The story of how Jim Kelly hated Buffalo before he loved it

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s tough to imagine Buffalo without Jim Kelly… but if he would have had it his way at the beginning of his professional career, he never would have become a Buffalo Bill.

Today, two decades after taking his last snap, Kelly remains one of Buffalo’s most beloved personalities and one of Western New York’s biggest backers.

He was one of us in the pocket. His on-field grit reflects what we hope we see in ourselves individually and as a community.

The Buffalo News headline blares “Fandemonium,” the phrase coined by Bills play-by-play man Van Miller, describing Bills fans pouring onto the field and taking down the goalposts after the Jim Kelly-led Bills clinched their first division title in recent memory. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Our admiration for him was forged as we watched him blow into his hands in Rich Stadium cold– and seemed to enjoy it.

Kelly and those great Bills teams embraced the cold and the snow and made it a part of their physical and mental advantage over the rest of the AFC during the greatest ride Buffalo sports fans have ever known.

Jim Kelly visits the Aud Club shortly after being drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1983.  (Buffalo Stories archives)

Fresh out of college, though, Kelly had another path to greatness planned. It was lined with palm trees and beautiful people, not snowbanks and Zubaz.

It took a couple of turns in the road to get him here.

Jim Kelly was drafted by the Bills out of Miami three years before he made Rich Stadium his home.

There were plenty of very good quarterbacks available in the 1983 NFL Entry Draft. Three of them, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, and John Elway, are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Baltimore Colts made Elway the top pick—but he quickly refused to play for team. It made for an interesting draft day for Kelly, as he recounted to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010.

“My agent looked at me after Elway got picked and the problem that arose from it and he said, ‘Hey Jim, is there anywhere that you don’t want to play?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t want to play for the Minnesota Vikings. I don’t want to play for the Green Bay Packers and I don’t want to play for the Buffalo Bills.’”

-Jim Kelly to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010

The Bills picked Notre Dame tight end Tony Hunter with the 12th pick. Watching on TV in his parents’ living room, Kelly celebrated not being picked by Buffalo.

“I remember jumping up out of my seat and I hit my mother who was sitting on the right arm of the recliner and I knocked her right off the chair. I felt so bad, I quick picked her up off the floor and I’m apologizing, ‘Sorry mom I’m just glad I’m not going to play for Buffalo.’”

-Jim Kelly to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010

But the Bills also had the 14th pick in the first round. With that pick, they took the Miami quarterback.

“I couldn’t believe it. Within minutes the phone calls came and with me being politically correct I was saying how excited I was to be a Buffalo Bill. And when I hung up I said, ‘We need to call the USFL and see what other options we have.’”

-Jim Kelly to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010

One of those immediate conversations was with WBEN Radio’s Stan Barron. You can listen to that conversation below.

The polite young quarterback impressed one of the old salts of Buffalo sports by saying all the right things, though his heart clearly wasn’t in it– because he had an alternative.

The United States Football League was founded in 1982. The original idea was to capitalize on the country’s growing love of professional football by playing games in the spring and summer during the NFL’s off-season. The league wasn’t going head-to-head with games, but they were going head-to-head in trying to sign talent.

Kelly’s agents worked out a deal with the Bills, and then took two weeks to meet with USFL teams.  Bills interim General Manager Pat McGroder was unabashedly optimistic.

“They (Kelly’s agents) said we’ve got a hell of a chance of getting him,” McGroder told reporters as USFL brass wined and dined Kelly and crew.

The Bills were taken by surprise when Larry Felser wrote in The Buffalo News that Kelly would sign with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers “for an enormous sum of money.”

“There are risks in doing what I’m doing, but I made up my mind,” Kelly said. “Everybody has to take a risk once in his life. But I’m happy I did it and I won’t regret it.”

The folks at One Bills Drive were upset that the team was never given a chance to meet or beat the offer from the upstart league.

“We considered three different offers that they threw at us, and they were very happy with the offer we made to them,” McGroder told reporters after Kelly signed the five-year, $3.5 million deal . “I want the fans to know it was not the Buffalo Bills who let them down.”

“It was very cold in Buffalo.”

-Jim Kelly to reporters in Houston

When he signed, Kelly told reporters in Houston that he was never pleased with what the Bills were offering and that part of his decision to join the Gamblers was that he liked the people in their organization better than he did those with the Bills.

