What it looked like Wednesday: Main and Delavan

By Steve Cichon

There has been a nearly complete transformation of this portion of Main Street in the days since these Depression-era WPA workers finished working on the sewer and drain lines in 1935.

Buffalo News archives

The best clue to offer some sense of the location of the photo is the heavily ornamented iron gate, which still stands surrounding Forest Lawn Cemetery.

The building to the left, with the ornate roof, is the longtime location of Sisters Hospital at the corner of Main and Delavan. The building gave way for the Canisius College sports complex now occupying the corner.

Though the very tops of the spires are now gone, the Trinity Methodist Church building — visible off in the distance — still stands on Masten Avenue at Main, though it’s been known as Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church since the early 1950s.

Finally, Horey’s Lunch, the restaurant owned by George N. Horey, in later years may have been one of the locations of “Main Lunch,” which operated lunch counters up and down Main Street for most of the first half of the 20th century. The building has long since been replaced by a strip mall.

Torn-Down Tuesday: The Palace Burlesk

By Steve Cichon

Buffalo men of a certain age react one of two ways at any mention of the Palace Burlesk: Whimsical and easy smiles or tense and dyspeptic discomfort. The reaction is usually based on whether the man’s ribs happen to be close enough to catch an elbow from a wife who knows all too well what those smiles are about.

The last show at the Palace Burlesk’s original location in 1967.

Burlesque sounds bawdy enough when it ends with “–que,” but when it ends with a “–k,” as it did for most of the 50 years Dewey Michaels ran downtown Buffalo’s most famous and infamous live girlie show, you knew what you were going to get.

A far cry from the “Canadian Ballet” style of “gentlemen’s entertainment” in later eras, the Palace Burlesk women bared a lot — but certainly not all. There was dancing, Vaudeville comedy, the occasional animal act, short films and always live music.

Rest assured that when your father or grandfather went to the Palace, it wasn’t for the Borscht Belt Jewish comedians who had been at the top of their game 30 years earlier — but the mix of entertainment made it likely that there might also be more than just the odd woman there for the show.

The Palace and Shelton Square, late 1940s. (Buffalo News archives)

The Palace Burlesk was the crown jewel of Shelton Square, known for decades as Buffalo’s Time Square. Both the Palace and Shelton Square were wiped off the map in the late ’60s, when the tightly packed, century-old buildings were wiped out for the Main Place Tower, the M&T Building and the green space along the east side of Main at Church, where the Palace once stood.

With the M&T headquarters already built in the background, the block of buildings where the Palace stood was being torn down to make way for green space in 1967. (Buffalo News archives)

They tried to build a new Palace Burlesque at the corner of Main and Tupper, but it never caught on. Within a decade, the place was the home of Studio Arena Theatre—now known at 710 Main Theatre.

Main and Tupper, 1967 (Buffalo News archives)

In 1993, George Kunz wrote about the Palace for The News, and he does a wonderful job of describing the spirit of the place — and offering a whole host of reasons that men of a certain age might tell their wives and daughters and granddaughters why they visited the Palace.

The End of Royalty

By George Kunz
August 1, 1993

Rarely can one fix an exact date for the end of an era, but in the case of vaudeville-burlesque in Buffalo, there is an absolute date for an absolute end: April 6, 1967. On that spring evening, people gathered at the Palace Theater to see the curtain rise and fall for the final time.

It was a gala performance: all 720 seats had been sold long in advance, with big blocks of tickets bought by the Saturn and Buffalo clubs. A tall doorman in blue uniform with gold braid and buttons presided at curbside, helping guests alight onto a red carpet which stretched on into the Palace.

Long, shiny cars started arriving before 8; men in black tie, women wearing floor-length gowns. From outside the area, visitors traveled by chartered bus. Almost a thousand people squeezed into the high, narrow building.

Although the Palace had been known as a burlesque house, its programs were largely vaudeville. This entertainment, American cousin of the British music hall, once thrived in a dozen local theaters, but movies gradually stifled live performances.

One by one, showplaces shut down or converted to films until only the Palace remained as a source of employment to a generation of performers who had trained on the vaudeville stage. With a blend of burlesque and vaudeville acts, the Palace held a unique place in the heart of downtown Buffalo. Audiences were large and spirited.

Such was the theater’s fame that for years the Palace was used as a focus for any downtown geographical instructions. “You know where the Palace is … well, you turn right there.” Everybody remembered the lively marquee with the dancing girl figures kicking endlessly to the rhythm of blinking lights.

