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.

wivb50th54

 

The quest for the perfect cup of coffee

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

BUFFALO, NY – America has been breathlessly anticipating every move I make in my quest for the perfect cup of coffee.

I’ve been drinking coffee regularly since second grade. That’s when, for maybe six months, my brother, sister and I would get up really early to drive my dad to work, so that my mom would have the car so she could drive to work. The early wake-up wasn’t the problem. It was winter, and the heat was broken on the ol’fudge brown 1980 AMC Spirit. The coffee kept us warm for the drive.

shufflebowling-wax-300x300

This is not coffee creamer. Or maybe it is.

Since then, coffee has kept me warm and sane. I used to drink it with cream, but the two pots a day I’d drink at the radio station to keep me going when I was working full-time and going to school full-time eventually started to become black cups. That powered creamer always reminds me of the can of wax stuff we’d sprinkle on the shuffle bowling game at my dad’s bar when I was little. (He sold the bar to get that job we were driving him to…)

So I like black coffee. Coffee, not a bunch of syrupy flavors and whipped cream. I like coffee flavored coffee. Not Starbucks. Their “Pike’s Peak” blend makes me less homicidal than most, but usually if circumstance lands me at Starbucks, I’ll get tea.

Good Tim Hortons coffee is really good, but through the years, as the franchise has exploded, you get more and more skunkers. I think the skunkers come most from the practice of topping off a cup from a different pot. It’s worth the roll of the dice for a good one, though, on most days, and Tim Hortons is where I buy most coffee on the road.

I think I might like the robust, consistent taste of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee even better than Hortons, but those styrofoam cups taste pretty assy. Especially if the coffee is really hot, I mostly taste the mouthful of chemicals that just leached from the cup.

Since I began my own business and working from home a few months ago and lost access to endless free coffee in the work kitchen, I’ve been working on the easiest, cheapest, tastiest way to capture what’s good about a cup of coffee at home.

We have a Keurig, and I have to say, perhaps my all-time favorite cup of coffee comes from the Coffee Shop K-cup. The problem is the cost, which is 60¢-68¢ per cup. Fine for one, but if I have 4 or 5 cups, and it starts becoming a silly cost. There are cheaper K-cups, but I don’t like most of them, and I hate the rest.

I’ve tried the reusable Keurig baskets, but they taste plasticky pretty quick, and make an OK at best cup of coffee. I even tried cutting open a K-cup and putting the grounds in the reusable basket. Not even close. Next.

The standard Mr. Coffee type drip maker has been a part of my life since second grade. Bleech. That’s the taste I’m trying to avoid. Next.

I tried the French press, which makes a rich cup of coffee, but it lacks any bite. Great flavor, but no punch. Next.

Here I am perking at 5:50am.
Here I am perking at 5:50am.

But what’s next? We’ve had this old percolator which we last used during the October storm, and the coffee we made was terrible. Apparently, though, boiling the living hell out of the coffee for 10 or 15 minutes isn’t the way to do it.

Medium heat until it starts to perc, then low for 5 minutes. I found a cheap grinder that does the coarse grind needed for a percolator, and it turns out the cup that came with our rice cooker is just the right about of beans to be ground for 4 cups in the percolator. I’ve settled on Eight O’Clock 100% Colombian whole bean. 6¢ or so a cup.

So Van Miller was right when he used to read those Perkins spots with zeal, and he’d say, “Perk it up!” So that’s what I’m doing, Uncle Van.

It’s delicious, but there are drawbacks. It takes a while to brew, and with a stovetop percolator you have to watch it. You can’t heat the water too quickly, or it burns the coffee. And other people in the house all the sudden find your coffee delicious, which means you’re brewing more of it, more often.

But the percolator is it for now. Am I missing anything?  What say you?

This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com

20 Years Ago Today: The Houston Comeback Game

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

vandemoniumBUFFALO, NY – Bills games were big doings in the late 80s and early 90s, but they were always big doing in my house. Among my earliest memories of listening to the radio is sitting in our 1977 Mercury Monarch with mustard colored nugahyde seats, listening to Van Miller describe Joe Cribbs run with the ball. It was only a 5 minute drive from our South Buffalo home to Grandma Coyle’s South Buffalo home, where watching my grandfather watch the game was more fun for me, hearing him curse about Joe Ferguson.

Fast forward a few years, when the Bills actually started winning, and my dad would have his 5 brothers over to watch the game. Football for me became an endless walk to the fridge for another beer for someone.

I remember the excitment, I remember the cheering, I remember getting Bills clothes for Christmas every year, and being able to wear them to school on the “Bills Spirit Fridays” before games days and weeks later.

But the actual games themselves all blend together for me before I started working in sports radio. That’s true with only one exception: The Houston Comeback Game. I remember that I was alone in the living room listening to the game on the awful stereo my dad got for free somewhere. No screaming uncles looking for beers. No one swearing when the team was getting killed. Just me… a high school sophomore, Van Miller, and that cruddy stereo.

I was already taping most of the things I listened to on the radio, but I didn’t tape the game for some reason… Maybe because they were losing early, and then I got caught up in the comeback… I don’t know. But I did tape it the next day, when they played back the second half and OT. And here it is, 20 years later.

In Part One, WGR’s Art Wander introduces a collage of highlights, and then the second half of action with Van Miller, Marc Stout, and Greg Brown at the score 28-3 Oilers. (The audio is low quality so that Bills fans reliving the glory days don’t shut down my website.)

In Part two, the second half continues with Van Miller, Marc Stout, and Greg Brown… After overtime and the comeback complete, Paula Green does the news, and then briefly hear John Otto gush about the Bills. Its my favorite part! (The audio is low quality so that Bills fans reliving the glory days don’t shut down my website.)