When Kelly’s signing was announced in Houston, his agent, Greg Lustig said, “There were several reasons not to sign with Buffalo. For one, it’s one of the most depressed areas in America. The opportunities just aren’t there. I understand Joe Cribbs made under $500 in personal appearances there in the last three years.”

Associated Press, June 11, 1983

The Bills moved on, but the woeful play of the quarterbacks on the roster and a pair of 2-14 seasons in 1984 and 1985 meant Kelly was never far from the thoughts of anyone connected with the Bills.

Joe Ferguson played quarterback for the Bills in 1983, and part of 1984, until Joe Dufek took the starting job.  Bruce Mathison was on the roster at quarterback, too. The Bills also brought in veteran Vince Ferragamo in 1985. The day Ferragamo became a Bill, he was asked about Kelly.

“I think you definitely look at that with suspicion,” Ferragamo said of the possibility of Kelly coming to the Bills. “There’s nothing concrete behind that and your approach to the game can’t be decided on the fact of what happens a year from now.”

The Bills thought of Kelly with hope, but Kelly’s thoughts of Buffalo weren’t happy ones.

“There are a lot of off-the-field endorsements I can get here (in Houston) that I couldn’t get in Buffalo. Plus I could come right in and play and make a name for myself and not have to sit behind Joe Ferguson for three years playing in the snow in Buffalo.”

Jim Kelly, a year into his USFL contract, 1984

Kelly was enjoying his time in Houston– setting league passing records and driving a brand new Corvette every few weeks in a deal with a local Chevy dealer– but the future of the upstart USFL was becoming cloudy.

So with a murky prognosis for the league and the team that Kelly played for, the quarterback’s stance softened somewhat, saying that while the Bills weren’t his top choice of NFL teams,  he’d “play for them if necessary and give his best.”

In a 1985 article, Vic Carucci writes in The Buffalo News that Houston Gamblers quarterback Jim Kelly wasn’t as vehemently anti-Buffalo as he had been since the 1983 NFL draft. (Buffalo Stories archives)

 

It still wasn’t a homerun. As late as February, 1986, Kelly was still openly hostile to playing in Buffalo.

Tonawanda News. (Buffalo Stories archives)

And month before signing with the Bills, Sports Illustrated started a feature article on the Houston Gamblers quarterback with “Jim Kelly, the best quarterback nobody has ever seen play…”

Kelly was likely leaving Texas one way or another. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The article went on to describe the close knit Kelly clan that Buffalonians of the ’80s and ’90s remember well– the quarterback’s parents and brothers who eventually seemed to fit right in here despite their Pennsylvania accents.

During the summer of 1986, the USFL was embroiled in lawsuits and court cases. Play was suspended for the league, and on paper, Kelly’s Houston Gamblers had merged with the Donald Trump-owned, Doug Flutie-quarterbacked New Jersey Generals.

The future was up in the air. USFL team mergers could have been haulted. The USFL could have been forced to fold. The USFL could have merged with the NFL.

Kelly talked about all of these possibilities in SI.  It didn’t leave Bills fans hopeful.

”I’d like to play for the Raiders. I’d like to live in California,” Kelly says. ”But what I’d really like to do is play for the New Jersey Generals and Donald Trump and merge with the NFL and take the run-and-shoot with Herschel Walker in the backfield and just kick ass.”

Kelly himself says he might play for the Bills if the USFL folds, if they pay him a lot, or he might sit out the 1986 season and become a free agent next year and go where he pleases for a trillion dollars. ”Buffalo needs more than me, more than a quarterback,” he says. ”I’d get the tar beat out of me, and it would shorten my career.”

-Sports Illustrated, July 21, 1986

About a month after the article hit mailboxes in Western New York and around the country,  Jim Kelly was a Buffalo Bill and the NFL’s highest paid player.

After years of denying Buffalo, Machine Gun Kelly took over the city in August, 1986. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“I’m being paid to play football, and that’s what I want to do,” Kelly told the Associated Press as the USFL stalemate seemed indefinite during the summer of 1986. Kelly and the Bills started the wheels in motion to make that happen.

