Ground up by radio: Bill Masters & Frank Benny… and elsewhere around the dial

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


Known as Mr. Warmth, Bill Masters had feet planted in two different worlds. He hosted middays on WBEN through the 60s and 70s, but “understood” what was going on elsewhere in the culture and on the radio dial—He was one of the guys at the Babcock Boys’ Club with Danny Neaverth and Joey Reynolds.

Maybe he’d say something outrageous, but it was hard to notice, blending in with the calm, homespun, aw shucks delivery that made him a great fit on WBEN.

“He was known for his acerbic wit, rebellious stands and wild, unpredictable personality,” wrote News reporter Anthony Violanti in 1989.

But Masters’ world fell apart in 1975 when he suffered a nervous breakdown. Losing his high-profile WBEN job and his family, Masters would spend the next couple decades bouncing between radio jobs and the welfare rolls.

“Radio is a terrible f—— business,” Masters told Violanti. “When you are a radio personality, every day of your life you give your pound of flesh. Sometimes, you never get it back.”

Frank Benny was Buffalo radio’s “master of the one-liners.” He could fire them off as fast as Carson.

But that’s not necessarily what people think of when they hear his name.

Frank Benny’s story was called “the most outstanding comeback in the history of Buffalo broadcasting” by News critic Gary Deeb. Nearly half a century later, that record appears to be intact.

Benny was a constant on Buffalo radio dials for 25 years. His voice and style were smooth and sonorous. He quickly became Buffalo’s definitive warm, friendly announcer upon coming to WGR Radio in 1965. By 1968, he was a regular on Ch.2 as well, first on the sports desk, and then for nearly a decade as the station’s main weather anchor at 6 and 11.

By 1970, he was one of Buffalo’s most in-demand announcers. He told The News he was generally working on about four hours of sleep. His day started as WGR Radio’s morning man, then he hosted WGR-TV’s Bowling for Dollars and Payday Playhouse 4 o’clock movie, and he did the weather forecasts on Ch.2. He was the NBA Buffalo Braves’ first PA announcer in the 1970-71 season.

In five years at WGR, he became one of Buffalo’s most popular media personalities. That was helpful in identifying him the day he robbed a bank on his way home from the radio station in June 1971.

A holdup of the Homestead Savings and Loan at the corner of Main and Chateau Terrace in Snyder netted $503 for a man wearing a stocking over his head and brandishing a (later-found-to-be toy) gun.

Minutes later, Amherst Police were arresting Benny at gunpoint in the driveway of his Williamsville home.

Frank Benny, Ch.2 sports, late 60s

The case was a local sensation. Management at WGR and at least three other stations ordered that the on-air staff not make any snide remarks or jokes at Benny’s expense.

One notable exception was Ch.7, where the 6 p.m. “Eyewitness News Reel” featured the title card “Forecast: Cloudy” for the otherwise-straight Benny story. At 11, the title was changed to “Under the Weather.”

The disc jockey, TV weather man and father of two was charged with third-degree robbery and was tried in a non-jury trial. The prosecution rested when Benny’s attorney agreed to the facts of the case — that the announcer had indeed stuck-up the bank — but that he was innocent of the charges in the “poorly planned, ludicrous robbery” because he was temporarily insane.

Four psychiatrists testified that Benny was “not in sufficient possession of his faculties at the time of the holdup.” A Buffalo General psychiatrist who had examined Benny said that the temporary mental illness was caused by extreme and prolonged stress.

First, Benny was a central figure in a protracted labor strike at WGR AM-FM-TV. Eighty members of NABET, the union representing nearly all the operations personnel and announcers at WGR, spent nine months on strike. About 10 — including Benny — crossed picket lines to continue to work. Station management provided Benny an armed guard after rocks were thrown through the windows of his home and his family was threatened.

Benny’s family was also threatened the very morning of the robbery. He’d racked up thousands of dollars of gambling debts, and the bookmakers were calling in their markers — or else.

In October 1971, the judge found Benny not guilty by reason of mental disease, and he was ordered to spend two weeks at Buffalo State Hospital.

Frank Benny in the WGR Radio studio.

Then, in December, within six months of the robbery, Benny was back on WGR Radio and TV. Having been found not guilty, and “on a wave of public sympathy,” management thought it was the right thing to do.

“A lot of people have told me that it takes guts to do this, to go back on the air,” Benny told The News during his first week back at WGR. “But to me, it’s not a courageous thing. It’s a simple case of going back to what I know.”

That’s not to say that Benny wasn’t thankful.

“It’s hard to fathom that people can be that nice,” Benny told News critic Deeb. “It’s nice to know people can be forgiven.”

All told, Benny spent 19 years at WGR, walking away from the station in 1985. For a year-and-a-half, he was the morning man at WYRK Radio, before finishing out the ’80s as a weekend staffer at WBEN.