I’ve been listening to this and thinking a loy about it, and realizing that a few months after taping this, I started working at WBEN. Then soon producing the Bills games on the radio, and covering media day at the stadium. The starting at WBEN in someways seems like only yesterday. That memory of sitting in my living room listening to this game seems like a a book I’ve read, but not something I actually lived.

WBEN 1973- Clint Buehlman, The Buffalo Braves, and more….

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo


Originally Posted: February, 2008

Just unearthed! Recordings of entire days of WBEN Radio… Unheard since the days they were broadcast over 35 years ago! Names like Clint Buehlman, Van Miller and the NBA Buffalo Braves! Read on!

WBEN AM/FM/TV, 1960

So where did these tapes come from? In 1995, Lin Television performed a massive cleanout of the 2077 Elmwood Avenue building they had just purchased as a part of their buying WIVB-TV.

Among the “treasures” I found dumpster diving, was a box of Reel-to-Rel tapes that appeared to be WBEN Radio Logger tapes from the early 70s. Many of the reels were blank… But even those with the audio intact were nearly useless… The tapes were recorded at 15/32 IPS. That is very slow, and at the time the tapes were rescued, the only way to hear the tapes properly involved about 4 hours of work for an hour of final product. For 13 years, I’ve been trying to figure out how to play these tapes back… And now… thanks to a new reel deck.. and some new digital audio editing programs, viola!

The audio quality is not the best… Its warbly sometimes… And it jumps quite a bit… And These logger tapes were in the Engineering Shop because there were problems with the recording…. But what is really amazing. Imagine your grandparents listening to WBEN all day… That’s what you get here. Things were slow to change at WBEN. Clint Buehlman’s Show in 1973 was not really all that different from the show in 1953. Van Miller is in great voice and cadence calling Buffalo Braves basketball. As far as I know, these are the only complete recordings of Braves basketball in tact.

Below, you’ll find exactly what and who is on these tapes… and some brief cuts from each.

Clint Buehlman

One of the most often asked questions to this website is, “What was the name of Clint Buehlman’s theme song?” The answer is, there were dozens of light airy instrumentals that were used to open each hour of the Buehlman show, after newsman Jack Ogilvie introduced Your AM-MC after each newscast. Listen below for several such opens, along with other snippets from the Buehly.

 

Newsman Jack Ogilvie (right) and AM-MC Clint Buehlman spent mornings together for over a quarter of a century starting in 1951 and ending in 1977.

Buffalo Braves Basketball

As Van Miller’s one time producer in both radio and TV, I can tell you I don’t know that he ever sounded better than behind the mic courtside at the Aud during Braves games, as shown to the left with Dr Jack Ramsey, standing.

Another of those popular questions is Do you have any Braves Games? Apparently, the answer has been yes for quite a long time… only they’ve been stuck on tapes I couldn’t play. But now, I have at least three Braves games in their entirety.

Braves vs Lakers: December 19, 1973
Kareem Abdul Jabbar visits Memorial Auditorium

Braves vs Bucks: February 2, 1973
Wilt Chamberlain visits Memorial Auditorium

 

Van Miller interviews Fred Hilton and Randy Smith in the WBEN studios circa 1972.

 


Some Highlights from WBEN Friday December 28, 1973

WBEN’s Al Fox interviews a cow.
Dick Rifenburg (l) and Clint Buehlman (r) receive an Award for Ski Coverage.
Ward Fenton
Dick Rifenburg
Jack Ogilvie
Ken Philips
Lou Douglas
Lou Douglas in Studio A
Stan Barron showing some kids around the studio.

Some Highlights from WBEN March 15, 1973

 

 


Random Highlights from WBEN 1973

 

Ed Tucholka at the WBEN-FM automation center.
Virgil Booth on the Channel 4 set.
Marty Gleason at the Editors Desk.
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

 

WBEN: 75 Years in Sound!

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

UPDATED: February 28, 2005

More information on the audio snippets follow…

  • Lou Douglas News May 1973.
  • Bill Masters commercial, Jimmy Thompson, Vic Baker reporting.
  • Weatherfax Jingle. TM Productions, 1979
  • Tim Wenger on Ed Little’s Retirement, 1991.
  • Mark Leitner & Susan Rose News promo early 90s
  • Promo Bed Jingle. TM Productions, 1979
  • 1964 AFL Championship Game, Van Miller & Ralph Hubbell
  • Ed Tucholka closes out a show. WBEN-FM 1974
  • Early 80’s Sales Presentation for Bills Football. Van Miller, John Murphy, Jimmy Griffin, Ed Rutkowski
  • A Sabres Presentation from the same era. Ted Darling, Rick Jeanneret
  • Three segments of the Jeff Kaye Show from the Blizzard of ’77
    • Lou Douglas, news January 28, 1977
    • Jeff gets angry that an event is NOT cancelled.
    • Lou Douglas, news January 28, 1977
  • Two unidentified WBEN Announcers close out a Childrens Choir Show.1943
  • Elgin Watch 2 Hours of Stars Show Unidentified WBEN announcer gives a station break. 1943
  • Bob Wood and Dave May open the Larry King Show 1980
  • Former WBEN Staff Announcer Lou Adler with memories from the 60th anniversary of the station 1990
  • Tom Jolls remembers his days at WBEN in the mid-50’s. 1990
  • Audio from a WBEN-TV broadcast announcing the death of WBEN President Mrs. Edward Butler. Alan Costantini, Chuck Healy, Mark Estren August 3, 1974
  • Raw production from promos for the Fred Smerlas & Jim Haslett Show.
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