He Came from Buffalo
Almost twenty years ago, an American friend of mine was drinking a lonely beer in a bar in Cairo. At the next table were a group of English-speaking travellers. My friend eavesdropped and discovered that they were all from Toronto, and had all met for the first time on the plane over. They did not know each other well, and the conversation was awkward. My friend walked over to introduce himself. “Excuse me,” he said, “do you mind if I join you? I feel part-Torontonian myself. I’m from Buffalo.”
Suddenly the table came alive. “Buffalo!” the Torontonians shrieked. “How are things in Tonawanda?” They began to giggle. “Any fires in Cheektowaga?” By now they were laughing pretty hard. “What about Lackawanna?” Weeping and pounding the table. “And how’s”—pause as they went into near convulsions, “IRV WEINSTEIN!!”
I wonder whether Irv Weinstein, who retired on Dec. 31 after almost 35 years as the anchorman for the ABC affiliate in Buffalo, ever fully appreciated the colossal place he occupied in the imagination of southern Ontario, and especially those southern Ontarians of what we might politely call “a certain age.” Americans sometimes express surprise at the enthusiasm of the French for the comedian Jerry Lewis. In the United States, he’s seen as an at-best mildly big deal; in France he’s a superstar, the essence of Americanism. Those of us who grew up with Eyewitness News can, however, understand how the French feel: it’s exactly how we feel about Irv Weinstein.
Back in the middle 1960s, when Mr. Weinstein—may I call him Irv? It seems I’ve known him so long—began writing and hosting the Channel 7 Eyewitness news, there were only half a dozen working channels on Toronto television dials. (Yes we still had dials.) There was the CBC, CFTO on Channel 9, the three American networks on 2, 4 and 7, the fuzzy Hamilton station on Channel 11, and an American educational station on the double-digit UHF dial.
The educational station was a poignant monument to the already-almost-forgotten Time Before TV: a typical show featured a professor in a dark suit, white shirt and skinny necktie standing beside an easel with photographs of the Great Pyramid pinned to it. We children regarded watching it as a punishment just on the lenient side of being sent to bed without dinner. As for the Canadian channels: if memory serves, they broadcast Elwood Glover’s “Luncheon Date,” a show that seemed to my seven-year-old self to have pronounced the very last word on the subject of tedium.
What we watched instead—for as many hours a day as we could get away with it—were the American networks, and especially Chanel 7, home to Irv Weinstein. His Eyewitness News introduced hundreds of thousands of my contemporaries to American life, in all its terror and allurement. The United States that we saw on Channel 7 was a wild and dangerous country, in which houses were constantly bursting into flames as snowstorms battered residents and closed down roads. And just as Nature was more tempestuous south of the lake, so too was Man. Irv’s remarkable sports jackets pulsed with a rude vitality undreamt of on our milder-mannered side of the border. He wore tartans that evoked a Fourth of July fireworks display—Times Square—the Las Vegas strip.
It was all rather shocking, even frightening, compared to the calmness of Canadian TV-land. But enticing too: Channel 7 is where we learned of the lurid entertainments of Fantasy Island, the amusement park on Grand Island New York. CBC had the Friendly Giant; Channel 7 had the old Warner Brothers cartoons of Rocketship Seven, hosted by the legendary Commander Tom. (I never could understand why Commander Tom lowered himself to do the weather for the evening news—it just seemed somehow beneath him.)
In childhood, every detail of the external world seems as immutable as the Rockies. Growing up means learning that everything must pass on, and especially things as ephemeral as television broadcasts. Or are they so ephemeral really? Today’s twelve-year-olds can look forward to an average of more seventy more years of life. Which means that well into the 2070s, there will be Torontonians who will think of only one name whenever they hear of a building burning down anywhere from Fredonia to Oswego: Irv Weinstein!