Buffalo Radio at War (and after the war)

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


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

Buffalo Morning Radio Wars, 1940s style

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


With city hall as a backdrop, WGR morning man Clinton Buehlman takes to the ledge of the Rand Building during his wake-up show to wake-up motorists in Lafayette Square, 1942.

Clint Buehlman signed on as WGR’s morning man in 1932, and remained Buffalo’s undisputed king of morning radio until his retirement in 1977.

Buehlman, chained to the WGR mic

For 11 years on WGR, and then for 34 years on WBEN, there was no more listened-to, beloved, or marketable voice emanating from Western New York radios.

Almost immediately and for all his 45 years waking up Buffalo, Buehlman was able to turn his own popularity into sales when he talked about a sponsor.

The combination of fawning listeners and fawning commercial clients are what every station manager dreams of in a morning show.

WBEN announcer and Sun Greeter Club emcee Al Taylor, 1941.

WBEN had been on the air for more than a decade with little headway in making a dent in Buehlman’s dominance.

There was The Minute Men Show with Jack and Earl, and starting in 1938, emcee Al Taylor hosted the Sun Greeters Show on WBEN.

When Taylor—who interviewed Adolf Hitler as a newspaperman in the 30s—left for WCAU in Philadelphia, he was eventually replaced by a man The Buffalo Evening News called “silly… fast-talking… and glib,” Jack Paar.

Jack Paar sits at a WBEN typewriter in 1942, writing jokes and serials like “Joyce Jingle, Girl House Detective.” “She had a schoolgirl complexion,” Paar wrote, “until it graduated.”

“Jack is WBEN’s Sun Greeter who rattles along at breakneck speed from 6:05 until 9 in the morning, playing records, reeling off nonsense, telling the time, dishing out choice morsels of Hollywood gossip and what-not just about the time you’re eating your breakfast cereal,” wrote The News.

Almost two decades after he left Buffalo, Jack Allen wrote about Jack Paar in the Courier-Express as the former Buffalo morning man celebrated his fifth anniversary as the host of the “Tonight Show.”

The controversial host, at 25, patrolled the early morning for WBEN radio in 1942-43. His satirical quips ‘woke ’em up’ on morning radio as they now ‘keep ’em up’ on late-night TV. Paar entered the Army in 1943, to be succeeded on WBEN by Clint Buehlman.

Paar is remembered by some radio executives here as ‘a talented personality who worked hard at original comedy’ and ‘despite his humility he is strongly egotistical.’

WBEN hired Clint Buehlman away from WGR in 1943 after Jack Paar left for the Army.

Buehly welcomed to the WBEN’s Statler studios by Station Manager Edgar Twamley in 1943.

After a decade as the host of “The Musical Clock,” WGR’s morning show, in 1943 his new WBEN show was called simply “Clint Buehlman.”

“That should be sufficient but, for the newcomers to Buffalo, it means time announcements, all types of music, jokes, and anything else that helps to make up a fast-moving show,” explained The Buffalo Evening News.

“Clint is one of the few men who can work without script and whose ad-libs are funnier than many carefully rehearsed network programs.”

“Fast-moving” and “funny” might not be the descriptors those who remember Buehlman in the 60s and 70s might use, but he grew up and grew old with us on the radio.

Toward the end of his uninterrupted 46-year run hosting Buffalo’s top-rated morning radio program, Buehlman sounded like the cranky grandfather he was—reminding men to wear their rubbers and pay close attention to the road.

Still, even into his last decade on the air, more than half of radios that were on in Buffalo during the morning hours, had Clint Buehlman on. He may have been a crotchety grandpa, but he was the whole city’s crotchety grandpa.  

Buehlman was replaced on WGR by Foster Brooks— who’d later be known to television viewers around the country for his routine at the “lovable lush.”

Coming to Buffalo from WHEC Radio in Rochester, Brooks joined WGR/WKBW in 1943 as the emcee of the Musical Clock morning show Buehlman had made dominant, while also emceeing WKBW’s “Million Dollar Ball Room.”

Along with “Buffalo Bob” Smith and Johnny “Forgetful the Elf” Eisenberger, Brooks was the third member of WGR’s “the High Hatters,” a popular Country & Western vocal group. He was a late replacement trio after the original third voice left the group.