In mid-August, Bills General Manager Bill Polian received written permission from Donald Trump– whose team owned Kelly’s rights in the USFL– to negotiate a deal with the quarterback. Kelly sat with Ralph Wilson in a suite during the Bills first preseason game against the Oilers in Houston.

In the following days, Kelly signed a five-year, $8 million contract. The approximately $1.5 million per year pushed Kelly’s salary past Joe Montana’s $1.3 million, making the new Bills quarterback the NFL’s richest player.

Jim Kelly takes a call from Gov. Mario Cuomo as he signs a deal to become the NFL’s highest paid player. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“What we’re really interested in is rebuilding this franchise to respectability,” Bills owner Ralph Wilson said at the time of the signing. But it was bigger than that for Buffalo.

Jim Kelly’s deciding join the Bills might have been Buffalo’s biggest event of the 1980s. It was a Buffalo prodigal son story if there ever was one. Jim Kelly spent three years sniping at Buffalo and taking shots at our weather– but a switch was flipped when he climbed off a private plane into a limousine and got a police escort down the 33– with fans waving and cheering at overpasses– to sign the contract that would make him not just a million-dollar arm, but our million dollar arm.

As Bill Polian looks on, Jim Kelly signs autographs along Buffalo’s waterfront just after signing a contract with the Bills. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Kelly took a break from signing autographs in the lobby of a downtown hotel to officially sign that contract in a spot only blocks from where a billboard sponsored by Bethlehem Steel employees famously asked  “the last person leaving Buffalo to turn out the light.”

It hadn’t even been ten years since that billboard had come and gone, but things had grown worse. The steel plant had closed and the Bills had just played two 2-14 seasons in a row.

It was bleak being a Buffalonian.

The signing definitely made Buffalonians hold their heads a little higher. Bills General Manager Bill Polian spelled it out at that first press conference.

“The fact that Jim is sitting here to my left is an enduring monument to Ralph Wilson’s commitment to building a winner for the city of  Buffalo,” said Polian.

Jimbo’s arrival rekindled an almost extinguished sense of civic pride and brought a measure of  hometown hope to Buffalo, and the feeling is mutual. Kelly has called signing with the Bills “the best decision of his life.”

Three decades removed,  its tough to imagine what Buffalo would have been without his presence.

 

Elvis Presley’s death: Ch 4 Buffalo at WBEN Radio 8/17/77

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

From the Buffalo Stories archives: WBEN Radio paid music tribute to Elvis Presley in the hours following his death on August 17, 1977.

Speaking from WBEN Radio’s Studio A at 2077 Elmwood Avenue was then 93/WBEN DJ Chris Tyler. This piece appeared on WBEN-TV Channel 4 (now WIVB-TV.)

I garbage picked this and dozens of other tapes and films during a basement clean out at Channel 4 when I was a producer at the station in the late 90s.

Audio Flashback: WBEN Newsweek, 1978

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

With the recent passing of Doug Smith, I was reminded of a piece of audio in the Buffalo Stories archives where he was featured as the Courier-Express Film Critic.

The recording is a half-hour feature called “Newsweek,” and was a collection of highlights from WBEN’s “Newsday at Noon.” This particular edition was from what sounds like the last week of 1978.

Doug is being interviewed by Lou Douglas, who also interviews Erie County Legislator William Pauly, Episcopal Bishop Harold Robinson, and Peggy Speranza of the Feingold Association.

The host of the half-hour is newsman Jim McLaughlin, and there is also a Stan Barron sports editorial at the 15:10 mark,

When I started working at WBEN in the early 1990s, running the pre-taped Newsweek– by then hosted by Tim Wenger– very early Sunday morning was one of my first jobs in radio.

 

Buffalo in the ’30s: FDR campaigns in front of City Hall

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Only weeks before he was to be elected to his second term as president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Buffalo to dedicate the city’s new federal building on Niagara Square.

FDR-in-BFLO206-ww
President Franklin Roosevelt addresses the crowd at Niagara Square, Oct. 17, 1936. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The Oct. 17, 1936, Buffalo visit was Roosevelt’s first as president — although he had visited Buffalo countless times during his four years as New York’s governor. The courthouse was a federally funded New Deal project and was designed primarily by Buffalo architect E.B. Green.

