Wrestling from Memorial Auditorium

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


Starting in 1949, Friday night meant Ralph Hubbell, Chuck Healy, and TVs tuned to live wrestling from Memorial Auditorium—with the action and antics of folks like Gorgeous George, Ilio DiPaolo, Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer, Coco Brazil, and the Gallagher Brothers and dozens of others.

During pre- and post-match interviews, the athletic Healy would often find himself somehow entangled with the wrestlers he was trying to interview— handling the headlocks from “bad guys” with the grace of a professional broadcaster.

There’s little question—especially in Buffalo, wrestling helped make TV and vice-versa in those early years.

In 1951, Ed Don George was promoting wresting in 30 cities, including Buffalo. “Let them try to besmirch the wrestling profession as much as they’d like,” said Ed Don, “But what other form of sporting entertainment gives as much to the fans as wrestling?”

He was proud of wrestling’s showmanship, which had blossomed since he had been the world’s heavyweight champ 20 years earlier. “Sure, there is showmanship in wrestling. We try to dress up our business just like the downtown merchant decorates his shop windows to attract customers.”

Wrestling with Ralph Hubbell & Chuck Healy

Wrestling, of course, goes way back in Buffalo. Crowds sold out Friday night matches through the 30s, 40s, and 50s; first at the old Broadway Auditorium (now “The Broadway Barns” and the home of Buffalo’s snowplows) and then Memorial Auditorium when it opened in 1940.

“This was a shirt and tie crowd,” said the late Buffalo News Sports Editor Larry Felser, who remembered when Wrestling at the Aud was one of the biggest events in Buffalo.

“Not that many people had TV sets back then,” remembered Felser in 2001. “People were crowding into Sears and appliance stores to try to see this thing on TV, because the place was sold out.”

And with all those big crowds, there was no wrestler who could draw them in like Gorgeous George.

Gorgeous George

“When Gorgeous George would wrestle, they’d pack the Auditorium for this guy,” said Felser.

“The Human Orchid,” as George was known, was the first modern wrestler, said retired Channel 7 sports director Rick Azar, saying he “changed the face of professional wrestling forever.”

As someone who called himself “Hollywood’s perfumed and marcelled wrestling orchid,” it’s clear that George knew how to make sure he set himself apart.

“He had an atomizer, and he’d walk around the ring with perfume, supposedly fumigating his opponent’s corners,” said Felser, who also remembered George’s flair for marketing outside the ring.

“His valet drove him around in an open convertible around Lafayette Square, and he’s got a wad of one-dollar bills, and he was throwing money to people. It was a show stopper. He landed on page one. TV was just in its infancy then, but they were all over it. It was like World War III. That’s how big a story it was.”

Gorgeous George is credited with ushering in the Bad Boy era of sports– and even inspired Muhammad Ali, who told a British interviewer, “he was telling people, ‘I am the prettiest wrestler, I am great. Look at my beautiful blond hair.’ I said, this is a good idea, and right away, I started saying, ‘I am the greatest!’”

Wrestling was cheap, flashy and easy to televise — and Gorgeous George was the performer that people loved to hate. It was said that in TV’s earliest years, Gorgeous George’s appearance on TV sold as many televisions as Milton Berle’s.

Another of TV’s favorite early sports was bowling. Chuck Healy was the host of “Beat the Champ” through the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Nin Angelo and Allie Brandt would become among Buffalo’s most popular athletes because of their feats of bowling prowess on the show. All-American Bowler Vic Hermann’s family still proudly talks about the day Vic rolled the first 300 game in the history of the show.

Chuck Healy also hosted “Strikes, Spares, and Misses,” Buffalo’s show for lady bowlers. Phyllis Notaro was just as popular as any of her male counterparts as one of the program’s great champions. Her family ran Angola’s Main Bowling Academy, and from there, she became one of the country’s top amateur bowlers and a US Open champ in 1961.

The WBEN sports team included Chuck Healy, Dick Rifenburg, Ralph Hubbell, and Don Cunningham.


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

WBEN-TV signs-on, 1948

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


For the few thousand with TV sets that could pull in the new station, the wait was excruciating.

On February 27, 1948, WBEN-TV started telecasting daily—but only a test pattern for several hours a day.

Eleven weeks later, on May 14, 1948, Buffalo entered the television era with the sign-on of Ch.4, WBEN-TV. The station was among the first 25 to sign on in the country.

“Edward H. Butler, editor and publisher of The Buffalo Evening News, stepped before a WBEN-TV camera at Memorial Auditorium on May 14, 1948—and a new era in mass communications and home entertainment began on the Niagara Frontier,” read an announcement from the station.

The station’s first-day, four-hour lineup offered a taste of what television would be like over the next couple of years in Buffalo—a little bit of everything.