The High Hatters: Foster Brooks, Johnny Eisenberger, Bob Smith

Brooks left Buffalo around 1950 after winning an Arthur Godfrey talent contest—but spent most of the next 30 years coming back to Buffalo through the magic of television—as a guest on both Steve Allen’s and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, numerous guest starring roles on shows like Adam-12, and many Dean Martin-produced shows like Martin’s variety show and his celebrity roasts.

He became famous for his “Lovable Lush” routine, where he played hundreds of different characters who were so blotto they could barely stand—but didn’t think their inebriation was noticeable.

The comic had given up the bottle by the time his act had become famous, but he later admitted while in Buffalo, there might have been times where he resembled the character that he’d made famous.

“I was very fortunate I didn’t get in trouble,” Brooks said in 1978.

“There were times I’d get home at 4, wake up at 5, and be to work at 6. I had to close one eye to read the news and the commercials. There were two and three words where there was only supposed to be one.”

Fellow WGR announcer Ralph Hubbell—who wrote about his own public battle with the bottle in his book “Come Walk With Me”—would often drive Brooks home, and “Hubbell and my wife would explain who I owed apologies to.”

Brooks stopped drinking in 1964, and his star took off from there.


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

Some of the voices of 1940s Buffalo radio

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


Clare Allen, WEBR

Clare Allen was WEBR’s jack-of-all trades through the 40s, 50s, and 60s—as a newsman, emcee, quizmaster, and on-air outdoorsman– but also chief announcer, program director and promotional director. During the 31 years that WEBR was owned by the Courier-Express, Allen also became a prolific writer for the newspaper, chronicling changing face of Buffalo through the 50s and 60s.

WEBR Chief Engineer Frank Ridgeway and Clare Allen load up the WEBR mobile van.
Colin Male, WEBR

Colin Male spent several years in the 1940s at WEBR before heading to Hollywood. He made a handful of television and film appearances as an actor, but the Bennett High grad is best remembered as the announcer who talks over the whistling on the opening credits of the Andy Griffith Show.

Gomer Lesch was WEBR’s “Doctor of Discography” and announcer on popular shows like “Queen City Cinderella,” hosted by Clare Allen and Billy Keaton.

Gomer Lesch, WEBR

Lesch was a Riverside High School grad who left WEBR to navigate B-29s in World War II. Until his death in 2019, he often put his media skills to work for the Baptist church.

Al Zink, WEBR

Through the 30s and 40s, Al Zink was one of Buffalo’s most beloved radio hosts as the emcee of “The Children’s Hour” on WEBR for more than 20 years. Many of those kids grew up to listen to him as the local host for NBC’s “Happy Birthday” program. Here, “Uncle Al” gives $40 checks to Mrs. Edith Reardon and Mrs. Marie Walczak at the WEBR studios on North Street.

Zink was part of the WEBR staff under three different owners—founder H.H. Howell, The Buffalo Evening News from 1936-42, and the Buffalo Courier-Express, which bought the station from The News when federal regulations changed– barring an entity from owning multiple stations in a market. The Courier-Express sold WEBR in 1972.

Ad from The Buffalo Evening News Almanac, 1941
The WBEN Players ham it up in studio for a 1942 performance.
WBEN’s new Grand Island transmitter, 1943.

Before coming to WBEN in 1936, Ed Reimers worked at WHO in Des Moines, where he often shared the same mic with sportscaster—and later President—Ronald Reagan.

WBEN staff announcer Ed Reimers

Reimers was WBEN’s top announcer before joining ABC’s announcing staff in 1948. Soon he was in Hollywood, working steadily in television’s infancy.

Reimers, holding the script, is joined by WBEN personalities Dr. Frederick Hodge (seated), Esther Huff (center), and George Torge & John Eisenberger (far right) at a broadcast from Kleinhans Music Hall.

He filled in as an announcer on NBC’s Tonight Show—a gig arraigned by fellow WBEN alum Jack Paar, and was the regular announcer on Westerns Cheyenne and Maverick. His best remembered TV acting gig was on the original Star Trek series, where he played Admiral Fitzpatrick in the “Trouble with Tribbles” episode.

But it was with hands cupped he entered American pop culture consciousness. Reimers was the television spokesman and steady voice who reminded viewers, “You’re in good hands with Allstate” from 1958-77.

Ed Reimers for All State
Announcer Aaron Levine was often heard on WGR and WKBW giving local station breaks during network programs and reading newscasts.
Ollie Carnegie and Ralph Hubbell

One of Buffalo’s all-time sports reporters chats with one of Buffalo’s all-time athletes. WGR’s Ralph Hubbell talks with Bisons slugger Ollie Carnegie. Carnegie still holds the record for most games as a Bison and his International League all-time homerun record stood for 69 years. Both men are in Buffalo’s Sports Hall of Fame.