The Depression was on the mind of the president and the thousands who turned out around Western New York to greet him and his train as he spoke in Buffalo and in Niagara Falls.

Buffalo News archives

“I need not compare the Buffalo of today with the Buffalo as I saw it the last time I was here,” Roosevelt said in Niagara Square. “You will recall, I am sure, those years when I had the privilege of being the chief executive of this state. Already in 1930 the problems of unemployment and depression had become severe and you will recall also that it was in 1931 that I, as governor, called the Legislature of the State of New York into special session to provide relief for the distressed unemployed of the state and New York was the first state in the Union to definitely accept the responsibilities of seeing to it that as far as the state’s resources could prevent it, none of its citizens who wished to work would starve.”

The ceremony took place in front of the building which has been known as the Michael J. Dillon Courthouse since 1986. Federal offices started to move from Niagara Square to the former Thaddeus J. Dulski Federal Building (now the Avant) in the late 1960s. The remaining federal courtrooms moved across Niagara Square to the Robert Jackson Courthouse in 2012.

The president’s dedication was carried on radio stations WKBW, WBEN and WBNY.

This print was backwards in The News archives, and has appeared backwards in print at least twice through the years. Here it appears with the proper orientationwith the Statler Hotel to his left, and the new courthouse out of frame to the right.
This print was backwards in The News archives, and has appeared backwards in print at least twice through the years. Here it appears with the proper orientation—with the Statler Hotel to his left, and the new courthouse out of frame to the right.

This brief clip was not from Roosevelt’s Buffalo speech, but it was typical of his talks throughout the 1936 campaign.

Roosevelt arrived in Buffalo at 10:30 p.m. the night before his speech, and left at 11:33 a.m. after the downtown Buffalo dedication and a speech at Hyde Park Stadium in Niagara Falls. The president slept in his special railcar, “The Pioneer,” as it sat on the tracks of the New York Central terminal, surrounded by 25 New York Central Railroad Police.

The day after the president’s visit, an interesting side note about the campaign was the subject of an editorial in the Courier-Express, discussing the media presence of President Roosevelt and his opponent, Kansas Governor Alf Landon.

It is not late for the Democratic organization to show its fine sense of sportsmanship in campaign tactics. Hitherto it has pitted the perfect radio voice of Mr. Roosevelt against the more limited oratorical personality of Mr. Landon, proving Mr. Roosevelt a far superior air attraction than the less unctuous Kansas governor. If the election were to be decided on mere rhetorical counts, the Chanticleer of Democracy undoubtedly would have the edge.

Mr. Landon, however, is really a rather nice looking man with a smile of his own, not overwhelmingly ingratiating, of course, like Mr. Roosevelt’s but still fairly easy on the eyes. The impression is that Mr. Landon, who does not broadcast as well as Mr. Roosevelt, might perhaps screen as well.

These considerations have reference to the campaign movie recently made at Hyde Park House, featuring the Lord High Chief Executive in a story designed to show a typical day at his home. The cameras ground, the sound trucks maneuvered, Franklin the Fair flashed smiles as he sat at his desk — in a word, politics went Hollywood. No release date was set for the attraction at the movies but it certainly should be billed soon now.

What box-office following both candidates may have, if both are offered on their visual merits to the movie fans, could only be conjectured; but at least Mr. Roosevelt’s undisputed radio advantage over Mr. Landon might thus be cut down in the interest of good emotional sportsmanship.

Buffalo in the ’40s: Clint Buehlman & Buffalo Bob Smith

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

They were two of Buffalo’s favorite up-and-coming announcers and emcees during the 1930s on the Buffalo Broadcasting Corp.’s WGR Radio.

When The Buffalo Evening News wanted to wrestle away WGR’s top rating for its own station, WBEN, it was Clinton Buehlman (left) and Smilin’ Bob Smith (right) they hired.

Buehly and Smith, along with Johnny Eisenberger (who was later better known as Forgetful the Elf), were lifelong friends who grew up together on Buffalo’s East Side. When they were brought to WBEN from WGR in 1943, Buehlman hosted the early morning show and Smith did mid-mornings.

In between their own programs, they co-hosted “Early Date at Hengerer’s,” live from the downtown department store.

