Two months into the Buffalo Sabres’ first season in 1970, tenor Joe Byron got a phone call that would make him a Buffalo pop culture icon.
The anthem singer wasn’t working out, and the Sabres asked if he was available.
It was a quick turnaround, and he never even had the chance to rehearse with organist Norm Wullen before he sang for the first time. His first night at Memorial Auditorium, he climbed up to Norm’s spot in the rafters – only to be told that he’d be singing from the penalty box.
He asked Norm to play some standard tunes on the organ on his way down, so he could get used to his playing, and their first rendition of “O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” went off without a hitch.
For next 15 hockey seasons or so, most Sabres home games would start with public address announcer Milt Ellis asking everyone to stand and for men to remove their hats for the singing of the anthems by Byron, accompanied by Wullen on organ.
Just about every part of Byron’s game night experience speaks of a simpler time.
After singing the anthem, Byron would leave the penalty box, and try to find an open seat to watch the game. He never had a season ticket, and was never assigned a seat by the club. He’d wander the aisles, and on most occasions, a friendly fan would recognize him and invite him to sit.
Before kiss cams, applause meters and T-shirt guns, it was Byron who kept the fans going during breaks in the action.
On holidays or special occasions, Byron’s voice was the Aud’s entertainment between periods. Christmas carols during the holidays: “Auld Lang Syne” for New Year’s, something romantic on Valentine’s Day and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” for St. Patrick’s Day.
After a series of heart attacks, he began to slow down in the early 1980s and gave up singing at every game, and along with Wullen and Ellis, faded into our Sabres memories.
You can hear Wullen’s organ and Byron’s national anthem starting at 7:42 in the video below.
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.”
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!'”
For as long as anyone can remember, the people of Buffalo have been fanatically devoted to sports. Since 1960 for the Bills and 1970 for the Sabres, relatively large, rabid fan bases have supported those squads through lean years and even lean decades with open wallets and enthusiasm.
But with college basketball bringing March Madness to Buffalo again next week, thoughts and conversation inevitably turn to the years before the Bills and Sabres when “Little Three” games between Niagara, St. Bonaventure and Canisius were the city’s most riotous sporting events, tickets to Saturday night basketball doubleheaders at Memorial Auditorium were Western New York’s hottest ticket, and Buffalo was universally recognized as one of America’s great college basketball towns.
Up until World War II, the most ferocious rivalry among the Little Three schools was in football, but as football became too costly, each of the schools had disbanded its team by 1951. Once students and alumni had only hoops to hang their hats on, the heated rivalries burned even brighter, and all of Buffalo came along for the ride.
In his infamous 1969 Sports Illustrated piece on Buffalo sports and Buffalo’s sports fans, Brock Yates’ account of basketball at the Aud sears an image:
“Saturday night standing room-only crowds elbow their way into the grim, lakeside fortress known as Memorial Auditorium to scream for Canisius.”
A few years later, Ray Ryan remembered it this way in a 1975 article in Buffalo Fan magazine:
“The collegians and their camp follows would converge on the downtown hall early in the evening, elbowing through the crowded lobby, passing the turnstiles, and crowding up to the beer stands … (with) an electric air of excitement as the cheering and jeering began …”
Basketball doubleheaders had been all the rage at New York City’s Madison Square Garden when Buffalo’s first two-game basketball set was played in 1936 at the Broadway Auditorium. Canisius played Georgetown and Niagara played St. Bonaventure in “a program worthy of any court in the country.”
The venue was an upgrade in size from Canisius’ usual home court at the Elmwood Music Hall, and the ability to fill the larger space showed basketball’s honing in on boxing as one of Buffalo’s favorite spectator sports.
But there was still room for improvement in those early years. The Broadway Auditorium was larger, but not regulation. Notre Dame’s coach George Keogan almost refused to play on the barn’s concrete floor, but with 5,000 spectators watching, he was assured by a Canisius official that it was “soft concrete” and the game went on with a laugh.
As World War II dawned, and continuing after the war, Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure each became competitive and started attracting some of the country’s best teams on the way to or from those big dates in New York City. It was a confluence of great basketball, great fans, great gates and Memorial Auditorium’s opening in 1940 to make all parties involved excited for college basketball doubleheaders in Buffalo.
