Torn-Down Tuesday: The Lafayette Theatre

       By Steve Cichon

The original Lafayette Square Theatre, on the northeast corner of Lafayette Square at Washington and Broadway, was built in 1901. It held 1,600 people in balcony seats – there was no gallery. It was devoted “entirely to the burlesque” when it was opened, although by 1916, it was hosting baseball fans when the Bisons were out of town.

Overhead view shows the Lafayette Theatre and the old Central Library with the top of the Soldiers and Sailors monument in Lafayette Square.

A “paragon playograph” was set up on the stage, and allowed baseball fans to follow the action via ticker tape in the days before radio and television broadcasts.

Inside the old Lafayette Theatre, 1912.

Next door, the New Lyric Theater opened in 1913 – only to be taken down in 1921 to build what was Buffalo’s largest theater, the massive Lafayette Theatre.

Originally built for both motion pictures and vaudeville, when it opened in 1922, the Lafayette boasted the most seats and the largest sign in Buffalo.

Lafayette Theatre, 1922.

“The brilliancy in the front of the theater will fairly startle the eye when the myriad of lights are turned on in the gorgeous signs which bedeck the front of Buffalo’s largest, newest, and most beautiful playhouse,” gushed The Buffalo Times when the theater opened in the new Lafayette Square Building.

Inside the Lafayette, 1922.

The Lafayette was the first to bring sound to Buffalo movies with Vitaphone technology in 1927. The Vitaphone apparatus weighed 12 tons and took four weeks to install. Buffalo’s Willis Carrier, the inventor of modern air conditioning, was there when the building’s original “airwashing” equipment was replaced with newer equipment in 1936.

The Basil family took over the operation of the Lafayette in 1943 and renovated the theater, adding new comforts and an updated marquee.

At the time, it was one of the largest real estate transactions in downtown history when Benderson Development bought the theater to raze it for a 100-car parking lot in 1962. Benderson offered the organ and theater seats to “any qualified charitable organization or institution whose request seems justifiable.”

The Pulaski Day parade in 1962, which featured a speech from President John F. Kennedy, marched past the Lafayette on the march up Broadway to the steps of City Hall where Kennedy’s address took place.

The rest of the Lafayette Square Building came down in the early 1970s, and the location has been a parking lot ever since.

The German Insurance Building, once ‘the finest’ on Main

By Steve Cichon

Dedication of Soldiers & Sailors monument in Lafayette Square, 1882. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The German Insurance Building was the backdrop to the dedication of the Soldiers & Sailors Monument in Lafayette Square in 1882, only two years after this 1880 map of Buffalo was printed.

1880 view.

The six-story building fronted with cast iron was on the north corner of Main Street and Lafayette Square, where the Tishman Building — the longtime home of National Fuel and now the Hilton Garden Inn — now stands.

Old-time Buffalo attorney William Palmer watched the building being built as a little boy and shared his memories with News reporter Bob Watson.

Later, Palmer had offices there. He said the breath-taking views stopped inside the front door.


“Far from being plush or ornate, the law offices in the building were plain in the extreme, with linoleum-covered floors, simple office chairs, gas lights and an occasional cuspidor,” which is probably better-known to modern readers as a spittoon.

The name was lost before the building was — the German Insurance Co. became the Buffalo Insurance Co. during the anti-German scourge of World War I.

The old insurance building had stood at the northwest corner of Lafayette Square for 81 years when crews began dismantling it in 1957. To most, it had seemed like time enough.

“Now seedy and dilapidated, it once was noted for an ‘architectural elegance’ that caused passersby to pause and stare in wonderment,” Watson wrote in The News. “But the ranks of those who remember it at its best have shrunk, and there will be few to shed any tears as it comes tumbling down.”

It was especially difficult to cry as excitement surrounded a new era for downtown Buffalo.

At a proposed 22 floors, the Tishman Building was “Buffalo’s first new skyscraper office building in more than a quarter-century,” but it was only the first of dozens of projects that put the wrecking ball through some of Buffalo’s most iconic — if not, in some cases, worn and tired — landmark buildings.

Buffalo in the ’40s: When downtown Buffalo had a ‘flashcast’ news crawl

By Steve Cichon

The WGR-sponsored ribbon message board was installed just below the roof line of the Western Savings Bank in 1949. (Buffalo Stories archives)

In 1940s America, the frenzied commercialism, hot-burning bulbs and pulsating neon of Times Square ignited a sense of wonder and excitement over what an American city could be.

Buffalo had its share of the lights – Main Street near Chippewa was aglow with what was described as “Buffalo’s great white way,” and the greatest display of dazzling and flashing marquees and signs between New York and Chicago.

One lighting element Buffalo didn’t have – until 1949 – was a flashcast news sign.

A flashcast news sign was installed at Main and Court streets, sponsored by WGR.

WGR Radio was the sign’s sponsor, which meant in red neon, those call letters brightly bookended the revolving ribbon of news headlines at Main and Court streets from atop the Western Savings Bank building. Visible from the WGR studios across Lafayette Square in the Rand Building, the scroll was controlled from WGR’s newsroom.