No matter what his personal life sounded like, he always sounded like Frank Benny on the radio. After leaving WBEN Radio in 1989, Benny left for Florida, where he was on the radio for 16 years — until he died in 2005 at age 67.

Frank Benny congratulates a WGR Hi-Lo Loser-Winner.


Two completely different looking AM Radio airstaffs of the late 60s. WBEN’s Christmas carolers are Bill Masters, John Corbett, Clint Buehlman, Ken Philips, Gene Kelly, and Al Fox. Van Miller, Stan Barron, Jack Ogilvie, and John Luther.

 WYSL’s air staff was not quite as clean-cut. Standing outside the station’s 425 Franklin Street studios are Jack Evans, Roger Christian, Jack Sheridan, Michael O’Shea (Howard Lapidis), and Jim Bradley (Jerry Reo). Kneeling: Rufus Coyote (Lee Poole), Kevin O’Connell, Mike Butts, and George Hamberger.

 From the back of the WYSL XXI Boss Oldies album, with Beethoven wearing sunglasses on the cover. Second from the left, Gary Byrd, went onto a ground breaking career in New York City.

Bishop Timon grad George Hamberger and Bennett grad Kevin O’Connell both enjoyed long careers in broadcasting. Hamberger was WGR’s morning man in the 80s. O’Connell worked at Ch.4 before heading to Los Angeles for the early 80s. He spent 25 years as Ch.2’s main weather anchor.


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

More images from around Buffalo’s TV dial in the 60s

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


Broadcasting live from the Erie County Fair is a tradition that dates back to the earliest days of TV in Buffalo, and Meet the Millers—starring turkey farmers Bill and Mildred Miller—were regulars at the fair all through the 50s and 60s. They’re shown here with another Ch.4 personality ready to broadcast live from Hamburg—John Corbett (left).

WKBW-TV’s broadcast license renewal was held up in the early 60s for a lack of quality local programming, but fans of campy old monster movies didn’t mind. Films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman were regular fare on Ch.7—and a generation later helped spark Off Beat Cinema’s quirky tribute to the genre on the station.

In 1968, WGR-TV’s new news team included George Redpath, Pat Fagan, Doris Jones, and Frank Benny.


 By the end of the 60s, WGR-TV’s anchor team had changed again—this time with Henry Marcotte (above) with news, Mike Nolan (below) with sports, and Frank Benny—who had been on the sports desk—moved over to the weather map.  Marcotte didn’t hide his conservative views– which made him the target of protesting UB students and striking NABET members who watched him cross their picket lines. Replaced by Ron Hunter, Marcotte went on to work as an editorial writer and booth announcer for NBC in New York City.


Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy, R&B singer Ruth McFadden, actress Barbara Anderson, “You Asked for It” host Jack Smith, and telethon chairman Michael Allis in the Ch.7 studios.

Gov. Nelson Rockefeller visits with Irv Weinstein at Ch.7’s Main Street studios.


The media gathers for Jack Kemp’s 1969 announcement that he’s retiring from football and running for Congress. That’s Ch.4’s Ray Finch, Ch.4’s Paul Maze, Ch.7’s Sam Brunetta with handheld camera, Ch.4’s Virgil Booth, Larry Felser, Ch.4’s Len Johnson on audio, Ch.7’s John Winston, Ch.4’s Van Miller, Jack Kemp, and Ch.7’s Rick Azar.

Ch.4 photojournalist Bill Cantwell got mixed up in the action covering Buffalo’s civil rights protests of 1967. Cantwell was best known over his long career for his serene nature shots used during Ch.4’s weather segments.

TV news gathering and video recording technology rapidly evolved in the 60s. News editor John Kreiger (left) is writing copy from film shot by Mike Mombrea, Sr. (right) and edited by Quint Renner (center). Mombrea spent 32 years as a photojournalist at Ch.4, starting as a true pioneer—a TV news cameraman in the days when TV was just starting. It was through Mike’s viewfinder that Western New York witnessed the Attica Prison uprising, the installation of Pope John Paul II, and somewhere north of one million feet of news film capturing the day-to-day happenings of Western New York.

Recording video tape in the field for news purposes was still a decade away, but by Ch.4’s 20th anniversary in 1968, the station had three color video tape machines.  

Engineers Frank Maser, Ralph Voigt, and Edgar Steeb with VTRs.


In 1969, WBEN-TV revamped its news format, calling their newscasts “First Team News.”

A deluge of print ads showed the team in action, including news anchor Chuck Healy, reporting from the dewatered Niagara Falls alongside the WBEN-TV News mobile unit, Van Miller from Bills practice with– among others– Number 40 Ed Rutkowski looking on, and weather man Ken Philips in studio in front of his maps.


