By Steve Cichon
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