By Steve Cichon
Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting
In the early days on Ch.4, Woody Magnuson brought his popular “Uncle Ben” character from radio to TV. Here, he helps Shriners reward the boy who won a contest to name the zoo’s new gnu in 1950.
Ch.4’s Uncle Jerry & pianist Aunt Annie Fadale on “Uncle Jerry’s Club.”
Uncle Jerry’s Club started on Channel 4 in 1955, and ran on Sunday morning through the rest of the decade. Jerry Brick was the floor director of “Meet the Millers” during the week, but on Sunday, he filled the Statler Hotel Ballroom with kids ready to show their talents in exchange for prizes like Parker Brothers board games and tickets to the latest Disney films.
Becoming Uncle Jerry’s next star was easy. “He holds open house every Thursday, at 4 in the WBEN studios in Hotel Statler. Jerry’s booming voice and winning smile —emanating from a 6-2, 243-pound frame—welcome all youngsters, age 6-14.”
From 1958 to 1974, husband and wife puppeteers Bob and Ellen Knechtel brought whimsy and fantasy to Ch.4’s kids shows with marionettes and puppets they’d create and perform with. The sets for shows like “Storybook Land” and “Puppet Carnival” were built and designed by Ch.4’s talented artist Ted Patton, who also built sets for Meet the Millers and the Santa show.
The Knechtels’ most famous creation was Uncle Mike’s sidekick Buttons.
One of WBEN’s most versatile and high-profile talents, Mike Mearian came to the Evening News Stations from WKBW in 1952.
An Army boxing champ and multiple Purple Heart winner during World War II, Mearian was a talented and imaginative writer and actor in both radio and television, and a warm friendly personality on the housewives-focused Luncheon programs he hosted with Virgil Booth on WBEN.
The announcer and program host is best remembered for his role as “Uncle Mike” (and later Captain Mike) on Children’s Theater, which started on Ch. 4 in 1952.
Buttons was Uncle Mike’s constant companion on those shows— the puppet was created by Ch.4’s puppetmasters Bob and Ellen Knechtel specifically for Mearian and the type of show he wanted to produce.
When he left WBEN for acting roles in New York City, some were concerned that kids might get the wrong idea about “Uncle Mike’s” first big acting gig: The spokesman for Tareyton Cigarettes. He had steady work through the 90s, when he was cast several times as a judge on “Law & Order.”
Through the years, the sets—and therefore the names—changed on Mike Mearian’s Children’s Theater. When Popeye cartoons became part of the show, he became “Captain Mike” with “Buttons the Cabin Boy.” The final set for the show before Mearian left Ch.4 was in “Uncle Mike’s attic.”
Before WBEN Program Director Bill Peters would become known to a generation of kids as “the real” Santa Claus on Ch.4, he hosted cartoons as Little Wally on Sunday mornings. Peters also frequently appeared with Van Miller’s radio show as “Norman Oklahoma.”
Like every other member of the WBEN announcer staff, Virgil Booth just about did it all on Ch.4 and the AM and FM radio stations, from disc jockey to TV and radio newscasts from the time he joined the station in 1950.
With Mike Mearian, Booth was the announcer on the long-running line of midday shows for housewives that were broadcast live from hotel restaurants and department store tea rooms.
News TV critic J. Don Schlaerth called him “a cheerful broadcaster with a reserved manner.” That, along with his background as an English teacher, made him the perfect man to become the host of “Fun to Learn” and programs with Clayton Freiheit at Buffalo Zoo and Ellsworth Jaeger at the Buffalo Museum of Science starting in 1951.
He had his turn at hosting kids cartoon programs, too, as “the baggage master” on “The Big Mac Show” and “Mischief Makers,” and then in the title role on the afternoon program “Mr. Bumble’s Curiosity Shop.”
Aside from Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons—which were beckoned by Mr. Bumble’s ringing of an invisible bell, Booth would also narrate old silent-film era Our Gang shorts and other more educational short films as well.
Mr. Bumbles takes about 30 minutes putting on makeup and costume each Saturday afternoon,” reported The Buffalo Evening News in a profile. “He becomes a man in his 70s who uses the language of children to heighten their inquisitiveness during the 5 to 6 PM Saturday program.”
Virgil Booth was WBEN’s Mr. Science, the soft-spoken and gentle soul who educated children while entertaining them on shows like “Your Museum of Science.”
“Fun to Learn” was an educational show that dated back to the earliest days on Ch.4. Buffalo State’s Dr. Howard Conant was one of the hosts of the show when the focus was art.
Grumbles the Elf, Santa, and the unforgettable Forgetful the Elf.
From 1948 to 1973, the children of Buffalo knew who the one, true Santa was — and it was the guy who read their letters on Ch.4.
During most of the 25 years the show aired, Hengerer’s sponsored the show to run from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve for 15 minutes on weekdays, a little longer on Saturdays. In 1956, the show that delivered approximately 50,000 letters to Santa through its run became Buffalo’s first locally-produced show regularly presented in color.
Ed Dinsmore as Santa, with Grumbles, Freezy, and Mrs. Claus.
Two different men played Santa on Channel 4. Announcer Ed Dinsmore was the first St. Nick from the show’s inception until his death in 1954.
Station program director Bill Peters — who was also known on the Van Miller Show as Norman Oklahoma — played Santa from 1954 until the program ended with his death 19 years later.
Santa, however, was barely the star of the show.
Forgetful the Elf, played memorably by WBEN copy writer and librarian John Eisenberger, was there for the entire run of the show from 1948-73.
Not only was the elf he played forgetful, but he was silly. Most shows revolved around Forgetful trying to paint Santa’s sleigh with polka dots, or trying to convince Santa to get rid of his “old fashioned” red suit for something a bit more modern.
Forgetful helps Santa (being played by Bill Peters) map out his route for Christmas Eve.
Hundreds of times through the show’s quarter century, Forgetful was seen greasing up the reindeer’s antlers, with the hopes of making them go faster.
The show’s theme song was Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” which was also frequently used during the Christmas season by WBEN’s legendary morning man Clint Buehlman.
No full episodes or even short clips of this show — which ran for 25 years — are known to exist. The show was usually presented live, and recording was a more costly and difficult endeavor than it is today.
Santa and Forgetful had plenty of helpers through the years, all of whom — just like Peters and Eisenberger — had other jobs around the station.
Grumbles the Elf was played by executive director Gene Brook and then floor manager Bud Hagman. Another director, Warren Jacober, played Freezy the Polar Bear. There were countless other puppets and guest stars, but none rising even close to the popularity of Eisenberger’s Forgetful.
The show ended when Bill Peters died in 1973. Eisenberger died in 1984 at the age of 72.
John Eisenberger was truly a man of many talents. From his time as one of Smilin’ Bob Smith’s “High Hat Trio,” to acting on Broadway, to his time on WBEN playing country music as “Old Saddlebags,” Forgetful was only the tip of the iceberg.
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