WBEN also very heavily promoted the broadcasts of Buffalo Bills Football with Van Miller, Stan Barron, and Dick Rifenburg.  In the booth at the Rockpile: Linda Arnold, Herm Brunotte, Willard Fredericks, Jim Georgeson, Bruce Wexler. Murray Wilkinson, Dick Rifenburg, Stan Barron, Van Miller, Tony Vacanti

The WBEN Bills Team: Bruce Wexler, Dr. Ed Gicewicz, Art Graff, Dick Rifenburg, Ray Sinclair, Willard Fredericks, Van Miller, Jim Georgeson, Stan Barron, Bob Werner, Linda Arnold, Herm Brunotte, and Tony Vacanti


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

Around the TV dial through the 60s

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


Van Miller spent the 60s as the play-by play voice of the Bills and one of Ch.4’s top sportscasters, but he was also one of WBEN Radio’s most popular personalities as well. Van hikes the ball to Jack Kemp

Van interviews radio comedy legend Jack Benny (above) and Hollywood beauty Jayne Mansfield (below).


Van Miller, news; Chuck Healy, sports; Ward Fenton, weather

Ch.4 had an ever-changing team of news, sports, and weather announcers.

Chuck Healy, news; Van Miller, sports, Ken Philips, weather

In 1964, Tom Jolls was the weatherman on the Ch.4 newscasts anchored by Chuck Healy leading into Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News.

Ward Fenton, Bill Peters, Martha Torge, Mike Mearian, and Tom Jolls recording “The Life of FDR.”

Before he made Dustmop come to life and made the phrase “Back to you, Irv,” part of Buffalo’s lexicon, Tom Jolls was celebrated as the host of Kaleidoscope on WBEN Radio. The program was filled with daily musical themes and dramatic productions often written and produced by Jolls—including the one shown above.

“I would commend Mr. Jolls for his show, its freshness, variety, presentation and the obvious effort which goes into the program. Mr. Jolls always makes Kaleidoscope sound like fun day after day,” wrote one Toronto critic.


Virgil Booth, as a host and news reporter, brought nature to Ch.4 viewers.

During the station’s first 11 years on the air, Chuck Poth was a familiar face to Ch.2 viewers as one of the station’s most visible newscasters.

The South Buffalo native attended OLV grammar school and Baker-Victory High in Lackawanna. After serving in the Army during World War II, Poth held a string of jobs at WUSJ Lockport, WJJL Niagara Falls, WBNY, and then the short-lived WBUF-TV.

After working at WGR-TV from 1954-1966, he worked in politics, writing speeches for Robert Kennedy, then running for county legislature and congressional seats, before working in Buffalo City Hall during the Griffin administration.


By 1964, Roy Kerns (above) and Frank Dill (below) were familiar faces in Buffalo, both having been on Ch.2 since the station signed on a decade earlier. They were seen anchoring news and weather leading into NBC’s Huntley/Brinkley Report.


After retiring from the Buffalo Bills, Ernie Warlick became the first Black member of a Buffalo TV anchor team when he became a sportscaster at Ch.2. While his duties generally included interviewing sports figures like Bills quarterback Tom Flores (below), they also included some news duty—like chatting with Mayor Frank Sedita during a bus strike (above).


Skating champion Peggy Fleming chats with photographers Roy Russell from The Buffalo Evening News, Don Keller (Yearke) from Ch.7, and Paul Maze from Ch.4.

The press covers the Dome Stadium controversy. At the table: reporters Jim Fagan, WKBW; Allan Bruce, UPI; Jim McLaughlin, WYSL; Milt Young, WBEN-TV, Ray Finch, WBEN-TV. Dick Teetsel, Ch.2 sits in back, and Don Yearke shoots film for Ch.7.


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

WBEN AM-FM-TV’s new home, 1960

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


Among the Election Day 1960 races being covered closely by Carl Erickson on Ch.4 were between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy for President as well as Edward Rath and Chester Gorski for Erie County Executive.

Erickson came to WBEN in 1948, and was the newsman on Clint Buehlman’s show.

He spent most of the 50s and 60s as Chief Announcer for WBEN Radio.

A new era in broadcasting was ushered in 1960 when WBEN opened its new studios on Elmwood Avenue. WBEN AM-FM-TV had outgrown the studios it had called home on the 18th floor of the Statler Hotel since 1930.

The Buffalo Evening News stations bought the former WBUF-TV studios, which had been built by NBC only a few years earlier, and added more studio space and an office building to the complex.  

Bill & Mildred Miller show off the stove in their new studio, 1960

Clint Buehlman, operator Tom Whalen, and engineer Earnest Roy— who started with the station before it even went on the air in 1930– are shown in the new, far more spacious radio studios.

WBEN announcers Carl Erickson and Jack Ogilvie are seated as Mike Mearian leans on the piano of Norm Wullen, 1960.

WBEN executives George Torge, Alfred Kirchhofer, station owner Kate Butler, James Righter, and C. Robert Thompson inspect the new WBEN-TV control room. The $1.5 million building was heralded as the “most modern broadcasting center in the nation.” The final broadcast from the Statler was Jan. 10, 1960.