While the show has been best remembered as introducing Helen Neville to Buffalo, Laura Rischman was the original hostess of WKBW’s “Modern Kitchen” show starting in 1938. Here, her smiling gaze is backed by the sour disposition of Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation’s Night Manager Malcolm Barney. The show offering “practical help with dollar and sense values in nutrition and home management” was taken over by Neville when she arrived on the Buffalo radio scene from WBTA, Batavia in 1943.
Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation Page Matt Harris gives a tour of the BBC studios, showing how an announcer turns his mic on and off.

Charlie Bailey was one of Buffalo’s leading sports journalists for 40 years.

Charley Bailey

A long-time Courier-Express sports columnist and WEBR personality after the paper bought the radio station, Charley Bailey’s early radio career at WGR-WKBW was a varied one.

He stepped into WGR as an assistant to Roger Baker in 1933, before joining the staff of the Courier-Express as a writer and columnist in 1942. He spent time behind the sports play-by-play microphone which would be his realm through the 1960s, but he also “donned a high hat and white tie for a survey of Buffalo’s night life on “Man About Town.”

Charley Bailey, man about town

Starting in 1946, Bailey was back on the airwaves at WEBR, and he would serve that station as sports reporter, play-by-play man, and Sports Director until the 1970s. An old school reporter, Bailey was tough but always smiling, and always seemed ready to turn the perfect phrase.

Bob Schmidt, later known as Buffalo Bob Smith

“Bob Schmidt, so versatile that it is difficult for us editors,” read the caption on this photo in a pre-war publication for the Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation.

“Smiling Bob Smith” was how Masten High School grad Robert Schmidt was known through most of his years on WGR from 1936-1944.

He also spent a couple of years at WBEN before moving onto New York City to host the morning radio show on WEAF (later WNBC), and become one of the great stars of the early days of television as Howdy Doody’s sidekick, “Buffalo Bob Smith.”


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

Buffalo Bob Smith sings about Bells Markets

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

Typically, when Buffalo Bob Smith enthusiastically shouted the question, “Say kids, what time is it?” the answer enthusiastically shouted back was, “It’s Howdy Doody Time!”

That wasn’t the case in this series of Bells Markets TV ads from the early 1970s.

“It’s Bells Supermarket Time,” the peanut gallery shouted from the vegetable aisle at Bells.

Robert Schmidt was born in Buffalo and attended Fosdick-Masten Park High School (now City Honors School), and began a radio career on WGR and then WBEN with lifelong friend and early on-air partner Clint Buehlman.

Clint Buehlman and Buffalo Bob.

As Bob Smith, he moved to New York City radio in 1947, and when he started hosting a children’s television show shortly thereafter – adding the nod to his hometown to his stage name, becoming Buffalo Bob Smith.

The video shows three 30-second commercials which aired on Buffalo television in the early 1970s.

They were transferred from 16 mm film as a part of the Buffalo Stories Film Conservation Initiative.

Buffalo in the ’40s: Clint Buehlman & Buffalo Bob Smith

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

They were two of Buffalo’s favorite up-and-coming announcers and emcees during the 1930s on the Buffalo Broadcasting Corp.’s WGR Radio.

When The Buffalo Evening News wanted to wrestle away WGR’s top rating for its own station, WBEN, it was Clinton Buehlman (left) and Smilin’ Bob Smith (right) they hired.

Buehly and Smith, along with Johnny Eisenberger (who was later better known as Forgetful the Elf), were lifelong friends who grew up together on Buffalo’s East Side. When they were brought to WBEN from WGR in 1943, Buehlman hosted the early morning show and Smith did mid-mornings.

In between their own programs, they co-hosted “Early Date at Hengerer’s,” live from the downtown department store.

Early Date at Hengerer's, WBEN. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“Early Date” at Hengerer’s, WBEN. (Buffalo Stories archives)

While Buehlman’s pace was fast and his persona was slapstick, Smilin’ Bob was more laidback and homespun. He caught the ear of NBC executives in New York City looking to build a team for the network’s Big Apple flagship station.

Bob Smith, WBEN. Buffalo News archives

Bob Smith, WBEN. (Buffalo Stories archives)

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, of course, was Howdy Doody, and Smith was destined to become one of the great early stars of television.