Broadcasting live from the Erie County Fair is a tradition that dates back to the earliest days of TV in Buffalo, and Meet the Millers—starring turkey farmers Bill and Mildred Miller—were regulars at the fair all through the 50s and 60s. They’re shown here with another Ch.4 personality ready to broadcast live from Hamburg—John Corbett (left).
WKBW-TV’s broadcast license renewal was held up in the early 60s for a lack of quality local programming, but fans of campy old monster movies didn’t mind. Films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman were regular fare on Ch.7—and a generation later helped spark Off Beat Cinema’s quirky tribute to the genre on the station.
In 1968, WGR-TV’s new news team included George Redpath, Pat Fagan, Doris Jones, and Frank Benny.
By the end of the 60s, WGR-TV’s anchor team had changed again—this time with Henry Marcotte (above) with news, Mike Nolan (below) with sports, and Frank Benny—who had been on the sports desk—moved over to the weather map. Marcotte didn’t hide his conservative views– which made him the target of protesting UB students and striking NABET members who watched him cross their picket lines. Replaced by Ron Hunter, Marcotte went on to work as an editorial writer and booth announcer for NBC in New York City.
Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy, R&B singer Ruth McFadden, actress Barbara Anderson, “You Asked for It” host Jack Smith, and telethon chairman Michael Allis in the Ch.7 studios.
Gov. Nelson Rockefeller visits with Irv Weinstein at Ch.7’s Main Street studios.
The media gathers for Jack Kemp’s 1969 announcement that he’s retiring from football and running for Congress. That’s Ch.4’s Ray Finch, Ch.4’s Paul Maze, Ch.7’s Sam Brunetta with handheld camera, Ch.4’s Virgil Booth, Larry Felser, Ch.4’s Len Johnson on audio, Ch.7’s John Winston, Ch.4’s Van Miller, Jack Kemp, and Ch.7’s Rick Azar.
Ch.4 photojournalist Bill Cantwell got mixed up in the action covering Buffalo’s civil rights protests of 1967. Cantwell was best known over his long career for his serene nature shots used during Ch.4’s weather segments.
TV news gathering and video recording technology rapidly evolved in the 60s. News editor John Kreiger (left) is writing copy from film shot by Mike Mombrea, Sr. (right) and edited by Quint Renner (center). Mombrea spent 32 years as a photojournalist at Ch.4, starting as a true pioneer—a TV news cameraman in the days when TV was just starting. It was through Mike’s viewfinder that Western New York witnessed the Attica Prison uprising, the installation of Pope John Paul II, and somewhere north of one million feet of news film capturing the day-to-day happenings of Western New York.
Recording video tape in the field for news purposes was still a decade away, but by Ch.4’s 20th anniversary in 1968, the station had three color video tape machines.
Engineers Frank Maser, Ralph Voigt, and Edgar Steeb with VTRs.
In 1969, WBEN-TV revamped its news format, calling their newscasts “First Team News.”
A deluge of print ads showed the team in action, including news anchor Chuck Healy, reporting from the dewatered Niagara Falls alongside the WBEN-TV News mobile unit, Van Miller from Bills practice with– among others– Number 40 Ed Rutkowski looking on, and weather man Ken Philips in studio in front of his maps.
WBEN also very heavily promoted the broadcasts of Buffalo Bills Football with Van Miller, Stan Barron, and Dick Rifenburg.In the booth at the Rockpile: Linda Arnold, Herm Brunotte, Willard Fredericks, Jim Georgeson, Bruce Wexler. Murray Wilkinson, Dick Rifenburg, Stan Barron, Van Miller, Tony Vacanti
The WBEN Bills Team: Bruce Wexler, Dr. Ed Gicewicz, Art Graff, Dick Rifenburg, Ray Sinclair, Willard Fredericks, Van Miller, Jim Georgeson, Stan Barron, Bob Werner, Linda Arnold, Herm Brunotte, and Tony Vacanti
This page is an excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon
Almost forty years into broadcasting in Buffalo, not much had changed in where one might expect to hear a woman’s voice. Speaking to women about women’s issues was about the extent of women’s roles. There were growing numbers of exceptions, but they were clearly exceptions.
World War II changed things briefly, but not a lot.
As many of WBEN’s announcers went to war, the station took the unprecedented step of (temporarily) hiring a woman as an announcer.
Vera Holly, shortly after leaving WBEN signing on ABC, 1947.
But a 1943 memo from the station’s top brass told all emcees, telephone receptionists, and the publicity staff that she was not to be referred to while announcing, that she wouldn’t use her name while announcing, and that program hosts should refrain from mentioning her name or identity on the air.