A 1949 poster advertising the flashcast news sign.

While the sign was promoted as Times Square coming to Buffalo, the event to throw the switch on the sign, hosted by Mayor Bernard Dowd, was called a “Hollywood premiere-type event.”

A few months after the first messages started streaming across the lights, a News story talking about improvements being made downtown mentioned the sign. “Here is a group of men at Main and Court streets, looking up at the Flashcast. They’re squinting a little to read the moving electric words in the sunlight.”

By the time WGR Radio’s studios had moved to the building behind Channel 4 at 2065 Elmwood Ave. in 1959, the sign had gone dark. It had been completely removed by 1962 when construction was started on a new $4.5 million, 12-story Western Savings headquarters next door.

At the time of its demolition in 1964, the Western Savings Bank, which had been in operation for 92 years, was Buffalo’s oldest continuously used banking building.

In 1981, Western merged with longtime rival Buffalo Savings Bank, and eventually became Goldome Savings Bank.

Goldome grew too quickly and went under during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s. In 1991, Goldome’s assets were split between KeyBank – which entered the Buffalo market after Empire of America succumbed to the S&L crisis – and another bank in 1989.

The flashcast news sign was removed from the Western Savings Bank building by 1962.

Wrestling at The Aud: from The Hulk to Gorgeous George

By Steve Cichon

Hulk Hogan is going to be in Buffalo this weekend, and had some nice things to say about Buffalo Wrestling and the fans here. Steve Cichon has more from the Hulk and wrestling’s glory days in Buffalo.

Hulk Hogan is making an appearance at the Nickel City Con at the Convention Center this weekend, and he spoke with Mark Ciemcioch at The Buffalo News about his times in Buffalo.

He has great memories of wrestling in Buffalo, and like so many of us, Hulk Hogan has great memories of Memorial Auditorium.

Hogan traveled to Buffalo many times during his career, even having knee surgery here. He particularly enjoyed working the old Buffalo Memorial Auditorium before it closed in 1996.

“I had some great matches in there,” Hogan said. “I’d hit people with a punch in the middle of that ring, and it sounded like a cannon would go off. The whole crowd would go along with it, (chanting) ‘Boom, boom!’ It’s a great wrestling crowd, a great city and a (I have) lot of fond memories of Buffalo.”

Hulk Hogan on ‘Hulkamaniacs,’ Buffalo and his biggest comeback yet

Wrestling, of course, goes way back in Buffalo– to big Friday Night sell out crowds 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.

“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 his 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!'”

See some photos of Gorgeous George and read more about his career:
Buffalo in the ’50s: ‘Gorgeous George’ arrives in Buffalo, perfumes his room
Buffalo in the ’50s: Gorgeous George brings showmanship to the Aud

Torn-down Tuesday: Looking east from Lafayette Square in 1937

By Steve Cichon

The address is still familiar 78 years later, but there’s not much from this December 1937 view of Lafayette Square that survives.

Buffalo News archives

The very top of the Soldiers and Sailors monument in the middle of the square is visible in the lower left corner.  That, and the Hotel Lafayette — the Clinton Street wall of which is visible on the right side of the photo — are the only easily seen remaining structures in this photo.

When the Romanesque-Revival old Central Library was opened in 1887, it was said that “no library in all the land is more nobly housed.”  By the 1950s, however, the old building was seen as leaky, cold and difficult to adapt for new technology.  The current Central Library replaced the 1887 building in 1964.

Most, if not all, the buildings visible behind the library and Hotel Lafayette are gone. Most that survived into the ’60s and ’70s were torn down to make way for the never-built Elm-Oak corridor expressway. By the 1980s, modern bunker-like government buildings were built on the vacant blocks between Oak and Elm. The Lafayette Theatre building was torn down in 1972 to make way for a parking lot.

The triangle in the background of the wider view photo, where Broadway and William come to a point, is now occupied by a gas station.


Buffalo in the ’60s: Rocket belting around Lafayette Square

By Steve Cichon

To most Americans, the thought of a man flying around with a rocket pack on his back seems like something from 1960s science fiction.

The people of Buffalo, however, are more likely to remember the Bell Rocket Belt as science fact.

Buffalo News archives

Throughout the mid-’60s, Wheatfield-based Bell Aerospace took dozens of opportunities to show off the hydrogen peroxide-powered device that the company was initially developing for the U.S. Army.

In October 1965, Bell engineers took the belt pack into downtown Buffalo, and News cameras were there to capture the flight in front of the Rand Building and around Lafayette Square.

Office workers looked out the windows in amazement, while folks outside on the sidewalk — including a police officer and women in headscarves — took in the flight with a combination of awe and distress over the noise the rocket pack made during flight.

The Bell Rocket Belt worked — but it was limited by two key drawbacks. One, flights couldn’t last longer than 21 seconds, and two, there was no way to land safely if the device failed mid-flight.

In the end, military brass tagged the Bell Rocket Belt as “spectacular toy” more than an efficient transportation device, and development was scuttled.