After WNED-TV left for the Lafayette Hotel, the studios for WGR Radio were in the building behind WBEN’s studios in the late 50s and early 60s. 

It’s incredible to think that when Van Miller started calling the play-by-play for the brand-new Buffalo Bills of the American Football League in 1960, he was better known as Ch.4’s 11pm news and weather announcer than a sports broadcaster. Through two AFL straight championships, four straight Super Bowls, and two stadiums, Van’s sense of the game and amplified level of excitement became the filter through which football-loving Buffalo took their love to the next level. He’d call every game during the NBA Buffalo Braves’ stay in the city and work as Ch.4’s primary sportscaster for more than 30 years. “Do you believe it?” he’d ask, as fandemonium went into overdrive, imploring “fasten your seatbelts!” until retiring as the Voice of the Bills after 37 years in 2003.


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

Around Buffalo’s Radio & TV dials in the 50s

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


Ch.7’s Main Street studios on a snowy night in the late 50s.

WBNY’s bright red “News from Where It Happens” cruiser, with “Flash Mike and the Mike Patrol.”

Chuck Healy goes over prizes like a case of Squirt and TV dinners on Strikes, Spares, and Misses on Ch.4.

Henry Brach (with dark glasses) broadcasting live from Sattler’s with WBNY deejay Mark Edwards.

Engineers Harold Smith and Leroy Fiedler in the WKBW master control room in the mid-1950s.

WBUF-TV weather personalities Joy Wilson and Mac McGarrity share a laugh.

The Kenneth Baumler family won a 1959 Studebaker Lark in WBNY’s “Lark Hunt” contest, sponsored by Buffalo’s six-area Studebaker dealers.

Bill Mazer called Bisons games on WKBW before moving to WGR. This team photo, with Mazer superimposed in the top right corner, was taken at Offermann Field in the early 50s. The Bisons moved to War Memorial Stadium in 1960.

 WBEN’s staff announcers in the late 50s included, standing, Jack Ogilvie, Lou Douglas, Van Miller, Ken Philips, Gene Kelly, Virgil Booth, Carl Erickson, and Bernie Sadler. Steve Geer, Harry Webb and Mike Mearian are among those seated.

 WKBW’s team of disc jockeys, about 1960.

Bob Diamond was a utility man on WKBW, at various times holding down the overnight shift, weekends, the farm report, and production work from the late-50s through the mid-60s.

As a member of the boys’ choir singing on WGR starting in 1926, Ed Tucholka’s first announcing job was on the PA at Sattler’s, 998 Broadway—talking about the bargains of the day, paging mothers of lost children and generally keeping things moving without benefit of a script.

Soon, his deep rich voice would be heard on WEBR, and in over 20 years there, he hosted the wartime “Noon Day Review” highlighting local GIs and as well as Uncle Ed’s Children’s Hour.

After stops at WWOL and WHLD, Tucholka moved to the WBEN stations in 1966 and oversaw WBEN-FM, always reflecting simple dignity and elegance he presented on the radio for nearly 70 years.

WBEN Operator/Engineer Tom Whalen gets ready to cue up albums for Clint Buehlman.

News anchor John Corbett looks over news scripts hot off the typewriter of Fran Lucca in the Ch.4 newsroom.

WBEN’s Sports team: Dick Rifenburg, Chuck Healy, Van Miller, and Ralph Hubbell. When injury ended Rifenburg’s professional football career with the Detroit Lions, the former All-American Michigan wide receiver turned to broadcasting and spent nearly 30 years at WBEN Radio and TV.

Officially, they were Memorial Auditorium and War Memorial Stadium, but to Buffalonians they were the Aud and the Rockpile, and they were the great WPA-built stone homes of Buffalo’s greatest diversions:  football, hockey, boxing, basketball, and wrestling.

The men in this photo and their compatriots across the radio and TV dials helped bring those diversions closer. Maybe more than in other cities, Buffalo’s sports guys have always been among the most popular broadcasters, as they seemed like one of us while helping to bring us closer to heroes on the court, on the field, in the ring, and on the ice through their work.

With the smooth melodious voice of a classic announcer, Ward Fenton joined WBEN as a radio news man in 1941. After serving in World War II, he returned to the station and was named chief announcer in 1947. He was also heard as the announcer on the NBC network program Mr. IQ, which originated from Shea’s Buffalo Theater for a national audience.

His fluency in French, German, and Italian made him a natural for decades’ worth of announcing classical music programs, especially on WBEN-FM.

When Ch.4 signed on, he was the station’s weekend weatherman, and by the 1960s, was regularly seen in front of the weather map in living rooms all over Western New York, with his forecasts sponsored by the Charles R. Turner Company. His segments were bookended with a memorable film clip showing trucks at the Turner’s company garages. At the beginning of the weather segment, the trucks headed out onto the street, and then after the weather forecast, the same film ran in reverse, with the trucks appearing to back into the garage.