Through the early ’50s, the Aud was guaranteed 10,000 spectators, usually with more filling up standing room. Then things waned. There was a point-shaving scandal with several big New York City schools. Pro-basketball started catching on in New York in the scandal’s wake, and college basketball as a whole took some lumps.
The local series was not without hiccups even through the glory years. The late Buffalo News Sports Editor Larry Felser, himself a Little Three athlete as guard on the Cansius football squad, said that pettiness between the schools was as much a part of the tradition as the games themselves.
It was a critical hit was when, in 1958, Niagara pulled out of the Aud doubleheaders. A few years later, Bona opened the Reilly Center and trips to Buffalo became less important.
In 1965, then-Ellicott District Councilman James D. Griffin wrote letters to the presidents of Niagara, Canisius and St. Bonaventure inviting them to a Common Council discussion on the use of the Aud and the Rockpile.
Writing “as a sport fan as well as a member of the Common Council,” Griffin hoped it would be possible for the differences that broke up the Little Three’s run at The Aud to be set aside “not only for the same of the loyal fans, but also for the sake of the City of Buffalo, which enjoyed much favorable publicity due to the high caliber of ball played in previous contests.”
College basketball’s last great kick at the can came in the end of the 1960s, and it had to do as much with great players as schools setting aside differences.
Each of the Little Three had big stars to help capture the sports passions of Buffalo. After starring for Black Rock’s Cardinal Dougherty High School, Tony Masiello went on to star for Canisius College before being drafted by the Indiana Pacers in the 1969 NBA Draft.
Bennett High’s Bob Lanier led St. Bonaventure to an NCAA Final Four bid in 1970, before a Hall of Fame pro career with the Pistons and Bucks.
And before he ever shot a basket for Niagara, Calvin Murphy — who remains the shortest player ever inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame — was entertaining Bills fans with his champion baton-twirling during halftime breaks at the Rockpile.
The energy and excitement these three brought to the court and to the old Little Three rivalry was just enough for Buffalo to win an NBA franchise in 1970. The Braves were wildly popular until the end of the season, when top players were traded away and the franchise was sold and moved out of town.
But with the huge following of the pro Bills and Sabres, it was too late to rekindle the glory days of the Little Three. An attempt was made in 1996 with the opening of then-Marine Midland Arena, adding UB to make the Big 4. While there was some excitement among fans, it was the schools that put a damper on the idea by not cooperating in scheduling games.
“Does this sound like something out of a 35-year-old time capsule or what?” wrote Larry Felser on one of those opinionated days in 1997.
Before they were even finished digging the Hamburg Canal, in 1849, the standing, fetid water in the half-dug ditch was blamed in part for a growing cholera crisis in what we now call the First Ward and Canalside areas.
1896 map with Hamburg Canal highlighted in blue. (Buffalo Stories archives)
Originally conceived to help divert traffic away from the busy Erie Canal, soon the railroads were doing a good enough job of making the Hamburg Canal in particular nearly completely obsolete.
For decades, the fate of the canal was a political hot potato. Albany politicians tried to wrestle control of the valuable land. Others vowed the city could make a fortune by filling it in and getting the land into the hands of the railroads – but which railroad seemed to be the point of disagreement.
Meanwhile, the mucky water sat festering.
The Common Council declared the Hamburg Canal a nuisance in 1869. The following year, Buffalo Mayor Alexander Brush and a group of concerned citizens took a tugboat tour of the Canal from Michigan Street to the Buffalo Harbor. One participant called the waterway “a horrible bed of pestilence.”
It got worse from there. A 1912 report called the canal a “mass of decaying filth, stagnant water, foul-smelling, and covered by a dark scum.”
The largest part of the Hamburg Canal was finally put out of its misery when the Lehigh Valley Railroad built Buffalo’s glowing new passenger terminal on a filled-in portion of it in 1916.
Hate for the man-made waterway was reignited when Depression-era WPA workers came across a long-covered portion of the canal running where they had been planning on building the foundation of Memorial Auditorium. Special reinforced sewers were built below The Aud to allow the old canal’s waters to continue to move all through the building’s nearly 70-year history.
Today, the Canalside rink, the Courtyard by Marriott and The Buffalo News are all on ground that was once Buffalo’s most derided waterway.
On March 19, 1981, the Buffalo Sabres became the only team to score nine goals in a single period. The torrent of goals came in a 14-4 trouncing of the Toronto Maple Leafs at Memorial Auditorium.