After the somber address by Mayor Dowd and Mr. Butler, there was a Town Casino Variety Show, including the Town Casino chorus, acrobatic dancer Dorothy Deering, and network singing star and emcee Mary Jane Dobb.

The Town Casino chorus—“The Adorables,” entertained on Ch.4’s first night of broadcasting. The high-kicking ladies were Barbara Stafford, Alice Noonan, Jerry MacPhee, Gini Ruth, Melhi Jestrab, and Lee Borger.

And the show that would be the station’s most popular for the next decade was also on Ch.4 that first night —There was wrestling live from Memorial Auditorium.

WBEN-TV cameras in Memorial Auditorium.

“The marceled master of mayhem, Gorgeous George, will take over the spotlight when the tele-cameras shift to the auditorium’s wrestling ring at 9:30,” read Buffalo’s first TV program guide.

Just as radio had been a truly pioneering experience 25 years earlier– with no one exactly sure what to do because no one had ever done it before, the first few years of programming at Ch.4 were an exciting and sometimes weird hodge-podge of adapting things that worked on radio for television mixed with completely new ideas for the completely new medium.

South Buffalo’s Fred Keller, who first joined WBEN as an announcer in 1942, was the creative spirit behind many of the shows on Ch.4.

Mary Jane Dobb was the emcee and Dorothy Deering performed acrobatic dancing on a Town Casino Variety Show on Ch.4’s first night on the air. Behind the camera is Program Director Fred Keller, who was also a writer and announcer that evening. “Radio Mirror” called him “one of the top television idea-men in the East.” Among his credits was the creation of Ch.4’s beloved Santa Claus show.
Because sponsors meant more than format, Chuck Healy’s “Iroquois Sports Spotlight” show hosted Buffalo Zoo Director Joseph Abgott and his monkey friend “Mike” visited when the zoo opened the Iroquois Monkey Island.

Remembered as a sportscaster from the day WBEN-TV signed on in 1948 through 1977, Chuck Healy was also Buffalo’s most watched TV news anchor on Ch.4 through the ’60s.

The versatile announcer was also a versatile athlete as a boxing and football star at Syracuse University.

“Clowns and tigers” sounds more like a bad dream than a TV show. There was no caption attached to this photo, but based on the cameras without WBEN-TV stenciling, it was probably taken in early 1948, well-before the station signed on with a regular schedule.
At 9:30 on Wednesday mornings, the Czurles family hosted “Woodland Crafts, as a part of the “Live and Learn” summer series on Ch.4. Dr. Stanley Czurles was the Director of Art education at Buffalo State Teachers College.
Another of Ch.4’s most popular early shows The TV Barn Dance, sponsored by Hal Casey’s South Park Chevrolet. At various times, the show featured country musicians who were also known as around Buffalo as disc jockeys– Art Young, who was heard on WXRA and WKBW, performed with his group the Borderliners. Lee Forster, who hosted shows on WEBR, WKBW and WWOL, performed on the program—and also met his wife on the Ch.4 sound stage.
Ailing veterans gather around a brand-new television set in the recreation lounge of the VA Hospital in Batavia in 1949.
Ed Reimers interviews singer and bandleader Vaughn Monroe on Ch.4, early in 1948, while the station was still experimenting and not yet broadcasting a full schedule.
Ch.4 live truck downtown.
“Studio D,” on the Statler’s 18th floor as Ch.4 presents “The Clue,” perhaps the best remembered of Ch.4’s live, locally produced dramas.

Television’s first ever cop drama, “The Clue” was written and directed by Buffalo theater icon Fred A. Keller, and starred Evening News Radio-TV columnist Jim Trantor as Private Eye Steve Malice. It was as an actor on “The Clue” that Canadian radio announcer Lorne Greene—later famous as Ben Cartwright on Bonanza—made his first television appearance.

Stuart Roth and Jim Mohr recreate a scene in Ch.4’s “The Law & You.”
Brothers Jim (above) and Don Trantor lit up 1920s Buffalo radio with their piano act “the 20 Fingers of Melody.” Don was later the TV and Radio critic for the Courier-Express, while Jim was the promotions director for the WBEN stations. As shown above, he also played “Steve Malice, Private Eye,” starring in Ch.4’s “The Clue.”
It took a cast and crew of 22 to put on a 15-minute episode of “The Clue,” including Director Keller, Writer Wander, Ass’t Director Baldwin and announcer Bob Nelson. Actress Nadine Fitzpatrick is flanked by Trantor, Conrad Schuck, Charles Dempsey and Keith Hopkins. The technicians include Neil O’Donnell, Frank Holliday, Arthur Graff, John Knoerl, Gordon Pels, Gee Klumpp, Chet Pardee, Doug McLarty, James Kane, John Hagmman, Donald Stilwell, and William Noble.
Jim Trantor was also one of Ch.4’s early news men. He was the host of the weekly Iroquois Illustrated Press, which took a longer look at the week’s top news stories.
Harry Webb (above) and Ed Dinsmore (below) were Ch.4’s most seen news anchors during the station’s first decade on the air.
Celebrating Ch.4’s fourth anniversary in 1952 were Harry Webb, Bill Peters (who played Santa Claus from 1954-72 as well as “Norman Oklahoma”), and “Uncle” Jerry Brick, who was a Ch.4 floor director when he wasn’t hosting a kid’s variety show.
Chuck Healy’s easy and professional manner was a Ch.4 mainstay from the day the station signed on until 1977. Strictly a sportsman in the early days, Healy would be Buffalo’s most watched news anchor in the 1960s.
Director Gertrude Noble and Floor Manager William Noble look on as Victor’s Amateur Hour emcee James Trantor rehearses a commercial with producer James Christensen.
Woody Magnuson was another of the hosts on WBEN-TV’s Amateur Hour, this time sponsored by North Park Furniture. He was also the host of a longtime WEBR kids show as “Uncle Bill.”


