Rocketship 7 & Commander Tom

       By Steve Cichon

Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 

Unquestionably the most popular local kids’ show of the 50s and into the 60s, Uncle Mike’s Playhouse on Ch.4 was Mike Mearian’s lasting legacy on Buffalo media.

The 1956 Sylvania TV Award nominations described Uncle Mike this way:

“Mr. Mearian’s genius as a humorist plus the best available children’s cartoons add up to youthful entertainment fun that is always in the best of taste.”

Uncle Mike’s faithful puppet sidekick, Buttons, was a marionette operated by Ellen Knetchel and voiced by Mearian.

By the time Buttons and Uncle Mike left Buffalo for a Big Apple acting career in 1967, Buffalo rug-rats had already found fun new TV shows created just for them over on Ch.7.

Jay Nelson was a disc jockey on WKBW Radio, but is perhaps best remembered as the host of Ch.7’s Jungle Jay Show.

Jungle Jay Nelson, WKBW-TV

He wore a pith helmet and a leopard print jacket while playing old Tarzan clips when kids got home from school.

The shtick was so popular that even after he left Buffalo for his native Canada to work at CHUM Radio in Toronto, he continued calling himself Jungle Jay, and continued wearing the pith helmet.

The show was just as popular north of the border as it was in Western New York, and the nickname stuck with Nelson for decades.

Sheena Queen of the Jungle (actress Irish McCalla) felt right at home on a promotional visit to Jay Nelson’s Ch.7 show.

Depending on your age, you remember him best as the host of Dialing for Dollars or the host of Rocketship 7.

Mr. Beeper, Dave, and Promo

Dave Thomas spent 16 years at WKBW-TV, starting in the newsroom anchoring newscasts and weather reports. The native of Buffalo’s West Side attended Holy Angels grammar school and Bishop Fallon High School.

His 16-year run on Rocketship 7– one of the most beloved programs in the history of Buffalo television–began on September 10, 1962. Eventually Dave would be joined by the Sweetleys, Mr. Beeper and Promo the Robot.

During the show’s run, there were two different Promo costumes and five different men who played him, including Dialing For Dollars accordion player Johnny Banaszak, who spend many years switching between his Promo and “Johnny and Jimmy” identities between shows.

Dave Thomas—real name Dave Boreanaz—left Buffalo for Philadelphia in 1978, where using the air name Dave Roberts, he was a weather man at WPVI for 31 years.

Both in Buffalo and Philadelphia, Dave was involved with the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, rising to National Vice Chairman.

His son is the actor Dave Boreanaz, who has played in the TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bones, and SEAL Team.

When Dave Thomas wasn’t palling around with Promo the Robot and Mr. Beeper, he was hosting Dialing for Dollars with Nolan Johannes and Liz Dribben.

Rocketship 7 was a must watch for many Buffalo kids through the 60s and 70s, before Dave Thomas blasted off for that new job in Philadelphia in 1978.

This is the second paint job for the original Promo the Robot. A different costume was used in the mid-70s. John Banaszak played Promo during the part of the show’s run. Each day, he quickly shed the clacking Promo suit to grab his accordion and entertain on Dialing for Dollars.

Dave Thomas and Mr. Beeper

Buffalo’s longest running—and most salubrious– kids’ show starred Ch.7’s All-American weatherman Tom Jolls as Commander Tom– who eventually took to TV wearing the bright red jacket of a Canadian Mountie.

He performed with his puppet pals which early on, were mostly made from his kids’ old stuffed animals. Among them as voiced by the Commander himself, were Matty the Mod– a young, energetic, but slight dimwitted alligator; the sensitive and gentle Cecily Fripple, trying to recapture her glorious past; and trusty, faithful Dustmop– watchdog of Central Command, despite of his old age and failing eyesight.

Commander Tom’s first assignment was with Bat Head, as host of “The Superman Show.” Eventually, Bat Head flew back to his cave and it was just Commander Tom.

The last Ch.2 produced show which captured the imagination of the youngest viewers starred weatherman Bob Lawrence as Captain Bob. He did local cut-ins during a string of wildly different programs.

Not too long after the station signed on, he was the local host of an NBC cartoon called Colonel Bleep. After that show was canceled, he entertained kids during Ch.2’s playback of old 1930s Three Stooges shorts.

Captain Bob also hosted the local presentation of The Mickey Mouse Club afternoons in the late 50s and early 60s.