In just that second period, Gil Perreault had a hat trick. Andre Savard and Ric Seiling each had four points. Savard had two goals, Seiling, Derek Smith, Craig Ramsay and Danny Gare also each had a goal.
The score after two periods at Memorial Auditorium. Toronto’s three goals combined for the most ever scored in an NHL game.
Perreault returned from a rib injury that night to “the easiest hat trick (he)’d ever had.”
“It was a great, beautiful night,” said Andre Savard, who had three goals and six points on the night. “We played well in the first period and couldn’t score, but we did score in the second period.”
Here are photos of four of the nine goals:
Andre Savard with one of his two goals in the record-breaking period. Buffalo News archives
Gil Perreault scores one of his three in the record-breaking period.
Bill Hajt, Craig Ramsay, Andre Savard and Jim Schoenfeld celebrate another of the Sabres nine goals in the second period. Buffalo News archives
Vice President Hubert Humphrey was the Democratic nominee for president in 1968 when he lost to Richard Nixon in the general election. In 1971, as he contemplated another run at Nixon the following year, he stopped in Buffalo for a pre-campaign visit and to take in the Buffalo Braves home opener at The Aud.
Senator Humphrey appears to be having a better time than Mayor Frank Sedita as the former VP gets ready to lob the ball out onto the court.
Humphrey visits quickly with the Braves cheerleaders. No record of whether an “ooh, ahh… Hubert on the warpath” chant broke out.
Fans directly behind them in the golds and reds don’t seem too interested in the courtside conversation going on between Braves owner Paul Snyder, Braves Captain Walt Hazzard, Vice President Humphrey, and Mayor Sedita. That night, Hazzard, in his first game with the Braves after being acquired from the Hawks in the offseason, led the Braves with 14 points as they were pounced by the Seattle Supersonics, 123-90.
Spine-tingling. Quirky. Explosive. Imaginative. These are all words that have been printed in The News over the last 45 years to describe Rick Jeanneret’s colorful Buffalo Sabres play-by-play style. Rick, in comparing himself to another wild and exciting play-by-play man said, “I don’t think he’s quite as nuts as I am.”
Buffalo News archives, 1989
Like most of us who have grown up with Jeanneret as an inseparable part of what the Sabres are to us, it was easy to take his style and personality for granted. “This is how hockey—how Sabres hockey—sounds, right?”
The new announcers who have taken some of the load off Rick’s schedule over the last few years do the job well. They describe the play in a knowledgeable, exciting, fun, and professional manner. But Rick is, well, in his word, “nuts.” There’s nothing forced about him talking about how tough a “lady is for taking a puck off the coconut” and “not even spilling her beer.”
Rick Jeanneret and the late Voice of the Bills Van Miller are different in almost every conceivable way, but the one way they were exactly the same is the same way they honest-to-goodness lose their minds when their team—our team—does the extraordinary. There’s nothing fake in the shouting. Rick’s goal calls mix perfectly with the explosion of screaming at taverns and gin mills and in living rooms and in cars all over the place—because it’s the same excitement.
We all remember “May Day” and “LalalalalalaFontaine” and “Hasek robbed him blind!,” but there was also, “whooooa, he really PUNCHED him,” and “HERE COMES SHIELDS,” as goalie Steve Shields skated the length of the ice to make sure his teammates weren’t outnumbered in a fight. There was also the infamous question for a Quebec Nordiques goalie shouted in the course of impassioned play-by-play, “Richard Sevingy– Where’s your jockstrap!?!?”
Our guy RJ, inseparable from our love for Sabres hockey, watches the game and says the things we wish we were smart and cool enough to say. If he were only one of us, he’d be the funniest, most excitable, best-informed guy watching the game with us at the tavern. Instead, for 45 years, he’s been the funniest, most excitable, best-informed guy in every tavern in Western New York.
When News reporter Lee Coppola visited Jeanneret in the Memorial Auditorium press box in 1979, he wrote that when watching Rick work behind the mic high above the Aud ice, “it’s his feet that catch the eye … a cup of beer to his right and a filter cigarette in the ashtray to his left.”
