Buffalo Radio at War (and after the war)

       By Steve Cichon

Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 

“Women’s Army” aired on WGR to help with the recruitment of WAACs. Announcer Denny Schute interviews Lt. Jeanne Gatt from the WGR studios at the Rand Building.

Blackout drills were a way of life during World War II, and the first came the day after Christmas, 1941.

Radio stations set aside their programming to help conduct the drill. The following account was in The News the next day, and shows a tremendous overview of radio in Buffalo at that time.

“Only lights burning in most Buffalo homes Friday night were tiny dial lights on radios, while the radio stations that poured out a stream of information about the blackout were lighted themselves by small blue bulbs not much larger than those on listeners’ sets.

“Although most stations possess “inside” studios which have no windows and thus could be kept as brilliant as possible, all preferred to switch out all lights except tiny blue ones near their microphones and technical-control panels.

“WBEN, whose studio windows in Hotel Statler were covered securely by wallboard shields, kept only a dim safety light burning in its inside “standby” studio where other announcers remained on duty while Ed Reimers described the blackout from a 20th-floor vantage point in City Hall. Control room windows were likewise covered and dimly lit.

A WBEN billboard painted on a building behind Buffalo City Hall, 1944.

“Blinds were drawn completely over all studio windows at WEBR in Broadcasting House, 23 West North Street.  A lone bulb glowed in one studio in use, and a tiny green light illumined control room switches and dials.

“Blue cellophane was fastened over control room lights, tiny meter bulbs were changed from white to red and only desk lamps were in use in two inside studios of WGR-WKBW, which linked to carry a description by announcers Jack Gelzer and Bob Sherry from an 18th-floor parapet of the Rand Building of Buffalo blacking out.

“Tight-fitting cardboard covered WBNY’s windows in the Nellany Building and one blue bulb glowed in the control room and another in one studio.

“Visible from vantage points about the city were red warning lights on WBEN’s transmitter towers on Grand Island, WEBR’s tower on the Larkin Terminal Warehouse, WGR-WKBW antennas in Hamburg and WSVS’ towers on Seneca Vocational High School.

“These warning lights must be kept burning at all times under federal law, unless ordered out by military authorities. The Civil Aeronautics Board ordered that aeronautical lights such as these must be kept burning during test blackouts. WBNY’s tower in East Eagle Street carries no signal beacons, not being so required because of its location and height.”

During the war years, stations offered plenty of patriotic programming. Several radio stations offered live coverage of the opening of the new Curtiss-Wright factory in Cheektowaga just before the US entered the war. It was the largest airplane factory in the country when it opened in 1941.

In 1944, Buffalo’s War Emergency Radio Service radio station signed on.

WQWT was part of a nationwide network meant to operate using portable transmitters in the event of emergency.

WEBR engineer Ray Lamy oversaw the operation, which, had it ever been used, would have employed amateur operators using their own equipment—all in an effort to save resources for the war effort.

WKBW’s “Commando Corps Court of Honor” was a program that encouraged young people to sell War Stamps and Bonds. Announcer John Boothby makes the announcement in the Lafayette Hotel Ballroom that the program had raised more than $330,000 by the end of 1942. To the right of the mic is Chief Announcer Jack Gelzer, who came up with the program. WGR-WKBW Announcers Robert Sherry and Jack McLean are also on hand.

“Junked radio sets and parts, salvaged from cellars and attics, are being rebuilt by amateurs and professionals into two-way stations and operated for the public good,” reported Popular Science in 1943.

Nominally meant as a means of communication during natural disasters, the system was built in anticipation of air raids on American targets. It was disbanded at the end of the war.

The High Hatters entertain at Curtiss-Wright, 1944.

In 1946, the long-standing Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation partnership of WGR and WKBW was broken up, as WGR was purchased by a group led by longtime Buffalo radio man I.R. “Ike” Lounsberry.

Signing the paperwork to buy WGR are, seated: Edward J. Gorono, BBC counsel; Leo J. Fitzpatrick, chairman of the board of WGR, and I. R. Lounsberry, WGR president and general manager. Standing: Edwin F. Jaeckle, BBC counsel; Norman E. Nobes, WGR secretary-treasurer, and Raymond J. Meurer, counsel for WGR.

Lounsberry was there at the very beginning of radio in Western New York, as one of the engineers/operators/announcers who put WMAK on the air in 1922.

As he explained in 1931, “In 1922, it was one and the same person who operated the technical equipment, announced the program, booked talent, did janitor duty and numerous other tasks.”