Although hostess “Miss Joan” made frequent personal appearances at Buffalo-area toy stores, the Romper Room program that was broadcast on WGR-TV in the late 60s was a national version of the show, aired on dozens of stations around the country.

Puppeteer Jim Menke worked on Ch.2’s Captain Bob Show as well as on WNED-TV’s “Mr. Whatnot” and “Barnaby & Co.” programs.

All through the 60s from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Ch.4 created holiday excitement with Bill Peters as Santa, Johnny Eisenberger as Forgetful the Elf, and Warren Jacober as Freezy the Polar Bear.

J. Michael Collins and Vince Saele host a WNED-TV pledge drive in the late 1960s.

Sister Mary Margaretta, Superior of St. Nicholas School, was a regular guest on Ch.4’s “The Bishop Visits Your Home.”

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,, and Steve Cichon

Public Broadcasting comes to Buffalo

       By Steve Cichon

Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 

When the National Broadcasting Company gave up on its Buffalo UHF experiment and pulled the plug on WBUF-TV Ch.17, they sold off all the station’s assets but one—the license.

NBC donated the license to broadcast on Ch.17 to the Western New York Educational Television Association, which signed on WNED-TV on March 30, 1959 as New York State’s only public television station.

WNED-TV —which stands for Western New York Educational TV—began broadcasting with, what one station official described as “mismatched hand-me-down equipment held together by hope, dumb luck, and quite literally, masking tape… The ‘technical difficulties’ slide should have read ‘financial difficulties.’”

The station’s camera blew-out 30 seconds into the first broadcast.

A young John Zach operates a WNED-TV camera. Zach would go on to a career in radio news at WKBW, WGR, and WBEN that would span more than five decades.

Still, “The cultural appeal of the station was immediate,” reported Sturgis Hedrick in The News, as Buffalo’s Martha Graham Dancers were the first performers featured on the station.

It was touch and go for the first few years, with threats of programming cuts and layoffs of the already barebones staff, but over the station’s first decade on the air, WNED-TV saw “increased public support, state support and the greater recognition of public television’s role by the federal government.”

Starting in the old cinderblock building behind what is the Ch.4 studio today– WNED-TV moved to the penthouse of the Lafayette Hotel by the end of 1959.

Six local colleges joined with the station to create programming that would allow students to gain college credit through lessons learned on what could hardly be called “the boob tube” when tuned to Ch.17.

Board Chairman Laurence Goodyear reflected, “The services which Ch. 17 has provided to the community have been unique and distinctive.”

Bertha Hoffman teaches a French class on Ch.17.

Sister Jeanne, art professor at Rosary Hill College, teaches a class over WNED-TV.

Aside from grammar school, high school, and college credit programs, there were also typing classes, along with training for fire and police. Jack Call was the instructor on Ch.17’s “Train for Fire.”

Diane Sina was the host of “Type Right” on Ch.17.

For all the educational programming on WNED-TV, among the favorite and most watched programs was “Piano on a Terrace,” when announcer Matt Regan would play in the open air on the roof of the Lafayette Hotel.

Jack Paupst’s jolly shopkeeper Mr. Whatnot was the most popular show in the station’s early days.

Among WNED-TV’s original employees was publicity manager J. Michael Collins. He’d become the station’s manager, and in 50 years of creating a public broadcasting empire, he’d also become a familiar face during pledge breaks and events like “the Great TV Auction.”  He’s shown here with other staffers who survived the station’s first decade: Chief Engineer Gordon Knaier and Technical Operations Director G. Robert Bakaysa.

J. Michael Collins with two young WNED fundraisers.

WBFO-FM signed on in January, 1959, as a student-run, non-commercial, educational radio station at UB. “Classical music, poetry, symposiums and area college news” were on the schedule as the station only broadcast during the evening hours when first on the air.

Electrical engineering students built the studio in the Baird Music Building and a transmitting plant atop the Tower Dormitory.

“The student body benefits internally with the acquisition of broadcasting knowledge by the WBFO staff,” said Jack Mettauer, WBFO’s first program director, who was also a math student and a former WEBR engineer. “Externally, the wide variety of programs will stimulate

student interest in specific fields.”

Programming in October, 1959 included an hour of “pop tunes” each night—but “not to include Top-40 music,” followed by an hour of news from around the campus and around the world.

WBFO Chief Engineer Howie Barker at the controls, 1959

As the 60s wore on, WBFO found itself in the midst of the unrest on the UB campus, and became a pioneer in public radio as it’s known today.

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,, and Steve Cichon