Buffalo News archives, 1979
His feet never stopped tapping while he was telling us what he saw on the ice, but he says he limited himself to one beer per period to “help loosen his tonsils” while calling the game the way he’d want to hear it. By 1989, the beer drinking during the games had dried up—mostly because, Jeanneret told The News in 1992, new arenas were being built without thinking of a play-by-play man’s washroom needs.
It all started one day in 1963, when Jeanneret was a disc jockey at CJRN Radio in Niagara Falls. He went to a junior game as a fan. Despite the fact that he’d never done hockey play-by-play before, folks from the station came to find him when the guy who was supposed to announce the game on the radio called in sick. He’s been a hockey announcer ever since, including for some time with the American Hockey League Buffalo Bisons, and living inside our radios and TVs as one of the voices of Sabres hockey since 1971.
“I’ve got a better job than Wayne Gretzky,” RJ told The News in 1992. “I just don’t make as much money.”
It was an overtime thriller in a battle of two of the NBA’s premier big men as Bob McAdoo and the Braves hosted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lakers at Memorial Auditorium.
Buffalo News archives
It was Nov. 9, 1976, and McAdoo was showing the stuff that had won him the NBA MVP Award a season earlier.
Down by 20 heading into the fourth quarter, McAdoo led a comeback — including hitting a basket with two seconds left to tie the game. Randy Smith’s eight points in overtime cemented the Braves’ 121-116 victory.
Abdul-Jabbar led the game with 37 points in the losing effort; McAdoo had 34.
Buffalo fans were getting one of their last looks at McAdoo in a Buffalo uniform. Exactly one month to the day after this photo was taken, McAdoo was traded to the New York Knicks along with Tom McMillen for John Gianelli and cash.
McAdoo and Abdul-Jabbar ended up teammates on two Los Angeles Lakers championship teams where McAdoo was the sixth man on the club that also featured fellow Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and James Worthy.
Gorgeous George was wrestling’s first bad guy. He invented the persona after he married his real-life wife in the ring, and then over and over again, seeing the potential for showmanship in the sport, which had little of it before his silk robes and atomizer.
Buffalo News archives
This photo comes from a 1949 match at the Aud, with GG (as the papers of the day referred to him) against Ray Villmer, “The Mighty Yankee.”
You can be sure the crowd was erupting as it looked like “The Human Orchid” might finally lose. From a clipping on another match:
Gorgeous hardly is gaining in favor with the populace. Mincing down the aisle in a cream robe, cape style, he was the target for assorted paper cartons and one entire beer. He was thrown out of the ring early in the mill, and his well-being appeared endangered until he escaped.
GG is well-remembered for rebuffing any touch with a boisterous “Get your filthy paws off of me,” but two events remained etched into the psyches of Buffalo wrestling fans. One, the night Stormy Bob Wagner “gave Gorgeous an authentic beating” at Memorial Auditorium, complete with a real head wound created by GG’s perfume bottle.
The other press event involved Gorgeous George driving to the Aud down Main Street in a convertible, waving around handfuls of dollar bills. When he began to throw them out to “the peasants” in Lafayette Square, a riot almost ensued.
The stories are emblematic of a showman whose curly locks and silky robes helped make wrestling into a popular attraction that became the multi-billion dollar industry it is today.
To remember GG as merely a heel wrestler — even only as “The First Heel Wrestler” — belittles his memory. The Human Orchid was one of the great stars of early television. 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.
Gorgeous George — his legal name after 1950 — died of a heart attack at age 48 in 1963, just as another boisterous, flamboyant, larger-than-life personality began his career in the ring — albeit the boxing ring.
In the same 1964 Associated Press story that asked if Cassius Clay was “a hoax … or the new golden boy,” his promotional style was offered up as patterned after Gorgeous George.
During the 1952 presidential campaign, both the Republican and Democratic candidates visited Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium for rallies on back-to-back days.
Buffalo News archives
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of World War II and Republican candidate, drew a crowd of 20,000 at the Aud. The photo shows the future first lady, Mamie Eisenhower, along with former New York Gov. and 1948 Republican nominee Thomas Dewey, on the Aud stage. At the time, it was the largest-ever crowd in the building.
The day before, Gov. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate, spoke to about 13,000 at the Aud.
The Courier-Express called the two days of campaigning “Buffalo’s Great Presidential Debate.” Judging by the numbers of supporters who showed up for each event, Eisenhower won the debate — and the White House. He served two terms, with Mamie as first lady, from 1953 to 1960.