Vera Holly was a very popular entertainer on the station for a decade. She was a singer and emcee on WBEN in the 1930s and 1940s, and had top billing on “International House Party,” but wasn’t allowed to identify herself for the nearly six months she was reading station breaks and newscasts on WBEN.
A CBS gig on “The Jerry Lester Show” landed her in front of the same microphone as the biggest star of 1943– Frank Sinatra.
“I had a great kick working on the same show as Frank,” Holly told The Buffalo Evening News. “Confidentially, he really is cute. And much nicer than I expected.”
When she was picked up for a network show in 1946, she was called “one of the most promising young stars of radio.” Holly went on to announce her own network programs on Mutual, CBS, and ABC.
A decade later, the advent of TV doubled the number of announcing jobs, but not for women— except for a very particular announcing job at the weather map.
As a genre, the “Weather Girl” made its debut on WBUF-TV in 1956 “in what is billed as an amusing and novel presentation of the temperature readings and weather conditions.”
The Courier-Express reported that “an attractive young brunette” would be joining Roger Lund at the weather map on WBUF-TV.
“Beauty and the barometer will meet Monday evening on Ch. 17 when Joy Wilson of Kenmore becomes Buffalo’s first TV weather girl on a new five-minute program telecast weekdays at 6:45.” Wilson worked in the station’s office.
Around the same time, Janice Okun was the Milk for Health spokeswoman during WBUF-TV’s newscasts, bringing television experience from her time as the second host of Ch.4’s “Plain and Fancy Cooking.”
She later appeared for the Dairy Council on Ch.7’s “Farm & Home” before moving to The Buffalo Evening News as Food Editor.
It was another woman, however, who combined being the Milk for Health “milkmaid” along with delivering the weather forecast.
Without the benefit of doppler radars or advanced computer imagery, Paula Drew would read the same information provided by the Weather Bureau like any other (male) announcer, and follow the forecast with a live commercial for Western New York’s dairy farmers.
At various times through the 1950s, her reports as “The Milk for Heath Milkmaid” were seen on Chs. 2 and 4.
In 1959, dressed in a fur stole and a pill box hat, Drew was received at the White House, bearing a gift for President Eisenhower from the Niagara Frontier’s milk producers. The 8-day-old Holstein came from the Genesee County dairy farm of Clarence Johncox.
The elegant Paula Drew also made regular appearances at the Fort Erie Race Track through the 1950s, always wearing pearls and mink, even in the barns.
Drew was also part of a New York State dairy contingent that toured European dairy farming and production facilities. In reporting back to Chautauqua County’s dairymen, she told the group that she “drinks at least three glasses of milk per day … although she likes coffee, tea and an occasional highball when on a date.”
Paula Drew on an AM&A’s remote, Ch.2
An accomplished opera singer, Drew attended Juilliard School of Music, training as a coloratura soprano. While attending Juilliard, she was signed to a Universal Pictures contract.
In post-war 1940s Hollywood, she made movies with Red Skelton and Hugh Beaumont — better known later for his role as Ward Cleaver.
After working in Buffalo for most of the 1950s, Drew moved onto other corporate public relations work in Toronto. Her last regular gig in Buffalo was as the voice of Tops Friendly Markets through the 1970s until 1983.
Doris Jones modelling Buffalo’s own Birge Wallpaper.
Though she broke into TV as model and women’s host, Doris Jones was eventually Buffalo’s first woman staff announcer.
Jones was still in high school when she started modelling on Ch.4 and later was short-lived WBES-TV’s “All Weather Gal” sponsored by Phoenix Beer.
As Ch.7 signed on the air, she was “femcee” of the station’s daily audience participation show For the Ladies, “a pleasant half-hour planned for the housewife,” reported the Courier-Express as the show debuted in 1959. “It includes interesting fashion news, a fair sample of live music and assorted singing and dancing. Blonde Doris Jones is the charming hostess.”
In 1965, she was hired as a “weathergal” at Ch.2, but union rules dictated she become a full-time staff announcer—making her Buffalo’s first woman in that role. She wound up doing weather during the 6pm news, anchoring local newscasts during the Today Show, emceeing a Fantasy Island kids show, giving skiing and boating reports, and hosting “TV’s first card game,” Pay Cards.
This page is an excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon
For five years, WBEN-TV Ch.4 was Buffalo’s only television station.
Then in 1953, two more stations came to the market—but most Buffalonians needed special equipment to watch them.
