WBEN-TV signs-on, 1948

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


For the few thousand with TV sets that could pull in the new station, the wait was excruciating.

On February 27, 1948, WBEN-TV started telecasting daily—but only a test pattern for several hours a day.

Eleven weeks later, on May 14, 1948, Buffalo entered the television era with the sign-on of Ch.4, WBEN-TV. The station was among the first 25 to sign on in the country.

“Edward H. Butler, editor and publisher of The Buffalo Evening News, stepped before a WBEN-TV camera at Memorial Auditorium on May 14, 1948—and a new era in mass communications and home entertainment began on the Niagara Frontier,” read an announcement from the station.

The station’s first-day, four-hour lineup offered a taste of what television would be like over the next couple of years in Buffalo—a little bit of everything.

After the somber address by Mayor Dowd and Mr. Butler, there was a Town Casino Variety Show, including the Town Casino chorus, acrobatic dancer Dorothy Deering, and network singing star and emcee Mary Jane Dobb.

The Town Casino chorus—“The Adorables,” entertained on Ch.4’s first night of broadcasting. The high-kicking ladies were Barbara Stafford, Alice Noonan, Jerry MacPhee, Gini Ruth, Melhi Jestrab, and Lee Borger.

And the show that would be the station’s most popular for the next decade was also on Ch.4 that first night —There was wrestling live from Memorial Auditorium.

WBEN-TV cameras in Memorial Auditorium.

“The marceled master of mayhem, Gorgeous George, will take over the spotlight when the tele-cameras shift to the auditorium’s wrestling ring at 9:30,” read Buffalo’s first TV program guide.

Just as radio had been a truly pioneering experience 25 years earlier– with no one exactly sure what to do because no one had ever done it before, the first few years of programming at Ch.4 were an exciting and sometimes weird hodge-podge of adapting things that worked on radio for television mixed with completely new ideas for the completely new medium.

South Buffalo’s Fred Keller, who first joined WBEN as an announcer in 1942, was the creative spirit behind many of the shows on Ch.4.

Mary Jane Dobb was the emcee and Dorothy Deering performed acrobatic dancing on a Town Casino Variety Show on Ch.4’s first night on the air. Behind the camera is Program Director Fred Keller, who was also a writer and announcer that evening. “Radio Mirror” called him “one of the top television idea-men in the East.” Among his credits was the creation of Ch.4’s beloved Santa Claus show.
Because sponsors meant more than format, Chuck Healy’s “Iroquois Sports Spotlight” show hosted Buffalo Zoo Director Joseph Abgott and his monkey friend “Mike” visited when the zoo opened the Iroquois Monkey Island.

Remembered as a sportscaster from the day WBEN-TV signed on in 1948 through 1977, Chuck Healy was also Buffalo’s most watched TV news anchor on Ch.4 through the ’60s.

The versatile announcer was also a versatile athlete as a boxing and football star at Syracuse University.

“Clowns and tigers” sounds more like a bad dream than a TV show. There was no caption attached to this photo, but based on the cameras without WBEN-TV stenciling, it was probably taken in early 1948, well-before the station signed on with a regular schedule.
At 9:30 on Wednesday mornings, the Czurles family hosted “Woodland Crafts, as a part of the “Live and Learn” summer series on Ch.4. Dr. Stanley Czurles was the Director of Art education at Buffalo State Teachers College.
Another of Ch.4’s most popular early shows The TV Barn Dance, sponsored by Hal Casey’s South Park Chevrolet. At various times, the show featured country musicians who were also known as around Buffalo as disc jockeys– Art Young, who was heard on WXRA and WKBW, performed with his group the Borderliners. Lee Forster, who hosted shows on WEBR, WKBW and WWOL, performed on the program—and also met his wife on the Ch.4 sound stage.
Ailing veterans gather around a brand-new television set in the recreation lounge of the VA Hospital in Batavia in 1949.
Ed Reimers interviews singer and bandleader Vaughn Monroe on Ch.4, early in 1948, while the station was still experimenting and not yet broadcasting a full schedule.
Ch.4 live truck downtown.
“Studio D,” on the Statler’s 18th floor as Ch.4 presents “The Clue,” perhaps the best remembered of Ch.4’s live, locally produced dramas.

Television’s first ever cop drama, “The Clue” was written and directed by Buffalo theater icon Fred A. Keller, and starred Evening News Radio-TV columnist Jim Trantor as Private Eye Steve Malice. It was as an actor on “The Clue” that Canadian radio announcer Lorne Greene—later famous as Ben Cartwright on Bonanza—made his first television appearance.

Stuart Roth and Jim Mohr recreate a scene in Ch.4’s “The Law & You.”
Brothers Jim (above) and Don Trantor lit up 1920s Buffalo radio with their piano act “the 20 Fingers of Melody.” Don was later the TV and Radio critic for the Courier-Express, while Jim was the promotions director for the WBEN stations. As shown above, he also played “Steve Malice, Private Eye,” starring in Ch.4’s “The Clue.”
It took a cast and crew of 22 to put on a 15-minute episode of “The Clue,” including Director Keller, Writer Wander, Ass’t Director Baldwin and announcer Bob Nelson. Actress Nadine Fitzpatrick is flanked by Trantor, Conrad Schuck, Charles Dempsey and Keith Hopkins. The technicians include Neil O’Donnell, Frank Holliday, Arthur Graff, John Knoerl, Gordon Pels, Gee Klumpp, Chet Pardee, Doug McLarty, James Kane, John Hagmman, Donald Stilwell, and William Noble.
Jim Trantor was also one of Ch.4’s early news men. He was the host of the weekly Iroquois Illustrated Press, which took a longer look at the week’s top news stories.
Harry Webb (above) and Ed Dinsmore (below) were Ch.4’s most seen news anchors during the station’s first decade on the air.
Celebrating Ch.4’s fourth anniversary in 1952 were Harry Webb, Bill Peters (who played Santa Claus from 1954-72 as well as “Norman Oklahoma”), and “Uncle” Jerry Brick, who was a Ch.4 floor director when he wasn’t hosting a kid’s variety show.
Chuck Healy’s easy and professional manner was a Ch.4 mainstay from the day the station signed on until 1977. Strictly a sportsman in the early days, Healy would be Buffalo’s most watched news anchor in the 1960s.
Director Gertrude Noble and Floor Manager William Noble look on as Victor’s Amateur Hour emcee James Trantor rehearses a commercial with producer James Christensen.
Woody Magnuson was another of the hosts on WBEN-TV’s Amateur Hour, this time sponsored by North Park Furniture. He was also the host of a longtime WEBR kids show as “Uncle Bill.”


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

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.