Early Date at Hengerer's, WBEN. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“Early Date” at Hengerer’s, WBEN. (Buffalo Stories archives)

While Buehlman’s pace was fast and his persona was slapstick, Smilin’ Bob was more laidback and homespun. He caught the ear of NBC executives in New York City looking to build a team for the network’s Big Apple flagship station.

Bob Smith, WBEN. Buffalo News archives

Bob Smith, WBEN. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Shortly after Smith left WBEN for the New York’s WEAF Radio in 1946, longtime News and Courier-Express radio critic Jim Trantor wrote:

“Buffalo’s Smilin’ Bob Smith, who’s become one of NBC’s  fair-haired  boys  on the  New York scene … is going great guns at the head of a television show for youngsters down there and looks to have just about the rosiest future imaginable.”

The show, of course, was Howdy Doody, and Smith was destined to become one of the great early stars of television.

Tom Connolly: Great Friend, mentor, broadcaster

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

BUFFALO, NY – For those who just knew Tom Connolly as the guy who said, “it’s midnight,” every night, seven nights a week for almost 25 years, its difficult to introduce you to the man. He was as unique as his voice– unequivocally one of a kind.

tomconnolly
We both knew it was part goof, but mostly tribute. I put up a page on my Buffalo radio and TV history website about Tom Connolly.  He’s a shadowy figure who lurks just beyond the outer edges of radio….  He’s been around at Buffalo’s top radio station for parts of three decades, where he always prefers the soft glow of the moon to the harshness of the sunlight (and all that it brings.) Tom Connolly is the man with the answer to the question what time it is…. So long as the time is MIDNIGHT, I wrote in 2006. When I asked to take a photo for this page, but suggested I take the photo from behind, “to maintain his shadowy anonymity,” he got that look in his eyes and loved it.

We’ve all seen some movie or TV show where a kid goes to the dumpy basement closet to hang out with the school janitor– a world-weary and gruff, yet kind and brilliant guy, who gives great advice and does his sometimes rotten job like clockwork.

Overnights in radio are a lot like a dumpy basement… And while Tom was no janitor, he just did his work– and a lot of stuff that he’d do just because he thought someone should– quietly with no expectation of appreciation or praise.  He was like radio’s counterculture guidance counselor.

He loved and cared for each one of us kids who went through the station, and encouraged us to make our own role there, because no one else was going to do it for us.

The first time I was ever on the air at WBEN was with Tom’s guidance– make that his insistence. On a Sunday morning shift in 1994, the news guy never showed up.

It was with his passionate, insistent, and unmistakably Connollyesque advice that I began my on air career in radio.

What many people outside of radio might not realize, is that Tom worked overnights, seven days a week. For decades.

Again, that started in part because Tom cared about me personally.  There was a time when I was working 3-11 Saturday evening, then was back Sunday morning at 5. At this point, Tom had Saturday nights off– his one night off every week.

The guy who was supposed to work the overnight shift while I’d go sleep on the station couch for six hours didn’t show up two weeks in a row. Being a naive high school kid, I never told anyone… Until one day I let it it slip to Tom. He was already angry that “the man” was taking advantage of my eagerness to work by putting me on such a schedule.

But Tom had no love for the character who skipped out on that shift. The next week, Tom was working Saturday night — the start of his 23 year run of overnights every night. He also insisted that I forgo that soiled couch in the station basement and drive 45 minutes home for some real sleep. More than once that sound sleep ended abruptly with a phone call from the station.

“Tom here.”

“Sorry Tom, I’m on my way.”

“No problem.”

And he meant no problem. For five years, Tom relived me from “running the board” as the technical producer and operator of the station in the early 90s.

Most nights he’d walk in, fresh from Tops next door, with his arms filled with bizarro overnight snacks. The menu would change through the years, but early on it was a half-gallon of Tops Vim One skim milk, which he’d drink straight from the carton to wash down a bag of oyster crackers and a pound of M&Ms.

Often a minute or two “late,” he’d simply say, “Good evening. Vacate.”

In those years he wouldn’t take official vacation days or any time off– he’d ask me to cover for him, with the same request once a year, several years running.

“If it’s ok, I may be a few minutes late tonight,” he’d say— and I then knew what was coming next. “Weird Al Yankovic is performing in concert tonight, and I’d like to attend.”