Buffalo’s WBUF-TV Ch.17 and WBES-TV Ch.59 took advantage of the federal government opening up a much wider spectrum of television broadcasting frequencies. Ultra High Frequency or UHF channels 14-83 were opened up in 1952.
Up until then, televisions were built only with VHF receivers, and could only pick up channels 2-13.
Encouraging sales of special converter boxes was only part of the uphill battle for WBUF-TV and WBES-TV.
Sales of new televisions and converter boxes skyrocketed in 1953.
VHF stations 2-13 offered much better reception, and there were a number of interested parties in Buffalo petitioning to become the license holders for stations on Ch. 2 and Ch.7, which allotted to Buffalo, but not yet assigned to licensees.
As those cases were being made in Washington, two local investment groups rolled the dice on UHF here– but those two groups had entirely different stomachs for gambling.
WBUF-TV was founded by a couple of friends looking to strike out on their own.
Sherwin Grossman was a 28-year old Lafayette High and UB grad working in his family dry cleaning plant and Gary Cohen was managing his family’s movie theater business at Tonawanda’s Sheridan Drive-In. (That family business is now run by Rick Cohen at Lockport’s Transit Drive-In).
The pair first set sights on bringing television to Jamestown—until an investor convinced them to aim for a bigger market just to the northwest.
On December 18, 1952, the FCC granted them the construction permit for WBUF-TV, Ch.17 in Buffalo.
Further up the dial, the group that founded WBES-TV had much more on the line, both reputationally and financially.
Western Savings Bank President Charles Diebold, Davis Heating & Refrigerating President Joseph Davis, and attorney Vincent Gaughan were the leadership team who were granted an FCC permit for WBES-TV, Ch.59 in Buffalo, five days after WBUF-TV on December 23, 1952.
In less than a week, Buffalo went from a one-station market to what promised to be a three-station market.
Up until the time that new stations signed-on, Ch.4 was in the catbird’s seat—having the prime pick of programming from the CBS, NBC, ABC, and DuMont television networks.
Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night staple— known as “Toast of the Town” before it was renamed “the Ed Sullivan Show” in 1955– was one of many nationally popular shows which Ch.4 chose not to air. In the time just before WBUF-TV signed on, Ch.4 was running game show “the Big Payoff” during the Ed Sullivan time slot.
Ch.4’s owners, The Buffalo Evening News, covered developments at WBUF and WBES with the paper’s usual reserve. But over at the Courier-Express, daily blow-by-blow developments were compared and contrasted, and it was made into a race to which station might go on the air first.
“Buffalo’s two new UHF stations open a hopeful new chapter in the Western New York television story,” reported the Courier-Express as both stations were poised to begin broadcasting. “UHF means considerably more free home entertainment, and a delightfully specific opportunity to turn the dial.”
WBUF-TV purchased 184 Barton Street—later the home of WGR-TV and then WNED-TV– dubbing it “Television City.” There, they built and equipped a full television studio complex.
When the station first signed on, WBUF-TV’s mascot was Buffalo Bill.
WBES-TV moved into the penthouse at the Lafayette Hotel, and built a tower on the roof—which at the time, was Buffalo’s tallest structure. The lower portion of that tower still stands on the building today. The space inside the station was limited—but included offices, a small studio, and the station’s transmitter plant. There were also promises to put the hotel’s ballroom to use as the home of a huge, audience participation kids show.
“We think we have found the three keys to ultimate success and public acceptance,” Gaughan, the father of Buffalo attorney and regionalism proponent Kevin Gaughan, announced. “They are power, personnel, and programming. With these assets, WBES-TV can offer the people of Western New York the very best in television.”
Ch.59 made splashy hires of known and beloved Buffalo personalities. Roger Baker, who was still occasionally announcing sports, was also WKBW’s General Manager when WBES-TV hired him to run the new station and to be the station’s newscaster. Woody Magnuson, longtime WBEN announcer and children’s host, was hired to become the station’s program director.
“Life begins at 59” was the headline sprawled across a full-page ad in the Courier-Express. “The best in television… a great range of fine programs to delight and interest your entire family (through) the miracle of UHF.”
WBUF’s staff hires weren’t quite as newsworthy, but they also had a full-page ad that was just as over-the-top, billing themselves as “the modern miracle that gives you what you want — when you want it — in your own home” and “solace and comfort, laughter and joy, tears and sighs, company in loneliness and solitude in crowds, escape and challenge, fact and fiction… Aladdin and his wonderful lamp, Alice and her miraculous mirror, Jack the Giant Killer, Paul Bunyan the Great American.”