Fenton became Ch.4’s Chief Announcer in 1967, and retired in 1975.

Harry Webb anchors a WBEN-TV newscast sponsored by Esso, and interviews Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy on a visit to Buffalo in 1958.


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

Husband & Wife teams and For the Ladies…

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


It was vestige of the Vaudeville days—wives and husbands as co-emcees on radio and television, usually hosting otherwise normal shows, only with a special kind of schtick to fall back on.

The successful and beloved team of George Burns and Gracie Allen, the married stars of one of radio’s most successful network programs from 1936-50, was all the blueprint local radio programmers needed.

Billy and Reggie Keaton were among the earliest married teams on Buffalo radio starting in the mid-40s, but soon they weren’t alone.

When Budd Hulick– half of the sensational Stoopnagle & Budd comedy team of the 1930s—returned to Western New York radio in the late 40s, he was joined by his wife, Helen. They first appeared on WHLD in her native Niagara Falls, before moving to WKBW for a few years on the “Mr. & Mrs.” show. They moved south in the mid-50s, hosting a show on WPTV Ch.5 in Palm Beach starting in 1956.

The Hulicks chat with Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz on a press trip to Buffalo.

Mary Jane and Seymour Abeles hosted “The Shopper’s Guide” on Ch.4.

Both Buffalo natives, Mary Jane was billed as Buffalo’s “first and only” female disc jockey during the war years on WGR, and Seymour was a longtime radio actor on all the stations in Buffalo—and received a Bronze star and Purple Heart in the Pacific during World War II.

Bernie and Norma Jean Sandler were well-known for hosting programs showcasing the talents of young people. Future radio stars Danny Neaverth, Tommy Shannon, and Joey Reynolds were all guest teen deejays on Sandler’s “The Young Crowd” on WEBR.

Bernie Sandler was a teenaged bandleader while still at Bennett High School, playing gigs at The Colvin Gables and the Glen Casino. After serving in North Africa and Italy during World War II, Sandler moved to radio—first at WBTA in Batavia and then Buffalo’s WEBR–where he’d replace Ed Little as the emcee of the Town Casino show in 1953—before moving onto WBEN AM-FM-TV in 1959.

After Bernie had gone to work full-time in marketing for the Iroqouis Brewery and Norma Jane was the director of the Studio Arena School of Theater, the couple hosted “The Sandler Style” on WADV-FM starting in 1969. They were also trusted spokespeople thought the years, often seen together in TV commercials for everything from applesauce to carpets. At the time he died in 1992, Bernie was still on the air weekly at WECK, playing big band music over the radio for the same folks who danced to his live band performances 50 years earlier.

Buffalo’s best remembered husband and wife started a 21-year run on Ch.4 on Jan. 17, 1950, with a little cooking, a couple interviews, and a lot of bickering.

“Meet the Millers” with Bill and Mildred Miller was a Buffalo television staple, weekday afternoons for more than two decades.

The program was a melding of the couple’s skills. They’d spent more than 20 years entertaining together on the Vaudeville circuit. He was a dancer — even once on Broadway – and she was his piano playing accompanist.

They retired from stage work to Buffalo for health reasons, opening a turkey farm in the Town of Colden—only to answer the call to TV after a handful of very successful cooking segments around Thanksgiving time in 1949.

From the onset, “Meet the Millers” was nominally about “using economy in preparing food,” but housewives tuning in around Western New York were just as likely to be entertained by the sometimes-hostile relationship between Bill and Mildred and Mildred’s tendency to put Bill in his place regularly. For better or worse, they were Western New York’s quintessential quibbling couple.

The show grew to include interview segments which aired Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with cooking segments on Tuesday and Thursday.

The big-name stars who came through Buffalo stayed at the Statler, and that’s where Bill and Mildred did their show through the 1950s.

Stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Tony Bennett were guests through the years.

Starting with their first summer on the air, the Millers made bringing Western New York’s agricultural fairs to TV viewers a priority.

As the owners of a 350-acre farm, and Bill’s role as past president of the state turkey growers’ association, the Millers became closely associated especially with the Erie County Fair, from which their show was broadcast live every year.

The Millers were in the inaugural class of the Erie County Fair Hall of Fame in 1989.

After the couple retired from television, Bill was elected Colden supervisor and served through the early 1980s.

The couple moved to Florida, where they passed away in the early 1990s.

Bill and Mildred didn’t necessarily cook all the food they showed on TV, and they certainly didn’t do the dishes—most of the real kitchen work was done by women like Margaret Teasley, seen here offering some of the shows leftovers to the “Meet the Millers” crew, including Producer Bernie Ross, cameraman Art Lester, floorman Bud Hagmann and studio supervisor Gene Klumpp.