The gratitude he’d show when you did him a small favor was as if it had been served on a golden platter.

Maybe a bit more mellowed, Tom was the same cat when I came back to WBEN after several years away.

No longer a (young) punk and having some radio management experience under my belt, I had an even greater appreciation for Connolly (which is nearly universally how we’ve always referred to him.)

He taught young people not only the craft of radio, but the reward in the drudgery of work just for the sake of your own pride in getting it done. He was the cool upper classman who knew all the tricks and was willing to share.

For decades, Tom would send home board ops and news people on Christmas… And work double duty for 36 straight hours so the people at the bottom of the totem poll could spend time with their families.

After his daily nine hours at Entercom, contributing to the success of WBEN, WGR, Star and Kiss’ morning show in his typical unheralded fashion, rarely receiving the credit or thanks he deserved, he’d head to his first radio love, WBNY, and work for free on a fantastic music show– again, acting as mentor and funky uncle to generations of Buff State broadcasting students.

If one was trying to be sensitive, one would say Tom was unique. He was unique enough to be comfortable with weird. Mostly a good weird. Mostly a weird like, “Who works that hard?” Or “Who helps people he barely knows like that?” Or “Who just does his job, seven days a week, always superior with no questions asked?”

Tom was one of the people who made working in radio different, exciting, and so much better than any other terrible, terribly-paying job on the planet. His work ethic, his weirdness, and his love and support for all of us will be greatly and forever missed.

Stars make “radio” for those who listen. Guys like Tom make radio for those who make radio.

Buffalo in the ’80s: Now pitching for the Bisons, Larry King (and Mike Billoni)

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

In some cynical Western New York circles, when the announced crowd seems to be a bit higher than the actual attendance figure, someone is bound to ask, “Did Mike Billoni do the counting?”

Buffalo News archives

It’s probably not what talk show host Larry King was talking over with Bisons Skipper Rocky Bridges in the dugout, but Billoni’s magic played no small part in the meeting in the first place.

It was Bisons executive Billoni’s marketing and public relations prowess which helped whip Western New York into a baseball frenzy in the late ’80s. Triple-A level ball was back for the first time in 25 years, seats at the brand new Pilot Field were the hottest ticket in town, and the you-could-almost-taste-it hope of Major League Baseball coming to the new ballpark were amplified by the former Courier-Express reporter’s panache for promotion.

Ten-thousand tickets sold within an hour-and-a-half of the first Pilot Field passes going on sale. The nationally televised old timers’ game and the Triple-A All Star game, both seen on ESPN that year, were also sellouts. With 22 sellouts for The Herd in the 1988 season, Buffalo shattered the all-time minor league baseball attendance record with just shy of 1.2 million through the turnstiles in Pilot Field’s first season.

So, when Larry King — whose national radio show had been heard overnights on WBEN in Buffalo for a decade and was becoming more famous for the CNN talk show he’d been hosting since 1985 — came to Buffalo to throw out the opening pitch, it wasn’t good enough that it just be a random Friday night at the ballpark.

Billoni was pitching King’s appearance as the “formal dedication” of Pilot Field on May 19, 1988. That’s not to be confused with the first game, which was played a month earlier, when Governor Mario Cuomo, Mayor Jim Griffin, and the whole cadre of politicians wanting to claim some credit for the erection of the ballpark showed up to be a part of the ribbon cutting.

There’s no doubt that was alright with Billoni — who three decades later, remains one of Buffalo’s great molders and shapers of public opinion.

Buffalo in the ’60s: Clint Buehlman’s Thanksgiving

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Clint Buehlman spent 46 years on Buffalo radio. From 1931 until 1977, “Yours Truly” Buehly’s voice came across Western New York’s airwaves daily, checking Arthur Mometer for the temperature, helping commuters through traffic, and letting kids know when school was cancelled.

Buffalo News archives

Nearly 40 years after Buehlman’s retirement, the day he’s remembered and talked about most by his generations of audiences is Thanksgiving Day.

In 1987, when “Your AM-MC, CB” came back to WBEN after a decade of forced retirement for an interview with then-WBEN (now WHTT) morning man Bill Lacy, Lacy said Thanksgiving time was, by far, the time of year when the phones rang with thoughts of Buehlman the most — and they were mostly thoughts about Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians.