It was WBUF-TV Ch.17 that made it on the air first by a month, with a schedule of mostly network programming starting August 17, 1953. WBES-TV Ch.59 signed on September 23, 1953.
In the WBUF-TV control room, with coffee from Your Host restaurants.
Ch.59, however, fell out of the gate. Technical problems delayed the station’s signing on, and sponsors were slow to sign up. WBUF-TV had many of the same issues, but WBES-TV’s investors soured immediately to the station’s hemorrhaging of money, and on December 18, 1953—less than a year after being awarded the station and 13 weeks after signing on—WBES-TV, Ch.59 returned its license to the federal government.
Being alone as “Buffalo’s other TV station” helped Ch.17 a bit, but it, too was losing money. The station’s saving grace came in the form of the National Broadcasting Company, trying to outfox the federal government’s limit on the number of VHF stations that a television network could own.
Jack Begon was an NBC foreign correspondent who was brought to Buffalo as a news anchor on WBUF. He spent much of his career stationed in Rome for NBC and later ABC.
In 1956, after WBES-TV signed off and WGR-TV Ch.2 had already signed on, NBC bought WBUF-TV as an experiment to see whether the network would be able to build a UHF station which rose to the standards of its other VHF properties.
NBC built a state-of-the-art television facility at 2077 Elmwood Avenue, and brought in network-level talent from around the country to staff local programs.
Like Ch.4, Ch.17 also carried live wrestling from the Aud.
The Today Show broadcast live from WBUF’s new 2077 Elmwood studios, shown here. Less than four years later, the building would be home to WBEN and Ch.4.
After two years, the network called the experiment a bust, with the station still losing money and Buffalo’s ratings on network shows lagging well behind the network averages.
WBUF-TV’s Mac McGarry gives a weather report, 1957. McGarry covered President Truman’s inauguration for NBC in 1948. After leaving Buffalo, he returned to Washington, and anchored NBC News updates through the 70s and 80s. He also hosted the Washington DC version of “It’s Academic” on NBC-owned station WRC-TV for 50 years.
WBUF-TV went dark on October 1, 1958. NBC donated the license to the group that formed Buffalo’s educational public TV broadcaster, WNED-TV.
With public broadcasting on Ch.17, Buffalo would be without a commercial UHF station until WUTV Ch.29 signed on in 1970.
Frank Frederics was the only on-air personality who was seen regularly through most of WBUF-TV’s tumultuous history. He was the News Director when the station signed on, and was the only original announcer retained when NBC bought the station. During the NBC years, he anchored a newscast sponsored by Milk For Health. Live commercials during the newscast were hosted by Jan Okun— who later spent more than 40 years as the Food Editor at The Buffalo News.
It’s not the end of the story, though. Even if we don’t remember their call letters, the legacy of Buffalo’s UHF pioneers lives on.
Ch.17 operates as a public service in Buffalo to this day.
The studios built by Ch.59 at the Lafayette were the first home of Ch.2 and then the home of WNED-TV.
WBUF-TV’s Barton Street studios were the second home of Ch.2, and in a familiar pattern, became the home of WNED and Western New York Public Broadcasting when WGR-TV moved to Delaware Avenue.
And the Elmwood Avenue studios built by NBC have been the home of Ch.4 since 1960.
Rick Azar was WBUF-TV’s Atlantic Weatherman.
Both stations also served as the dial spot where a handful of later well-known Buffalo television personalities got their first chance in front of the camera, most notably, WBES-TV’s 20-year-old staff announcer Tom Jolls (below) and WBUF-TV’s sports reporter and “Weathervane” host, Rick Azar.
And at least one local star of Buffalo’s early UHF stations has been seen on local TVs over the last several years. Doris Jones—who was Doris Sherris as your “Phoenix (Beer) All Weather Gal” on WBES-TV continues to help on pledge drives on WNED-TV.
This page is an excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon
This week we’re looking at the women who were the first to make their presence felt in what has traditionally been the male-dominated broadcasting industry.
Today– the women who were the first to grace Buffalo television screens.
Television came to Buffalo with Channel 4 in 1948, and the only women prominently featured in the ceremonial sign on of the station were the chorus girls from the Town Casino.
Some of the pioneering women in Buffalo TV were the same women who pioneered in Buffalo radio.
Sally Work was called “the dean of women commentators” by the Buffalo Evening News. She’d already been on the radio for 15 years by the time she took her act to the new medium of TV. When Channel 2 signed on, Helen Neville took her radio act to TV as well.
Of course, there were those who made their first mark in TV as well.
