at AM & A’s downtown, the other holiday windows display a charming mixture of images, though if any community actually tried to build like this, folks would be petitioning for a design review board before the developers knew what hit them: New England covered bridge here, rough-hewn alpine furnishings there. One window features a frilly pink Victorian cottage that looks as if it could have been plucked off a side street in Allentown.

Since AM&A’s flagship downtown store was closed shortly after selling to Bon-Ton in 1995, the legend of the window displays—and the actual displays themselves—have spread far and wide.

AM&A’s was sold to Bon-Ton following the death of Robert Adam, the grandson of the store’s founder, in 1993. Adam was the President or CEO of the department store which bore his name for 44 years. (Buffalo Stories archives)

In the mid-90s, Buffalo Place refurbished and displayed the most-recently-used scenes along Main Street. Some of those, along with older scenes as well, have appeared around Western New York in holiday displays in the Village of Lancaster and in Niagara Falls, as well as around Rotary Rink near Main and Chippewa.

The actual displays are interesting, but seeing them out of context—or even worse, trying to pry an iPad out of the hand of a toddler so she can appreciate them—seems to miss a bit of the point.

Mesmerized by AM&A’s windows in 1967. (Buffalo Stories archives)

A Victorian man carving a turkey or a big white bear handing another bear a present isn’t what make those memories so wonderful—it’s the way the memory swells your heart.

Here’s to whatever makes your heart swell this Christmas season.

Christmas Shopping in Buffalo 1910

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

These photos appeared in the Buffalo Courier Sunday Magazine, New Year’s Day 1911.  The quality of the images isn’t good enough to see what is in those window displays, but they still represent a great look at the retail scene on Main Street downtown more than 100 years ago.

Where possible, the 1910 images are presented with Google images of the current look of the same space.

AM&A’s original location was directly across Main Street from it’s best-remembered 1960-94 location. The building in the photo was demolished to make way for the Main Place Mall. (Buffalo Stories archives)


JN Adam & Co. 391 Main Street. JN’s was at this location until 1960, when the store closed and AM&A’s took over the space. (Buffalo Stories archives)


“Hanan Shoe Company, 464-466 Main Street, opposite Tifft House.” Just north of Court Street on the west side Main. (Buffalo Stories archives)


Walbridge & Co, 392-394 Main Street, now in the footprint of the Main Place Mall. (Buffalo Stories archives)


Flint & Kent, 560 Main Street. The storefront became downtown’s location of The Sample before making way for The Key Towers. (Buffalo Stories archives)


The Wm Hengerer Co- 465 Main Street. (Buffalo Stories archives)


The Wilson Company, 563-565 Main Street. Now in the footprint of the M&T Center, just south of Chippewa. (Buffalo Stories archives)


Weed & Co, 292-298 Main Street, across from the Ellicott Square Building. (Buffalo Stories archives)


The Sweeney Co, 268 Main Street. The building still stands, and is now known as The Sweeney Building. (Buffalo Stories archives)


H.A. Meldrum Company, 460-470 Main Street. Herbert Meldrum was the son of AM&A’s co-founder Alexander Meldrum. (Buffalo Stories archives)


JM Brecker & Company, Genesee & High Sts, burned down on Christmas Day 1910. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Buffalo in the ’40s: Clint Buehlman & Buffalo Bob Smith

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

They were two of Buffalo’s favorite up-and-coming announcers and emcees during the 1930s on the Buffalo Broadcasting Corp.’s WGR Radio.

When The Buffalo Evening News wanted to wrestle away WGR’s top rating for its own station, WBEN, it was Clinton Buehlman (left) and Smilin’ Bob Smith (right) they hired.

Buehly and Smith, along with Johnny Eisenberger (who was later better known as Forgetful the Elf), were lifelong friends who grew up together on Buffalo’s East Side. When they were brought to WBEN from WGR in 1943, Buehlman hosted the early morning show and Smith did mid-mornings.

In between their own programs, they co-hosted “Early Date at Hengerer’s,” live from the downtown department store.

Early Date at Hengerer's, WBEN. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“Early Date” at Hengerer’s, WBEN. (Buffalo Stories archives)

While Buehlman’s pace was fast and his persona was slapstick, Smilin’ Bob was more laidback and homespun. He caught the ear of NBC executives in New York City looking to build a team for the network’s Big Apple flagship station.