Located across Main Street from Shelton Square, the Palace exuded life. Pedestrians passing during showtime heard raucous, robust sounds of extravagant fun. The orchestra blared, drums rumbled and laughter, a rollicking outrageous laughter, tumbled out the doors onto Main Street.

When I was a kid, my mother and I would sometimes pass on the way to catch a South Park trolley. Mother had just made the weekly novena at St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and she would hustle me by the Palace, hoping that I would not notice the hilarity.

Old by American standards, the Palace was built shortly after the Civil War. The three-story edifice was faced with white marble and sparkled with lights, with joie de vivre. Inverted V signs pictured the week’s headliners: girls posing naughtily with their fans, veils, feathers. Smaller posters advertised an accompanying movie, but this was incidental. The Palace specialized in live entertainment.

An old Buffalo joke had it that to receive a high school diploma, young men, at least once, had to skip the day’s classes and attend the Palace Burlesque. Only then could an education be considered complete.

The Palace was ready to satisfy such graduation requirements: On weekdays, the first show began at noon; four other performances followed. A final midnight special was added on Saturday.

To describe a Palace midnight show is to resurrect a bygone era. Waiting for a performance, hucksters circulated among the audience, peddling popcorn, ice cream suckers, candy, programs. The atmosphere resembled that surrounding a hockey game.

Generally, all seats were filled, and with a lively drum roll, the orchestra started its overture, the curtain rose and the chorus danced out to enthusiastic applause. In front were always the better dancers, the more lissome girls; behind them, the veterans whose prime had been kicked over the footlights of many stages.

After this boisterous introduction, a master of ceremonies took command, introducing individual acts: singers, jugglers, magicians. The featured solo dancers were, of course, alluring and deeply appreciated by students. They always performed under soft blue lights.

The best part of any Palace show was the comics. Rag-tag survivors of a dying vaudeville, the baggy-panted comedians worked their old routines. Wonderful, funny, talented performers they were — the last of a breed that knew it was vanishing.

Sometimes they wove the lead dancers into their skits, and the contrast between beauty and the fools was uproarious. Such acts were usually without vulgarity, reminiscent of the French farces of Georg Feydeau. Compared with modern television, they were touchingly innocent.

A staple of any Palace burlesque show was the closing promenade. The music of Irving Berlin’s classic “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” was unvarying background. While the emcee droned the lyrics, the girls, quite tired by now, crossed the stage one final time.

Great burlesque queens played the Palace: Evelyn Nesbit Thau and Rose la Rose. But the comics are the stars who deserve to be immortalized: Abbott and Costello, Phil Silvers, W.C. Fields, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr. and a host of gentle, forgotten vaudevillians.

For that last, era-closing performance in April 1967, some famous personalities came out of retirement: Hal Haig, one of the original Keystone Kops; Bert Karr with a legendary vaudeville ice cream routine; Lenny Paige, a longtime local stage celebrity, was master of ceremonies.

Awards were presented to the Palace’s respected owner-showman, Dewey Michaels, who also operated the Mercury, an art theater out Main Street. Michaels had bowed to the rights of eminent domain and sold his theater to New York State so that the Church Street Arterial could be built.

Michaels invested that payment in a new burlesque theater at Main and Tupper streets. Unhappily, the medium did not survive the transplant; the patrons were indifferent and few.

In September 1977, this new, ill-fated theater was sold; the operation went highbrow and became the Studio Arena Theatre. As such, it still offers live entertainment in Buffalo’s Theater District, although not quite in the old Palace tradition.

What it looked like Wednesday: Fire at Western Auto on Main Street

By Steve Cichon

Western Auto began as a catalog concern in 1909 — selling to the niche “horseless carriage” market. As cars became more popular, so did Western Auto, which began operating storefronts as well as the catalog.

Buffalo News archives

The 1940 fire at Buffalo’s Western Auto caused $65,000 in damage, but allowed the store to be modernized in a rebuild. When opened at Main and Tupper in 1928, it was one of 46 Western Auto stores.

Buffalo Stories archives

But as the Number 9 Parkside Zoo Peter Witt street car ambled along the tracks of Main Street heading for the DL&W Terminal at the foot of Main Street, the store was one of 250. By the 1950s, car parts were taking a back seat to an array of items meant to capture the imaginations of men and boys, as Western Auto was carrying a wide range of products beyond car parts and accessories.

