Best of WNY, one month at a time

By William C. Altreuter and Catherine Berlin

Super Bowl Sunday at the Albright-Knox
The best place to hear jazz in Buffalo is standing somewhere in the vicinity of Buffalo Spree’s Bruce Eaton, the producer of the Hunt Real Estate Art of Jazz series at the Albright Knox. As long as the Bills aren’t going to be in the Super Bowl, Eaton schedules one of the best shows in a great annual series for the afternoon of the game.

The series, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, is always amazing. Eaton has a knack for booking artists right before they show up on the cover of Downbeat, so you can say, “Oh, the Bad Plus? I’ve been listening to them for a while.” Don’t underestimate the value of that. He also books artists that you thought you’d never see, so you can say, “Oh, Phil Woods? We saw his quartet at the Albright. Excellent.”

He seems to put a little something extra into the Super Bowl shows, which makes them particularly worth seeing.

This year we’re getting Dr. Lonnie Smith, a Buffalo legend. Making a habit of hanging around Bruce Eaton is a fine way to see musicians you’ll otherwise have to go to Toronto or New York to see, and Super Bowl weekend is a great time to get into the habit. —W.C.A.

Rugby Sevens at Front Park
Rugby has everything that football has, without pads, and without stopping every time a ball is dropped, or a pass is missed, or a play is botched. The only thing that stops rugby is when there is no movement—then they scrum, which looks like what most NFL running plays wish they could do.

The Buffalo area has a deep and storied rugby history, with fierce rivalries and serious traditions, but you don’t have to care about any of that to enjoy the annual Sevens Tournament the Buffalo Rugby Club puts on at Front Park in the dead of winter. Sevens is a stripped-down, shorthanded version of the sport, intended to emphasize speed. Front Park is an Olmsted masterpiece overlooking Lake Erie, at the foot of the Peace Bridge. In February it is usually covered in deep snow. Last year over two dozen teams from all over the East Coast and Southern Ontario came to churn that snow into calf-deep mud in a glorious display of what amateur sport is all about. —C.B.

The Old First Ward
Just about every American city boasts that it has the best St. Patrick’s Day celebration. It would be the work of a lifetime to sort out these competing claims, and although it would be a happy life, it would probably also be a short one. In Ireland, of course, the festivities are primarily a tourist attraction. On this side of the pond the bars feature cardboard shamrocks and green beer, and usually there is a parade for the politicians. “Danny Boy,” the Pogues, and the Chieftains will be played on the jukebox, and the next day life goes on.

In the Old First Ward such perfunctory observances would be scorned. The first weekend in March is given over to a St. Patrick’s festival. The houses empty, the bars fill, and on the Saturday before the Saint’s feast the streets are lined for the Shamrock Run, the only race in town where the party is bigger (by a factor of three or four) than the race itself. They set up a tent outside the Community Center, and you can drink Gennys with the runners there if you like. Quite a few people pay the race entry fee so that they can do this, and it is a merry scene, but where you want to be is out in the surrounding bars.

Squeeze your way into Gene McCarthy’s on Hamburg Street if you can, and you might as well be in Limerick. Wander into the old Malamute Tavern on the corner of South Park and Michigan and imagine what it was like when Buffalo was a major port city and shoveling grain was steady, thirsty work.

Before you leave, stop at Mazurek’s Bakery on South Park. For some reason the best Polish bakery in Buffalo is in the heart of Irish Buffalo. —W.C.A.

The Runway Show at Buffalo State
There’s a lot more chic in this town than people think, and this event, which debuted last year, is proof. Nothing says runway like everybody wanting to get in and a staff of don’t-mess-with-me professionals determined to maintain order, and the Buff State College Fashion and Textile Technology department’s Runway Show has that. You are dead to fashion if your heart doesn’t start to race a little as you move past the SRO hopefuls and security folk with their walkie talkies and clipboards.

It is all here: black-ensconced runway, white wooden folding chairs set up in rows and at right angles, precise lighting, goodie bags at the base of the front row seats, VIP seating, film crews, big lenses, a handful of stunningly gorgeous male and female somebodies milling about, nonstop deafening talking, dance club music, more security, and waiting, waiting, drama, and more waiting. Spot on. Bryant Park, eat your heart out.