“Rising enthusiasm in FM listening throughout Western New York is expected to continue in 1952,” started a story in The Buffalo Evening News. Although WBEN first started experimenting with FM on W8XH in 1934, WBEN-FM was Buffalo’s first frequency modulation station when it signed on in 1946. Other FM stations signed on the air quickly, and by 1950, there were plenty of choices on the FM dial—although programming was slow to develop for the much clearer sounding band. 

It wouldn’t be until the late 60s and beyond when many of these still-familiar frequencies would come into their own with programming beyond “whatever was left over” from AM sister stations.

WBEN-FM changed frequencies from 106.5FM to 102.5FM in 1958 so that the station could increase its power.

The Four Quarters were regular entertainers on WBEN-TV. Bass player Bassie Atkinson was the only Buffalonian—a Central High grad. Kenneth Strother was on piano; Reggie Willis, guitar; and Eddie Inge, clarinet.

Akron’s Miller Bros. Band, shown with Ted Mack as contestants on the Original Amateur Hour, a network program which aired on Ch.4.

Marion Roberts was the hostess of Ch. 4’s Plain & Fancy Cooking weekday mornings through much of the 1950s. Her “timely tips make homemaking easier and cooking more exciting,” according to a 1955 ad. Ch.4’s mid-50s weekday local lineup included Roberts, John Corbett, and Mildred & Bill Miller, all with shows aimed at the housewife.

He came to Buffalo as Ch.4 first signed on— and over the next 30 years, there weren’t many radio & TV personalities who saw more airtime than WBEN’s John Corbett.

Through the 1950s, he was hosting 11 weekly radio shows and was Ch.4’s “Speaker of the House” host weekdays at 12:15pm. Through the 60s and 70s, his duties turned more to news, and in the early 70s, was one of the most seen faces of TV news in Buffalo.

His contract was left to expire in 1977.  He was approached about running for mayor, and even considered it— but ultimately did not, and instead, that election saw James D. Griffin begin his four-term stretch in Buffalo’s City Hall.

Celebrating the fifth anniversary of WBEN’s Breakfast at the Sheraton with engineer Peter Koelemeyer, organist Nelson Shelby, producer Gene Brook (who also played “Grumbles the Elf” on the Santa show), baritone Harry Schad, and emcees John Corbett and Ed Dinsmore in 1954.

Four years later, John Corbett and Dick Rifenburg celebrate the show’s anniversary.

In 1959, the Sheraton Gang included organist Norm Wullen, Dick Rifenburg, and John Corbett.

By the following year, the Sheraton breakfast show had given way to The Statler Luncheon Club, in the hotel’s Grover Cleveland Room. Virgil Booth and Mike Mearian were the hosts.

Ed Dinsmore was everywhere on Ch.4 in the station’s earliest days, as one of the station’s primary newscasters, playing Santa on the Santa show, and host of Breakfast at Sheraton on the radio. Dinsmore might have been Buffalo’s most familiar local TV face when he died suddenly in 1954. 

Ed Dinsmore (left) and crew get ready for a newscast from the Statler studios of Ch.4, 1954.

Van Miller joined the staff at WBEN-TV as a summer relief announcer in 1955, and didn’t leave for 43 years. In this mid-50s shot, Van is anchoring the news while Chuck Healy anchors sports. The pair would play the opposite roles on the same newscast together through much of the following decade.

The first Buffalo scientist to talk meteorology regularly on Buffalo TV was Buffalo Weather Bureau Chief Barney Wiggin.

“Weather with Wiggin” ran Monday evenings in the early 1950s on Ch.4.


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

Van Miller sings “I’ve Got That Phoenix Feeling,” 1995

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Uncle Van was really something special.

For most of the 1995 football season, Van Miller walked around the Channel 4 and WBEN singing “I’ve Got That Phoenix Feeling,” just that one line, over and over again, getting himself and the rest of us excited about a possible fifth Bills Super Bowl trip.

As the playoffs drew near, he wrote the rest of the lyrics and, accompanied by Ken Kaufman, recorded the song.

We played the baloney out of it on WBEN, and they played in on Channel 4 several times, too.

I later worked with Van at Channel 4, where he often worked my name into tennis highlights for reasons known only to him 

 

Van Miller on Cookie Gilchrist’s ear muffs

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Having worked with Van Miller on Bills broadcasts on the radio and then as his producer at Channel 4, I spent a lot of time listening to his stories.

Van Miller and John Murphy at Rich Stadium, 1985 (Buffalo Stories archives)

Van was a tremendous storyteller, and always delighted any crowd gathered around him with his ability to spin a tale about almost anything and make it interesting.

One of his favorites was “The Cookie Gilchrist earmuff story.” Ask people who’ve spent time around Van– Paul Peck, Brian Blessing, John Murphy… and they probably know the story as Van told it by heart as well as Van knew it himself.

The story goes, Cookie Gilchrist wasn’t really happy with the amount of money The Bills were paying him, so he was always looking for a way to make an extra buck. One time, he decided to buy a load of earmuffs and sell them as “Cookie Gilchrist earmuffs” at The Rockpile one Sunday.