Buehly made it a Western New York tradition to play Waring’s version of “Grandma’s Thanksgiving” every year, and it remains a song takes many Buffalonians back to the old kitchen radio and a much simpler time.

In 1977, upon reaching the age of 65, Buehlman was forced to retire from the early morning seat he had occupied on WBEN since 1943. Here’s a look back at his career at the time of his retirement.

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

 

WBEN’s calm, steady voice of intelligence and reason: Lou Douglas 1930-2015

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Pioneer announcer and journalist Lou Douglas has died. He was 85.

loudouglasheadshotThe Korean War vet came to WBEN-AM/FM/TV in 1957 and his unflappable, smart, level-headed approach to news anchoring and interviewing was part of the fabric of  the station for 30 years. Douglas was considered by most as the dean of broadcast journalists.

In his early years as a junior announcer at The Buffalo Evening News stations, television still played second fiddle to AM radio. Many of his early assignments were on Channel 4, including regular 6pm walks from WBEN’s Statler studios to The Buffalo Evening News’ building near the foot of Main Street. There, he’d read the 6 o’clock news as prepared by The News’ staff,  broadcast–as was announced at the beginning of each newscast– “From the Editorial Floor of the Buffalo Evening News.”

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Douglas would continue to appear as a reporter, host, and announcer on TV through the 1970s, but he is best remembered for his work at WBEN Radio.

It was his voice that anchored coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Buffalo in 1962. He broadcast from inside the prison complex during the Attica uprising. Living in Kenmore, his home was closest to the WBEN’s Elmwood Avenue studios– which meant extended duty for Lou during the Blizzard of 1977.

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He always sounded even-keeled on the air, and was the same way in the newsroom, where he was remembered for reading the Wall Street Journal and never being afraid to pick up the phone to calmly make the most outlandish and seemingly impossible interview requests for his afternoon and evening interview spots.

In spanning three decades, Douglas really had two separate careers; one as a staff announcer, and one as a journalist. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the people you saw on Channel 4 and heard on WBEN were announcers– and only announcers. Union rules dictated that they could not and would not write their own news scripts or conduct news interviews or gather information.

WBEN's staff announcers of the late 1950s. Douglas is second from the left, standing between Jack Ogilvie and Van Miller.
WBEN’s staff announcers of the late 1950s. Douglas is second from the left, standing between Jack Ogilvie and Van Miller.

By the mid-1970s, those rules had changed, and most of the “announcers” who had been bringing Buffalo news and weather since the ’40s and ’50s were gone. Not Douglas, though– his abilities as a staff announcer complimented his ability to gather the news, interview the newsmakers, and write his own newscasts.

Lou with the WBEN newsteam of the mid 1980s.
Lou with the WBEN newsteam of the mid 1980s.

He retired from WBEN in 1987, and spent a brief period at WWKB Radio a few years later before retiring for good.

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The Courier-Express welcomes Lou in 1957.

In 2010, I spoke to Lou about his days in radio, and the possibility of the Statler building facing the wrecking ball. This interview wasn’t meant for broadcast, but is wonderful none the less. That interview, along with some career highlights, are listed for playback below. Please feel free to use any of the audio or photos in the celebration of Lou’s life in any media.

Steve with Lou Douglas, 2010:

LouOnThePhone
in the WBEN newsroom, 1986

WBEN’s Election 85 coverage: Kevin Keenan, Lou Douglas, Brian Meyer, Mark Hamrick, and John Murphy

Election coverage, mid 1970s with Kevin Gordon
Election coverage, mid 1970s with Kevin Gordon

WBEN News with Lou Douglas, 1973. Attica uprising, will Mayor Sedita resign?

Lou-Douglas-Jim-McLaughlin-
Lou Douglas (back) and Jim McLaughlin (through the window) hosting WBEN’s Newsday. Both covered the Attica uprising as radio reporters, Lou for WBEN and Jim for WKBW before coming to WBEN in the late 70s.

WBEN News with Lou Douglas, January 1977. The Blizzard of ’77.

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Hosting on Channel 4

WBEN’s Coverage of JFK’s Visit to Buffalo, 1962. Lou Douglas live from Niagara Square.


interview2interview1

For immediate release