The drama is real, the clothes are real, and if you have ever TiVo’d Project Runway you ought to check it out. —C.B.

The Buffalo Marathon
For the last ten years the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend has featured a quiet event known mostly only to its participants and some early-morning churchgoers. At 7 a.m. on that day the gun goes off for the Buffalo Marathon; last year over 3,000 people participated, in the full 26.2-mile race, in the half marathon, or as part of a four-person relay team.

There probably isn’t a single other event that displays Buffalo as well. Start with the weather: the last weekend in May is when the climate around here generally makes up its mind to be splendid. Even if it isn’t perfect, cool and cloud-covered is an advantage when you are running, so you can’t lose either way.

The course is ideal. It incorporates the parks and parkways, the waterfront, and the most attractive residential neighborhoods—if it was all someone from out of town saw of Buffalo, they’d be completely knocked out. The field lines up downtown, then runs past the waterfront condos to LaSalle Park, then back through the Inner Harbor.

Even when it isn’t pretty, it is at least interesting. The race continues past the Cobblestone District and into the Old First Ward, a glimpse into the industrial past. Runners proceed out Fuhrman Boulevard, then back downtown, and past some of the most attractive residential neighborhoods anywhere: up Franklin to historic Linwood, through Delaware Park, past Middlesex, through North Buffalo, and down through Lincoln, then Bidwell, Parkway. From there they head down Richmond, past Kleinhans, over to Delaware, around Niagara Square, and past the federal courthouse to cross the line in front of the Convention Center.

If you are a runner, run it. If you aren’t, find a spot on the course and enjoy the morning by cheering on the action. —W.C.A.

Strawberry Season and beyond
A merciful providence has seen fit to bless this region with an abundance of marvelous produce, and this is at no time better displayed than during strawberry season. Personally, I do not care to pick my own berries—this sort of agrarian labor too closely resembles yard work and is anathema to me. Fortunately, my in-laws believe that driving out to Clarence and toiling in the fields is a form of recreation, and if it pleases them to do so, I am happy for us both. Shortcake, ice cream, preserves. Lately I’ve been slicing strawberries in my spinach salad, which I find pretty and refreshing.

Only a chump buys fruits and vegetables from a store in WNY in the summer, and it is one of the highlights of the summer to find a farmstand or market that you like and follow the season as it progresses from fiddleheads to asparagus; peas to peppers; eggplant to corn. —W.C.A.

Shakespeare in the Park
A summerlong event, Shakespeare in the Park is at its best after the early season rains—and the bugs and mud that are the product of that weather—are but a memory. During the dog days in late July and August, when you are considering sleeping in your car because it is air-conditioned, the ground is dry, the insects have decamped, and you can soak up some culture, some wine, a little cheese, maybe some fruit …

I can’t say I’ve ever seen a bad production at Shakespeare in the Park.There’s a reason Shakespeare’s stuff has been stolen by every writer that followed him—it is great stuff, very nearly actor-proof. Throw in a few swordfights and there is really nothing more anyone could ask for.

The convention has been to do a comedy and a tragedy. Usually one is performed in Elizabethan attire and one is performed in more-or-less-modern dress: Julius Caesar costumed as Prohibition-era gangsters, for example. I’d like to see Titus Andronicus in Star Trek uniforms, but they never ask me, and now you know why.

The Pine Grill Jazz Reunion in MLK Park
The way it’s told, Buffalo was a prime stop on the jazz circuit, and the Pine Grill was the club where a lot of heavy cats went—to play, to jam, or just to listen. People who care about this music remember, and get together here to enjoy the summer, the music, and each other’s company.

The crowd is nicely dressed, polite, and friendly. If you don’t know anyone the first time you go, you will by the second. Up front, by the stage, people dance all afternoon and into the evening. This is a knowledgeable crowd, and they are seriously into it.

Musically the event is pretty old-school. The blues are always in evidence, and the singers will put you in mind of performers ranging from Etta James to Joe Williams. There are food stands all around, or you can bring a picnic. Stay to the end, when there is a good chance that everyone will be onstage jamming. —W.C.A.