Cookie Gilchrist at the Rockpile. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“Well,” Van would say with a smile, “It happened to be one of the hottest December days on record, and the sun blazing at kickoff– he only sold about three pairs of earmuffs!”

It’s a classic Van story, quick and neat, and leaves the listener smiling.

The problem is, while there’s probably some basis in truth— Van was always more about telling a good story than about getting all the facts straight.

In a quick internet search, I found three different reports of Van telling the story. The temperature at kickoff was either 69, 57, or 60 degrees depending on which version you read. The number of pairs of earmuffs he had changed too– 5,000 in one telling; 3,000 in another; 15,000 another time.

The point is, there were probably earmuffs. Beyond that, it’s tough to tell where the colorful imagination of Uncle Van took over.

There’s another version of the story told to writer Scott Pitoniak by longtime Bills trainer Ed Abramowski. Published in 2007, Abe’s version is Cookie was trying to sell the earmuffs for the 1964 AFL Championship Game at War Memorial, but the headgear wound up getting caught in customs when Gilchrist tried to bring them to Buffalo from his home in Toronto.

The only contemporary earmuff story I could find was in the Ottawa Journal a few days after the Bills won that 1964 AFL Championship Game.

A reporter asked Cookie about the autographed earmuffs he said would be sold at the game. “I ran into problems there, and didn’t sell them.”– Ottawa Journal, December 28, 1964

That game was played December 26, 1964. It was a mild day with some rain and a high around 45.

Van Miller’s story is the only reason I know that Cookie Gilchrist ever tried to sell earmuffs, and that really makes me smile. Knowing the real story about how and why makes me smile, too.

Cookie Gilchrist & Larry Felser

This video clip is about one of the toughest guys to ever wear a Buffalo on his helmet: Cookie Gilchrist.. but for me, it's also about the guy who taught me everything I know about Cookie– Larry Felser. Again, It's a great story about Cookie, but my favorite part is the very end… when Larry Felser lays it all out there finishing the story in grand style… with that devilish look in his eye and big grin on his face. He was one of the best storytellers I've ever known, and one of the most genuine souls. Rest in Peace, ol'pal.

Posted by Steve Cichon on Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Buffalo in the 60s: Van Miller calls first sports contest at ‘War Memorial’

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The Bills’ first and second home games were played in the same stadium — the Rockpile — but that stadium changed names in between.

It was 55 years ago tonight– Aug. 24, 1960– as the brand-new Buffalo Bills played in their second-ever preseason game, that the athletic field known by most as “The Rockpile” was rededicated in “tribute to living veterans and the dead of all U.S. wars” as War Memorial Stadium. Previously, the Rockpile had officially been known as Civic Stadium.

A Congressional Medal of Honor winner from World War I was on hand to speak on behalf of all veterans.

Van Miller was behind the mic as the Bills and Oakland Raiders became the first team to play on the newly christened field. Both teams were only a few preseason contests into existence in the new American Football League.

As appeared in the Buffalo Evening News, Elbert Dubenion, Rob Barrett, Richie Lucas, and Tommy O’Connell standing on the Bulls sideline at the newly named War Memorial Stadium– forever known as The Rock Pile. (Buffalo Stories archives)

As seen in this photo, the Bills’ uniforms during the team’s first two seasons are nothing like future Bills uniforms. Among the Bills’ early equipment were cast aways from the Detroit Lions– blue and silver with jersey numbers– but no Buffalo insignia– on the helmets.

Van Miller died July 17, 2015, at age 87.

What Van Miller meant to me

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

I’ve been grappling with what to say about Van Miller.

Steve and Van
Steve and Van, 2007

You don’t need a biography– Everyone knows, or at least confidently suspects, that he was the greatest broadcaster and entertainer to ever make a career in Buffalo.

Most people also know that he was a great story teller. I spent about 20 hours with Van after he retired from TV, recording all his stories getting ready to write a book that never happened. I still have those studio quality tapes– But maybe another day.

For me, when I think about Van, the Bills and the broadcasting– well, that’s only the half of it– as he used to say after two quarters of football.

I generally like to write about a person and their accomplishments and what they maybe should mean to you from a historical perspective. I just can’t with Van.

What I’m about to write is as much about me as it is Van, because I just don’t know how else to say any of this without making it personal.

That is to say (to stick an Ottoism in a Van piece), for as talented and amazing Van was as a personality— he was was never satisfied until he squeezed out every last bit of himself for every single person who watched and listened during his five decades in broadcasting.

I was 16 or so when I was working at WBEN and Van Miller became my friend. Really. My pal. I was working on the Bills broadcasts on the radio for a while before I became “The Game Day Producer” of the radio play-by-play. Van liked people who liked him, and I sure did like him.

steve cichon_van_miller
Van and Steve, Channel 4 sports office, 1998

He’d come down from the TV end of 2077 Elmwood Avenue and hang out with some mix of Chris Parker, Randy Bushover, Howard Simon, Rick Maloney and me in the WBEN Radio sports office, and those few minutes were always the highlight of each of our days.