This isn’t the first time this intersection has been featured in the BN Chronicles. In 1981, the Ansonia Building at Main and Tupper was being considered for a $500,000 facelift with the thought that locations along the coming MetroRail route would be increasing in value.

Buffalo News archives


Torn-Down Tuesday: Freddie’s Doughnuts, 1989

By Steve Cichon

The name Freddie’s Doughnuts conjures mouthwatering memories for generations of Buffalonians, many of whom will tell you they’ve never tasted a better doughnut than the ones they ate at the corner of Main and Michigan in Buffalo.

Buffalo News archives

Very quietly in 1989, 82-year-old Fred Maier — Freddie himself — closed up the shop and retired. The day he tacked a sign on the door that said that’d be the last day they were open, word spread quickly and somewhere between 300 and 500 dozen doughnuts were sold as fast as anyone had remembered in the more than 50 years the store was open. The last-ever batch of Freddie’s Doughnuts was wiped out by 10 a.m.

Born in Ukraine, Freddie came to Buffalo as a teen, opened his first bakery in 1924, and opened at Main and Michigan in 1935. Thirty years later, 25 million doughnuts a year were being churned out of the shop. It wasn’t just folks stopping in to buy a dozen — millions of dollars were collected by Boy Scouts and school kids selling Freddie’s as fundraisers.

Freddie’s is long gone, but the name Frederick Maier lives on in hundreds of doughnut shops around the world. In 1940, he was awarded a patent doughnut machine that he later licensed to Krispy Kreme.

In every Krispy Kreme shop, there’s a label on the back of the machine that produces the donuts, and on that label is Frederick Maier’s name.

What it looked like Wednesday: City Centre/Nemmer Furniture

By Steve Cichon

By 1975, the Main Street building that was the longtime home to Buffalo’s long-vaunted Nemmer Furniture had fallen on hard times. Years’ worth of back taxes were owed on the building. Once “the home of nine floors of furniture,” the building just north of Chippewa was mostly vacant save “Smiley’s Adult Books, Films & Magazines.”

Nemmer Furniture began selling the upholstered items it manufactured at its Genesee Street factory in 1924, but didn’t move its showroom to the 600 block of Main Street until 1957. Before that, the building was the home to Select Furniture.

After Nemmer closed in the early ’70s, the building sat mostly vacant until the late ’80s when plans emerged for the addition of several floors and it the new condo development was dubbed “City Centre.” Work began in 1991, but ground to a halt in 1995 when the project wound up in bankruptcy.

After a decade of stops and starts, by the early 2000s, City Centre was acknowledged as Buffalo’s first successful downtown condominium project.

A 1992 News editorial summed up the building’s story quite well. “As the Nemmer building, it would have hurt downtown. As a vacant lot, it would have marred the street vista. As City Centre, it can sparkle as a gift to better days in downtown Buffalo.”

Torn-Down Tuesday: Make way for the Main Place Mall

By Steve Cichon

From the roof of AM&A’s in 1960, very few of the buildings seen here would still be standing a decade later.

Buffalo News archives

While the venerable Buffalo retailing names like Tanke and Ulbrich, which dated back to the 1850s and 1870s, would hold on until the 1980s, the buildings they’d called home for generations would not. Most of the block was torn down to make way for the Main Place Mall.

The buildings on the other side of Pearl Street the next block over would eventually be replaced by the Rath Building, the Family Court Building, and the Fernbach parking ramp.

Among the buildings in the footprint where the Rath Building now stands was the Hotel Niagara. Through the ’40s and ’50s, the piano bar at Ryan’s Hotel Niagara was one of the Queen City’s most frequented and well-remembered gay night spots.

One building still standing: Old County Hall, which was just County Hall then, but it was still almost 90 years old.

What It Looked Like Wednesday: Main approaching Chippewa, 1950

By Steve Cichon

A glistening nighttime shot of Buffalo’s “Great White Way,” better known now as the Main Street Theater District.

Buffalo News archives

The most famous lights of the strip would have been captured had the photographer turned around. Behind him are the neon and incandescent glows of Shea’s Buffalo, Laube’s Old Spain, the Hippodrome, the Town Casino and more.

All of the signs and most of the buildings visible near the corner of Main and Chippewa in this photo from 66 years ago were replaced by banking high rises in the ’80s and ’90s.

Torn-down Tuesday: Main and Summer, 1965

By Steve Cichon

The summer of 1965 brought much excitement for the area we’ve come to know as the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. While at least a half-dozen current projects are combining to make the area a bastion of hope for what is to come for our city and our region, then it was only one big project — the expansion of Buffalo General Hospital — that was making people excited.

