Buffalo’s most infamous billboard: Will the last worker out of WNY turn out the light?

By Steve Cichon

This oft-quoted billboard was posted near Buffalo City Hall in September 1977, and is looked upon as Buffalo’s darkest moment, reading, “Will the last worker out of Western New York please turn out the light?”

The 1977 billboard behind Buffalo City Hall read, “Will the last worker out of Western New York please turn out the light?” (Buffalo Stories archives)

The bitter and deadly Blizzard of ’77 cemented Buffalo’s place in the punchlines of Johnny Carson and funny people everywhere. By 1977, recession, inflation, and an oil crisis crippled Western New York’s steel and auto industries and Buffalo had begun what would turn out to be a decades-long hemorrhaging of good-paying industrial jobs.

At the time, people were wondering how it could get any worse for Western New York. Some of the thousands of steelworkers still employed at Bethlehem Steel paid to have this billboard erected in the shadow of Buffalo’s City Hall.

While posted in despair and desperation, the message “Will the last worker out of Western New York please turn out the light” did little more than land another strong body blow to the already delicate Western New York psyche.

The idea for such a billboard was not original — the first of its kind was built in Seattle when the aerospace industry was disintegrating there. But for Buffalo, the sign — what it represented and what it amplified — helped create a point for a few to rally around.

State Senator James D. Griffin was elected mayor within weeks of the billboard’s appearance. He pointed to it often as a basement from which to build up. The sign also underscored the necessity for Buffalonians to start feeling better about themselves, and from that feeling came that great anthem of Western New York self-love — the Buffalove prequel — “Talking Proud.”

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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.