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 in the ’60s: Bowling was a big business in Buffalo

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

We Buffalonians don’t bowl anywhere near as much as we used to, but just like we still consider ourselves a blue-collar town (even though most of the blue-collar jobs have been gone for decades) we still sentimentally feel a link to the game our parents and grandparents enjoyed over pitchers of beer in leagues all across the city.

Sattler’s and bowling– two entities that made Buffalo great in the 1950s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Buffalo Stories archives

While for many bowling was a game that was as much about smoking and drinking and socializing as it was about rolling a ball down the lane, it was also serious business in Buffalo.

There was a time when Channels 2, 4, and 7 all aired local bowling shows– and Channel 4 had two shows– “Beat The Champ” with men bowlers and “Strikes, Spares, and Misses” with lady bowlers. WBEN-TV’s Chuck Healy was in homes six days a week for two decades as Buffalo’s bowling emcee as host of those programs. This 1971 ad describes “Strikes, Spares, and Misses,” which aired daily at 7:30pm, as “Buffalo’s most popular show.”

When local TV bowling was at its zenith in the 1950s, even radio stations promoted their coverage of the sport. Ed Little, who spent 62 years working in radio, most of them in his hometown of Buffalo, read the bowling scores on WEBR Radio before he took the drive down Main Street to host live broadcasts with the stars performing at the Town Casino.

WEBR’s Ed Little with bowling highlights weeknights at 6:30. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Buffalo’s best bowlers became celebrities– well known from their exploits as televised. Nin Angelo, Allie Brandt, Phyllis Notaro, and scores of others became some of Buffalo’s best known athletes.

Sixty years later, families still beam with pride when relating the stories of their family’s greatest athletes, even when an elder has to explain most of the fuzzy details. All-American Bowler Vic Hermann’s family still proudly talks about the day Vic rolled the first 300 game in the history of “Beat the Champ.”

A Courier-Express photo illustration bringing together many of Buffalo’s great bowlers of the late 1950s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

We live in an era where we’re watching the numbers of Western New York bowlers and bowling alleys dwindle rapidly. But five or six decades ago, it wasn’t just bowling alleys that were plentiful: The sports pages of The Buffalo Evening News and Courier-Express were regularly filled with ads for the all the accouterments of  bowling.

Bowling was big, and judging by the pages of the city’s newspapers, there was big money to be made as well. The run up to league time in 1960 saw no fewer than five decent-sized ads for custom bowling shirts…. because it wasn’t just about your score, it was about looking good at the social event of the week at your neighborhood bowling alley.

Bowling shirts from Al Dekdebrun, who became famous in Buffalo as a quarterback for the Buffalo Bills of the All-America Football Conference of the 1940s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Laux Sporting Goods sold bowling shirts from their original location at 441 Broadway on Buffalo’s East Side. (Buffalo Stories archives)

One of Buffalo’s biggest sellers of custom bowling balls was on the city’s West Side at Buffalo Rubber & Supply, Niagara Street at Pennsylvania. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Buffalo in the 70s: Turned back at the Peace Bridge from “Canada’s Woodstock”

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called The Strawberry Fields Festival outside Toronto “Canada’s Woodstock.”

Anywhere from 75,000 to 100,000 people, mostly teens and college students from the northeastern U.S., showed up for the festival at Mosport Raceway in Bowmansville, Ont. Days before the event, local officials tried to shut it down – saying the permits were gained until false pretenses (and by all accounts they were).

With the province worried about the number of young people streaming in – only a year removed from Woodstock – Canadian border police started turning away massive numbers of young people at the Peace Bridge and other border crossings.

WKBW’s Stan Roberts talked with some of those who were turned away, including WKBW Newsman Brad Casey. Channel 4’s Chuck Healy sent film to New York that was used on a national CBS broadcast.