He stayed on when WMAK was absorbed into the Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation, and stayed with the BBC until he broke it up with the purchase of WGR for $750,000 in 1946.

Esther Huff (left) plugs her ears as Bob Smith reads his watch to time a screaming contest announced by Clint Buehlman (far right) on WBEN’s “Early Date at Hengerer’s.”

Shortly after Clint Buehlman left WGR for WBEN, Smilin’ Bob Smith followed. With Esther Huff, they co-hosted “Early Date at Hengerer’s” live from the downtown department store. While Buehlman’s pace was fast and his persona was slapstick, Smilin’ Bob was more laidback and homespun.

Clint Buehlman works the room at Hengerer’s downtown store on Main St.
Buehlman, Huff, and Smith visit with a polio victim during Christmas.

Smith’s routine caught the ear of NBC executives in New York City looking to build a team for the network’s Big Apple flagship station.

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 would become “The Howdy Doody Show,” and Smith was destined to become one of the great early stars of television.

After Smith left, Les Barry took over his spot on the Hengerer show which ran through the 40s. The show moved and was eventually taken over by John Corbett—Johnny from JN’s (JN Adam & Co. Department Store)

The “gay and charming hostess” of the show, Esther Huff, began her radio career at WGR in 1927 with an afternoon show for women discussing fashion, homemaking tips, and Hollywood news.

Esther Huff, WBEN

Through the mid-40s, she was a regular on several WBEN programs.

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

Torn-Down Tuesday: Cellino & Barnes’ media empire

       By Steve Cichon

This year marks the 25th year that attorneys Ross Cellino and Steve Barnes have been aggressively marketing their law firm’s personal injury expertise.


The Buffalo-based firm started with radio ads in 1994, then billboards. Eventually, it became difficult to pick up a phone book or watch a local TV newscast without seeing those faces or hearing that melody, which are all familiar in Buffalo, and over the last decade or so, are increasingly familiar in big media markets New York and Los Angeles.

The original jingle was written by Buffalo’s Ken Kaufman, who has famously written many of the radio advertising jingles Western New Yorkers can’t seem to get out of their heads.

That original mid-’90s version of the Cellino & Barnes jingle featured the firm’s original Buffalo telephone number, 854-2020. The now indelible lyrics were first sung by longtime Buffalo musician Ron Lombardo and Sharon Jones, who was also known as a regular national anthem singer at Rich Stadium during the Bills’ Super Bowl years. She’s the wife of the former Bills strength and conditioning coach Rusty Jones.

The radio jingle was only a few years old when Cellino & Barnes billboards had begun creeping up everywhere. In 1997, the lawyers and their ad campaign achieved a level of recognition and notoriety that raised it to a whole new level: grand-scale parody.

Ted Shredd and Tom Ragan, morning hosts on 103.3 The Edge, donned bald masks, changed “Injured?” to “Injured!”, and with the help of Buffalo ad genius James Gillan, created a series of billboards clearly mocking the law firm (and Steve Barnes’ hair.)

In 1997, morning hosts Ted Shredd and Tom Ragan from 103.3 The Edge put up a parody billboard opposite a Cellino & Barnes billboard on the Kensington Expressway.

There was some concern that the lawyers wouldn’t see the humor in the work of the disc jockeys alongside Route 33 and later the I-190, but those fears were squashed when Steve Barnes told an interviewer that he “got a good chuckle” out of it. Ross Cellino said his kids asked that he drive them past the billboards to get a good look.

The next bump in the road came in 2005 when an appellate court censured Barnes and suspended Cellino for six months, meaning that Cellino’s name would have to be removed from advertising.

The Barnes Firm, 2005.

In 2007, the firm once again reclaimed its original name as it was expanding rapidly outside of Buffalo. Offices in New York City and Los Angeles were growing, as were advertising purchases all around the country. Even though the 854-2020 phone number wasn’t the same in every market, the melody remained the same for whatever phone number would be plugged in.

Even in Buffalo, the jingle had been updated through the years. It had a faster, happier sound. More often than not, it was just the phone number sung, if anything at all in radio and TV ads.

It was 2010 when, despite millions in dollars of advertising over 18 years, Cellino & Barnes stopped advertising their number at 854-2020, and switched to 888-8888—still sung to the same tune, but with the admonition, “Don’t wait, call 8.”

A protracted court battle, now ongoing since 2017, could mean that 2019 is the last year you’ll see both men together in ads. But part of the legal wrangling is about after the dust settles, who gets to use the jingle that’s the most recognizable since “Talking Proud,” and the phone number that’s Buffalo’s most recognizable set of digits since 998 Broadway.

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.”