Curtain Up!
This is one of the most democratic events the region has to offer. If you are interested in being Mr. & Ms. First Nighter, you can get dolled up and take in dinner and an opening. There’s no paucity of choices: even with the recent financial woes of Studio Arena, Buffalo still has theater choices that make cities three times our size look like the last days of burlesque. Not only that, but every other cultural organization downtown piggybacks on Curtain Up!, so there are gallery openings, and live music, and buskers, and screenings—you name it.

If you have more modest aspirations, make the scene just to people-watch. Either way—cheap date or fancy date—Curtain Up! is all about celebrating our cultural life, one of the best things about where we live. —W.C.A./C.B.

Hike the Gorge
We often think that we take Niagara Falls for granted, but really the experience of the Falls—U.S. or Canadian—is a passive thing that gets tired pretty quickly. The thing that most people don’t realize is that the best part comes after the waterfall, farther downriver. On either side we have this amazing canyon. The Falls don’t make you feel like you are communing with nature. Hiking down into the gorge, on the other hand, gives you a sense of how truly powerful and ancient this riparian wonder is. Looking at the drop is one thing; walking down to the bottom of it—or back up to the top—really drives it home.

More than that, it is beautiful, and although it is beautiful all the time, maybe the best time to enjoy it is in the fall. An outing to Whirlpool State Park, or Devil’s Hole State Park on the New York side, or the Whirlpool Park in Ontario, is probably the break you need. Bring water, and be prepared for a hike that will take at least forty minutes. Sit on a rock, watch the river, and reconnect with a part of the place where we live that people come from all over the world to see; then realize that, for a moment, this corner of it is all yours. —C.B.

The Christmas Fair at the Broadway Market
There are a lot of corners of Buffalo that are like this: remnants of the ethnic neighborhoods from two or three generations past. The Polish East Side survives at the Broadway Market, a ghost in a neighborhood that is about as far from being Polish, or Catholic, as it is possible to be, yet somehow still reminiscent of Eastern Europe.

Recognizing that it is this Old World quality that makes the Market distinctive, a group of volunteers has organized a Christmas Fair at the Broadway Market, held the day after Thanksgiving. The Christmas Fair includes the regular vendors, each with specialties that are hard to find elsewhere, usually at prices that seem a generation or so behind the time. It also boasts artisanal products, season-appropriate foods, and specialty stands featuring ornaments and decorations, creating a holiday feel that is different from the usual mall crush.

The Broadway Market is where we can go when we want fresh, seasonal food, things that maybe, if you were very lucky, your grandmother used to make. You could wait and hope to find time to go next spring, or you could make it a point not to miss it now. If you go to the Christmas Fair in the morning, you can have kielbasa later, when you are watching college football. Bring your kids; they won’t see anything like this anywhere else. Bring your guests from out of town; they won’t understand Buffalo completely until they have been to this most peculiar East Side institution. —W.C.A.

Christmas Shopping on Elmwood
There are people who have their Christmas shopping done by Labor Day, and although the rest of us admire that sort of foresight, we suspect that we’re hardwired to wait until there is a whiff of snow in the air. For us, the experience of Christmas shopping on Elmwood Avenue has become a soothing balm to the panicked last-minute routine that procrastination used to provoke.

Forever Elmwood has done a terrific job of enhancing the experience with lights and decorations and the like, but the real secret is no secret at all—it’s what has made successful retailers successful since forever. Good retailers know that if you ask red-faced, hyperventilating us, “Can I help you?” before we have our bearings, we will flee in panic. Good retailers also know that if you leave us in the racks too long we will be overwhelmed by choice and flee in panic. Elmwood is lined with good retailers, and as we work our way up and down the block we find that we’re starting to relax. We get into it. We settle into that Dickensian place where we’re wishing passers-by a merry Christmas, and wishing we wore a top hat so we could lift it like Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol.

It’s pretty much all there when you are Christmas shopping on Elmwood, without the endless canned music, and the throngs of high school girls, and the seasoned pros who’d elbow their grandma to get at the last Tickle Me Elmo. —W.C.A./C.B.

William C. Altreuter and Catherine Berlin write Spree’s “Gadget Planet” column, among other things.


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