Spotlight / Broadcasting local history, one segment at a time
NIAGARA FRONTIER HERITAGE MOMENTS celebrates the culture and history of WNY with one-minute-long radio plays
Xavier Harris (left) and Bert Gambini in the studio at a HERITAGE MOMENTS taping
Photos by kc kratt
Western New York is a special place, with a rich cultural and historical heritage. Though its stories are often told, they’ve never been told quite this way: as one-minute-long radio plays, fifty-two in all.
Niagara Frontier Heritage Moments have been airing since November 2015 on WBFO, Buffalo’s NPR station, as well as on WUBJ in Jamestown, WOLN in Olean, and Buffalo State’s WBNY. They reenact key historic episodes, ranging from Father Hennepin’s sighting of Niagara Falls in 1678 to Margaret St. John’s appeal to the British to spare her house at the Burning of Buffalo in 1813, from the Kinzua Dam’s flooding of Seneca lands in 1960 to the publication of Rick James’s memoir in 2014. The stories they tell are as varied as the people who live on the Niagara Frontier: Americans and Canadians, indigenous and immigrant, white and black, straight and gay, artists and sports stars, steelworkers and presidents.
As the series producer, one of the things I’m proudest of is the work of the scores of actors, actresses, musicians, sound editors, and technicians who brought these episodes to life— and that all of us have done it as volunteers. It is a remarkable community project.
The cast of actors and musicians has included an array of local luminaries: Onondaga novelist Eric Gansworth (as Red Jacket), Shakespeare in the Park director Lisa Ludwig (as Millard Fillmore’s sharpest critic), “Off-Beat Cinema” host Constance McEwen Caldwell (as Lucille Ball’s mother), theater critic Anthony Chase (as Charles Burchfield), actor and professor Aaron Moss Jr. (as W. E. B. Du Bois), jazz revivalists the Fredtown Stompers (as Harold Arlen and the Buffalodians), East Side bard Verneice Turner (as Harriet Tubman), West Side bard Joey Giambra (as the owner of Buffalo’s most famous gay bar of the 1940s), Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper director Jill Spisiak Jedlicka (in the episode about her great uncle, Lake Erie conservationist Stanley Spisiak), historian and comics fan Mark Goldman (as Spain Rodriguez), guitarist David Gutierrez (playing motorcycle-gang riffs in the Spain episode), WKBW weatherman Mike Randall (as Mark Twain), Mark Twain scholar Tom Reigstad (as Jack Kemp), and Seneca activist Rebecca Bowen (as herself).
Former newscaster Susan Banks narrates each episode. The piano theme, performed by the orchestral composer Aaron Dai, is an excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards March,” written in 1839 by African-American bandleader Francis Johnston.
Those are the more widely known names, but it’s the actors and actresses drawn from the local theater scene and from the theater departments at Buffalo State and Niagara College in Welland who make the series tick. They are a talented group whose diversity ensures that historical figures of color are portrayed by actors of the same ethnic and racial background, a palette of voices that is such a rarity in Buffalo, where local media and other public institutions tend to be monochromatically white.
Indeed, while one main goal of Heritage Moments is to awaken us to our legacy on the Niagara Frontier, another is to make us aware that this legacy is shared among everyone here. Buffalo may be an important city to the people who live in and around it, but if it is to become important across the continent, a city that matters in the larger scheme of the world, it must start looking and thinking like one. In the twenty-first century, a vibrant city is one where people of all backgrounds, cultures, and hues mix freely and easily at the same cafes, boardrooms, and events. In such a city, the news is reported by people of a variety of ethnicities and viewpoints, and everyone has an equal stake in the future.
One way to achieve that vibrant Buffalo is to better understand its past, and the men and women who contributed to it: the cop who gave his life helping others in the Blizzard of ’77; the activist housewives of Love Canal; the Buffalo Bills who stuck together to protest the treatment of black players in New Orleans; the little girl who got her first library card in Lockport and grew up to be Joyce Carol Oates. “It’s part of our heritage,” as Susan Banks says at the end of each sixty-second glimpse into our collective memory, “in Buffalo, Western New York, and the Niagara Peninsula.”
Former New York Times reporter and editor Jeff Klein is the producer and writer of Heritage Moments.