Starting in 1952, a beloved and strong woman made her debut on Channel 4.
Viewers watched Mildred Miller and her husband Bill cook and interview celebrities for 20 years on “Meet the Millers.
Doris Jones was first seen as a commercial model on Channel 4 when she was still in high school. She’d eventually host a women’s show on Channel 7, and become Buffalo’s first female staff announcer and weathercaster on Channel 2.
Paula Drew was the spokesperson for Niagara Frontier’s dairy farmers, and as Buffalo’s milk maid, she did weather forecasts wrapped around milk commercials. She was later the voice of Tops Friendly Markets.
While Paula Drew was at Tops, it was Joey at Super Duper in the 70s and 80s.
Forty-five years ago, Frank Benny’s story was called “the most outstanding comeback in the history of Buffalo broadcasting” by News critic Gary Deeb. Nearly half a century later, that record appears to be intact.
Frank Benny, 1971. (Buffalo News archives)
Benny was a constant on Buffalo radio dials for 25 years. His voice and style were smooth and sonorous. He quickly became Buffalo’s definitive warm, friendly announcer upon coming to WGR Radio in 1965. By 1968, he was a regular on Channel 2 as well, first on the sports desk, and then for nearly a decade as the station’s main weather anchor at 6 and 11.
By 1970, he was one of Buffalo’s most in-demand announcers. He told The News he was generally working on about four hours of sleep. His day started as WGR Radio’s morning man, then he hosted WGR-TV’s Bowling for Dollars and Payday Playhouse 4 o’clock movie, and he did the weather forecasts on Channel 2. He was the NBA Buffalo Braves’ first PA announcer in the 1970-71 season.
In five years at WGR, he became one of Buffalo’s most popular media personalities. That was helpful in identifying him the day he robbed a bank on his way home from the radio station in June 1971.
Only minutes after the holdup of the Homestead Savings and Loan at the corner of Main and Chateau Terrace in Snyder netted $503 for a man wearing a stocking over his head and brandishing a (later-found toy) gun, Amherst Police were arresting Benny at gunpoint in the driveway of his Williamsville home.
The case was a local sensation. Management at WGR and at least three other stations ordered that the on-air staff not make any snide remarks or jokes at Benny’s expense. One notable exception was Channel 7, where the 6 p.m. “Eyewitness News Reel” featured the title card “Forecast: Cloudy” for the otherwise-straight Benny story. At 11, the title was changed to “Under the Weather.”
The disc jockey, TV weather man and father of two was charged with third-degree robbery and was tried in a non-jury trial. The prosecution rested when Benny’s attorney agreed to the facts of the case — that the announcer had indeed stuck up the bank — but that the he was innocent of the charges in the “poorly planned, ludicrous robbery” because he was temporarily insane.
Four psychiatrists testified that Benny was “not in sufficient possession of his faculties at the time of the holdup.” A Buffalo General psychiatrist who had examined Benny said that the temporary mental illness was caused by extreme and prolonged stress.
First, Benny was a central figure in a protracted labor strike at WGR AM-FM-TV. Eighty members of NABET, the union representing nearly all the operations personnel and announcers at WGR, spent nine months on strike. About 10 — including Benny — crossed picket lines to continue to work. Station management provided Benny an armed guard after rocks were thrown through the windows of his home and his family was threatened.
Benny’s family was also threatened the very morning of the robbery. He’d racked up thousands of dollars of gambling debts, and the bookmakers were calling in their markers — or else.
In October 1971, the judge found Benny not guilty by reason of mental disease, and he was ordered to spend two weeks at Buffalo State Hospital.
Then, in December, within six months of the robbery, Benny was back on WGR Radio and TV. Having been found not guilty, and “on a wave of public sympathy,” management thought it was the right thing to do.
“A lot of people have told me that it takes guts to do this, to go back on the air,” Benny told The News during his first week back at WGR. “But to me, it’s not a courageous thing. It’s a simple case of going back to what I know.”
That’s not to say that Benny wasn’t thankful.
“It’s hard to fathom that people can be that nice,” Benny told News critic Deeb. “It’s nice to know people can be forgiven.”
All told, Benny spent 19 years at WGR, walking away from the station in 1985. For a year and a half, he was the morning man at WYRK Radio, before finishing out the ’80s as a weekend staffer at WBEN.
Frank Benny at WGR in 1983 (Buffalo News archives)
No matter what his personal life sounded like, he always sounded like Frank Benny on the radio. After leaving WBEN Radio in 1989, Benny left for Florida, where he was on the radio for 16 years — until he died in 2005 at age 67.