Van knew that, and he liked it. Lived off it, I think. He knew the power he had in “just being himself” among people, and smiling and having a good time. And telling mildly off color jokes. And whispering swear words.

One of my occasional jobs back in those days was recording the religious and public affairs shows that would playback at 5 or 6am on Sunday mornings.

One day, with me at the controls and several Protestant ministers on the other side of the glass, Van came in, holding a pen and a reporters’ notebook, looking very serious. He importantly scrawled something on a sheet, ripped it off with a flourish, folded it and left it just out of my reach as he walked away quickly.

I rolled the chair back, opened the note and read:

Stevie, Those Protestants don’t know shit about bingo. -Van

He didn’t didn’t harbor any ill-will towards those men of God, he just wanted to make me laugh. At any cost. And I did. I’m also pretty sure that he was hoping that one of them would ask afterwards, “Ooh! What did Van Miller want! It looked very important!”

This was the highlight of my career up until that point, and still remains in the top 5. If my career ended that day, I’d have the story of the great Van Miller giving me a note mentioning shit and bingo. I loved it. And he knew it.

Van wasn’t just like this with me, he was like this with literally everyone he encountered. He loved that people loved him, and he loved them right back. He loved making tiny bits of trouble that he could always smooth out if it came to it, and he loved making personal connections with people. All kinds of people.

Every person.

My grandpa was a ticket taker at The Aud, and Van used to come through his door. He always said Van was the nicest VIP who’d walk through in his fur coat. He was generally beloved by all the technicians at Channel 4– no small feat for a one of “the big stars.” He treated the floor guys in the studio the same way he treated all the hundreds of athletes he’d dealt with over 50 years– with a friendly smile and with respect.

When I was working with Van at Channel 4, there was a severely handicapped guy named Stewart who used to call the sports office everyday with the same question… “What’s in sports today?”

I tried to be nice, but sometimes in the throes of deadlines and scripts to write and packages to edit and highlights to cut, it was easy for any of us to be short with Stewart– especially since no matter what we said, he’d mutter, “ok” and hang up the phone.

When Van picked up the phone, he did a fully embellished sportscast for good ol’Stewart.

“Well let me tell you,” he’d shout, in more of his Bills gameday voice than his Channel 4 voice, “The boys were practicing down at Sabreland today, and Wow! Did Pat LaFontaine’s knee look great— I think he’s getting ready to come back by the time the team skates in Hartford on Saturday. The Bills brought in three free agent linebackers today– trying to put the squeeze on negoatiations with Cornelius Bennett today… and a pair of hoemruns for Donnie Baseball today— Don Mattingly 3 for 3 as the Yankees destroyed the Red Sox 7 to 3. Rain stopped play at the Mercedes open… Michael Chang and Stefan Edberg will pick up their tied match right there tomorrow.”

He’d usually end the call with some silly rhyme or play on words or pun– something so bad he wouldn’t use it on the air.

“But I tell you what— the thunder clang won’t stop Chang… he looked like dynamite today— I’m predicting he wins the tournament handily.”

This was really almost daily. We’d all be laughing, Van smiling, and Stewart getting a daily dose of sports news. I don’t think anyone missed Van when he retired from TV more than Stewart.

Van loved being Van, and loved that other people loved him being Van. I learned that from him. Have fun being who you are– and enjoy other people enjoying it.

I owe a lot to Van Miller. I owe those memories, I owe much of my early career. I would have never been plugged in as the Bills Football producer on WBEN or hired as a producer at Channel 4 at the age of 19 without the backing of my Uncle Van.

And needless to say, Van Miller saying my name 427 or so times every week during Bills games in the ’90s made me a rock star at in high school. It made me a rock star in my family. No one was really clear on what I did at the radio station, but it sounded like Van Miller personally appreciated it– so it must be great!

I was special to Van– because everyone was special to Van. It’s a great gift Uncle Van gave to thousands of “nieces” and “nephews” through the years…

I think all of our lives have lost something with him gone. Despite the fact that I spend a lot of time celebrating institutions and people of the past– I am very rarely personally stirred by nostalgia. I find the past and how it relates to the present and future infinitely interesting, and even when I miss something, I rarely yearn for it.

But with that said, from inside my bones, I yearn for Van at one o’clock on crisp fall Sundays. I really love Murph– but the fact that it’s not Van has made it pretty easy to fall a bit away from Bills fandom as the team has declined. So much of what I loved about the Bills and football was the intangible greatness that Van brought to the play-by-play.

Tears are welling in my eyes thinking this could be the team… this could be the year.

Because I’m a Bills fan, I have no idea how great a Superbowl win feels. I do know, however, that it will never feel quite as good as it would with Van’s voice box popping out of his throat telling us the long wait is over.

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