By Steve Cichon
Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting
From a full-page ad on Ch.2’s first day of broadcasting in 1954, showing the hosts of some of the new station’s featured live audience programs:
1. Breakfast for Two with Helen Neville, Monday-Friday at 9am.
2. Cookin’ Cues with Charlotte McWhorter, weekdays, 1pm.
3. For M’Lady with Mari and Gilbert Bass from The Park Lane, Tue & Thur at 2:30pm
4. Mary Lawton as Mother Goose, Saturdays at 11am
5. Outdoors Inn with Ollie Howard, Tuesdays at 7pm
6. Dollar Derby with Bill Keaton, Wednesdays at 2:30pm
Even with UHF stations coming and going, there were no fewer than four competing interests who had applied to the FCC for the license to operate Ch.2. Several of those interests combined to form a new WGR Corporation, which was awarded the license in 1954.
“A bright new channel of television service and entertainment opens up for Buffalo and Western New York today as WGR-TV takes to the air on Channel 2,” reported the Evening News on August 14, 1954, with the sign-on of Buffalo’s second UHF station.
“Televiewing,” reported The Buffalo Evening News,” was now a “staple fare” in most homes along the Niagara Frontier. The cost of television sets had dropped precipitously since Ch.4’s 1948 sign-on, and having a second reliable station to watch was enough to make many holdouts into television owners.
Longtime Buffalo radio personality Billy Keaton welcomed viewers to the new station—which unlike the other two stations that had signed on the year before, every single one of the 430,000 TV sets in the Buffalo area could watch Ch.2 without a UHF converter box.
Longtime WGR Radio veteran Billy Keaton emceed the opening broadcast ceremonies on WGR-TV, Ch.2.
From a full-page ad that ran in the Courier-Express and The Evening News on the day Ch.2 signed on. Newsmen Roy Kerns and Pat Fagan as well as sportscasters Roger Baker and Bill Mazer were in the spotlight on nightly news and sports programs, and Ollie Howard brought his outdoors show from radio to TV as well.
Authoritative. Respected. Those were the types of adjectives thrown around when describing Roy Kerns, the anchor of Ch.2’s early newscasts for most of the station’s first decade on the air. “Mr. Kern’s polished presentation… is the enjoyable habit of many thousand Niagara Frontier viewers,” said a 1956 ad. Kerns left Buffalo for his native Oklahoma City in 1967.
NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were a heavily marketed part of WGR-TV’s news team, so much so that Brinkley visited Ch.2’s Barton Street studios to help dedicate a new set in 1964. Here, he’s joined by Chuck Poth.
Pat Fagan was a Ch.2 news anchor, as seen here in the early 60s, but he was also the host of the station’s Teen Dance Party. Fagan left Buffalo in the mid-60s for an ABC-TV staff announcer position. He began his career at WBNY in 1948. He also worked at WEBR and made appearances as an actor in Ch.4’s dramatic series “The Clue.”
Checkers & Can-Can was a kid’s show produced by Ch.2, airing mornings at 9:30. The actors behind the clown and the “tin-can man” were Philadelphia TV veterans Ed McDonnell, who had been Philly’s “Flying Sorcerer,” and Joe Earley who had played “Mr. Rivets” on WPTZ-TV Ch.3.
Fantasy Island General Manager Clyde Farnan played Buckskin Joe on a TV version of the park’s Wild West Show. He was joined by Marshall Rick, Annie Oakley, Little Bo Peep, and bad guys like Cactus Pete and Black Bart– played by Fantasy Island’s business manager Harvey Benatovich.
Bob Lawrence was one of the original cast of announcers when Ch.2 first signed on—his primary job until he left the station 13 years later was as a weatherman.
From the very beginning, however, he was one of the station’s kiddie show hosts, first as Captain Atom during the local breaks on the Colonel Bleep cartoon show, and then as Captain Bob during Popeye cartoons and The Mickey Mouse Club.
When the station first signed on, Ch.2’s signal was weak into the Southern Tier—so the station’s programming was also broadcast on Ch.6 in Jamestown. The problem was later fixed when Ch.2 moved its transmitter facility from Buffalo to the Town of Wales in southern Erie County.
Aside from entertaining the kids and hosting cartoons, Bob Lawrence was Ch.2’s lead weather personality through most of the station’s first decade.
From 1954 to 1968, Jack Mahl—with his pleasantly deep voice—was another of Ch.2’s weathermen. He would go on to anchor radio newscasts on WYSL, WEBR, and WBUF through the 70s and 80s. His rhyming TV sign-off became famous, as he said, “That’s all from Mahl” with a salute.
WGR-TV Atlantic Weatherman John Lascalles.
Helen Neville stands in the background as Polish dancers get ready to perform outside the Ch.2 studios on Barton Street.
“Bill Mazer is as good as there is in his chosen profession of reporting interestingly and enthusiastically, sports of all sorts.”
After a hitch in the army at the end of World War II, Mazer came to Buffalo in 1947, working first at WKBW and then WGR. During his 16 years in Buffalo, Mazer is best remembered in Buffalo for his long association with the baseball Bisons at Offermann Stadium, but he also called the action for the hockey Bisons and Canisius College basketball from the Aud, as well as Buffalo Bills football from the Rockpile during the All-America Football Conference days in the late 40s.
Along with Roger Baker, he was one of the WGR-TV’s original stable of sportscasters when the station signed on in 1954. In 1955, he also hosted the “Watch the Birdie” program, sponsored by Kaufman’s Rye Bread on Ch.2. As “Uncle Bill,” he made phone calls to kids, giving way prizes between Woody the Woodpecker cartoons.
Born in Ukraine, Mazer grew up in Brooklyn—and returned home to become a beloved New York City sports broadcasting fixture starting in 1964. He was also seen on network broadcasts for CBS and Fox, and played a role as a reporter in the epic 1980 film ‘Raging Bull.’
After leaving WEBR, Bob Wells joined the staff at WGR-TV to emcee a handful of popular shows. While Frank Dill was the orginal host of Pic A Polka, Wells hosted with bandleader Frank Wojnorowski for most of the show’s run.
Bob Wells also was the original host of Yankee Doodle Time when the show premiered on WGR-TV in 1961. It was the only television show hosted live five days a week in a Buffalo department store.
Jack Tapson was an editor and photographer, who knew– as it was unfolding– that he was watching something important unfolding in front of him daily.
He started at Ch.4 as a lover of photography and teen technician in the 1940s and moved onto Ch.2 where he started the news film department in the mid-1950s.
For decades, these jobs put him on the front lines of some of the really amazing things that were happening in what was then America’s 15th largest city, as well as behind the scenes at Buffalo’s big TV stations.
Over the period of several years, he shared his memories and photos with next-generation storytellers Marty Biniasz and Steve Cichon.
While The Buffalo Evening News did a tremendous job capturing the story of the WBEN stations in photos, Jack’s behind the scenes candid shots from the first 15 years of WGR-TV offer a look at the station which would have otherwise been lost to history. You’re enjoying many of these photos in this book because he cared enough to take pictures… and then cared enough to share them.
The WGR-TV mascots were a pair of mischievous elves named Iris and Earis, according to research done by Marty Biniasz for Forgotten Buffalo’s website. He reports they were first drawn by Ch.2 art director Frank Wahl as the station signed on.
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