Bob Smith, WBEN. Buffalo News archives

Bob Smith, WBEN. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Shortly after Smith left WBEN for the New York’s WEAF Radio in 1946, longtime News and Courier-Express radio critic Jim Trantor wrote:

“Buffalo’s Smilin’ Bob Smith, who’s become one of NBC’s  fair-haired  boys  on the  New York scene … is going great guns at the head of a television show for youngsters down there and looks to have just about the rosiest future imaginable.”

The show, of course, was Howdy Doody, and Smith was destined to become one of the great early stars of television.

Torn-down Tuesday: Seneca Mall and Park Drive-In, 1968

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Here’s a look at the building boom in West Seneca just off Thruway exit 55 in 1968.

Buffalo News archives

This is the 51-acre Seneca Mall site about three months before the first stores opened in the spring of 1969. The 53-store project was one of the largest development projects started in Western New York in 1968.

Among the main tenants of the mall were the William Hengerer Company and JC Penney.

Buffalo Stories archives

Hengerer’s was in the spot to the right in the overhead photo closer to Ridge Road, and Penney’s was on the other end closer to Orchard Park Road.

Across Orchard Park Road and over the bridge was the Blatt Brothers’ Park Drive-In.

Buffalo Stories archive

The Park Drive-In was taken down in 1988 and work began on a $6 million medical park currently on the site. It took several years to tear down the abandoned Seneca Mall, with most of the work done in 1994. Tops Markets and Kmart now fill part of the mall’s footprint. The grass field at the top left of the overhead photo is now the site of Wegmans.

Buffalo in the ’80s: Electronic games from Hengerer’s, Brand Names

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Long before the days of smartphones and tablets, kids from toddlers to teens got their fill of electronic gaming not on iPhones and Kindles, but from Merlin and Simon.

Buffalo News archives

Just before Christmas 1981, Hengerer’s downtown store devoted a special section to electronic games, and it was enough to get News photographers in the door to check out the latest in what every kid wanted under the tree.

Buffalo News archives

If you got one of these games, even if you did scope it out live in the store — you likely circled it in your Brand Names catalog, too, just to make sure Santa knew whether you wanted the Coleco or Mattel hockey game.

Buffalo Stories archive

Buffalo Stories archive

According to these pages from the 1980 Brand Names catalog, most of these games cost between $35 and $50, which according to US Labor Department statistics, would cost between $101 and $144 in 2016 dollars.

Buffalo in the ’30s: Nearly a blizzard on Main Street

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Snow-covered streetcars, buses, cars and pedestrians share the 400 block of Main Street with Hengerer’s, Shea’s Century theater and Buffalo Savings Bank’s gold dome in this shot from 77 years ago.

Buffalo News archives

On Jan. 30, 1939, Buffalo was dealt a surprise 8.5 inches of snow. Two people died as a result of the storm — both as they drudged through the weather on downtown sidewalks. The fact that news accounts mention that the weather event was not an official blizzard, leads one to believe the storm was wicked enough to use the shorthand of “blizzard” whether it strictly fit the meteorological definition or not.

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)

 

Buffalo in the ’80s: Hengerer’s becomes Sibley’s

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It was November 5, 1981, when the sign for the William Hengerer Company was replaced by Sibley’s.

Buffalo News archives

Hengerer’s had been in downtown Buffalo for 105 years when the name was changed. Buffalo’s Hengerer’s and Rochester’s Sibley’s had long been owned by the same parent company.

The downtown store in this photo was closed in 1987, and Sibley’s was eventually merged into Kaufmann’s in 1990. Most remaining Kaufmann’s locations became Macy’s in 2006.

The Golden Age of Buffalo’s Great Retailers

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

BUFFALO, NY  – The outpouring was amazing.

After agreeing to give a lecture at Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery about some of the city’s great retailers of the past, I was deluged with people offering up their memories, and thirsty for the memories of the stores of Buffalo’s grand old stores.

Consider this page a taste of the Golden Age of Buffalo Retailing talk that’s been seen by thousands of Western New Yorkers (and can become a part of your next meeting or event. )

Take a stroll down memory lane, and play some classic jingles while looking over some images of Buffalo’s by-gone retailers.


Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com
Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com