Buffalo News archives

The new high-rise structure was offering new vistas like this one, looking north from near the corner of Main and High.

Two churches jump out of the photo.

In the foreground at Main and Best, the former Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church is currently owned by Ellicott Development, and along with recently purchased surrounding property, was slated for some manner of mixed business and residential space.

The larger church in the distance is St. Joseph’s New Cathedral at Delaware and West Utica. From 1912 until 1976, the church was the Cathedral of the Diocese of Buffalo. The poorly designed church deteriorated before the eyes of the diocesan faithful, and Bishop Edward Head ordered it razed in 1976. The Timon Towers apartment complex now fills the site.

The brick building with the Plasti-liner sign in the foreground is now the site of Wendy’s. The roof in the immediate foreground belongs to Frank and Teressa’s Anchor Bar where, about a year before this photo was taken, Teressa Bellissimo fried up what legend has deemed the first Buffalo chicken wing.


Buffalo in the ’70s: Swiss Chalet downtown

By Steve Cichon

Buffalo’s love of Swiss Chalet can be seen with a stroll through the parking lot of the Canadian rotisserie chicken chain’s restaurant in Niagara Falls, Ont. At any given moment, half of the license plates in the parking lot read “NEW YORK” across the top.

Buffalo News archives

After great success with three restaurants in Montreal and Toronto, a storefront next door to the Town Casino and across the street from Shea’s Buffalo became the home of the fourth Swiss Chalet Restaurant in 1957.

With all the hustle and bustle of Buffalo’s glitzy theater district and late-night hours for folks leaving shows and clubs hungry, Swiss Chalet, with its charcoal-roasted chicken, became an instant Western New York classic.

By 1965, Western New York’s second Swiss Chalet restaurant had opened on Niagara Falls Boulevard, followed through the years by a handful of other locations serving quarter- and half-chicken dinners with what former Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin called the city’s best French fries in a radio ad in 1996.

One of the new locations was right across the street from the one in the photo. After a 1984 fire at the 643 Main St. building — which for decades has now been the home of the Bijou Grille — Swiss Chalet opened across Main Street into the former Laube’s Old Spain building.

Swiss Chalet left downtown Buffalo after 39 years in 1996; the space eventually became Shea’s Smith Theatre.

The chain’s remaining Western New York stores — including the Niagara Falls Boulevard location — closed to packed seats in 2010, but the lingering taste of 53 years of chalet sauce has made international dinner travelers out of the hundreds of Buffalonians who are seen every week at the Swiss Chalet restaurants closest to the U.S. border.

The Swiss Chalet closest to the Peace Bridge is at 6666 Lundy’s Lane, Niagara Falls, Ont.

Buffalo in the ’20s: Pierce-Arrow takes a test run through Parkside

By Steve Cichon

At first glance, the back of this photo offers no clues to the precise location where this photo was taken.

Buffalo News archives

The only information offered is the names of the men in the car and the date (plus a stern reminder to put the photo back in The News archives.)

Dr. Dewitt Sherman was the president of the Erie County Medical Society. Edward C. Bull was an executive with Buffalo’s Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Co. and the longtime president of the Buffalo Automobile Dealers Association — not much help there.

The date, however, proves useful. Nov. 16, 1929, was the opening day of the Pierce-Arrow showroom at Main and Jewett.

While useful in placing this image, the date is also somewhat irony-filled. After spending decades as the preferred motorcar of the elite from New York City to Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, Pierce-Arrow’s new Art Deco showcase palace opened within days of the 1929 stock market crash. The crash helped precipitate the Great Depression and ended the good times and free flow of cash that helped usher the Pierce-Arrow brand to the top.

By the time the last of the Pierce-Arrows rolled off of Buffalo assembly lines in the mid-’30s, the building was a Cadilliac showroom. In fact, for parts of eight decades, the building was home to a Cadillac dealership— first Maxson Cadillac-LaSalle, then Tinney Cadillac and finally Braun Cadillac, before finding new life as a bank branch for Buffalo Savings Bank and now First Niagara.

Kitty-corner from the old Pierce-Arrow showroom, both then and now, is the English Gothic Central Presbyterian Church, which today is the home of the Aloma D. Johnson Charter School. The Main Street windows — which took the place of the building’s original front door — are seen in the photo as well as on the linked image below.