Buffalo’s Brush with Fame

Buffalo was once one of America’s largest cities – an industrial powerhouse and vibrant center for arts and culture. Its size and renown drew a variety of famous people here in its heyday – from U.S. Presidents to musical and literary luminaries – and produced a crop of homegrown VIPs. Here are 8 examples of Buffalo’s brush with fame – and where to retrace the steps of those famous Americans today.

Visitors to Buffalo’s historic Colored Musicians Club can ring the doorbell, walk upstairs, and saunter to the original wooden bar for free jazz in the same spot where Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington once performed.  The CMC is marking a major milestone in 2017, as its founding musician’s union celebrates its 100th anniversary. While the CMC continues its decades long musical traditions upstairs (musicians there haven’t missed a Sunday night jam session since 1935), an interactive museum downstairs honors Buffalo’s jazz history and the legendary performers that graced the club’s stage.

Before he achieved musical fame with Super Freak, Rick James grew up in Buffalo and lived next door to Doris Records on East Ferry Street, an East Side institution for over 50 years. Owner Mack Luchey still remembers James’ frequent visits to the music store, and recounts stories of helping launch his career. Album covers and musical posters line the walls from nearly every era of the store’s half-century existence.

Prior to his rise as one of America’s foremost authors, Mark Twain was a Buffalo newspaper editor. The friendships forged here led Twain years later to send the original manuscript of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Buffalo; the American masterpiece is on display for free in the Mark Twain room of the city’s downtown library.

And long before he penned the Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald spent his formative years in Buffalo, arriving at the age of one and departing at 12 when his family relocated. Visitors feasting on Buffalo wings at the Lenox Grill are dining within the same building where F. Scott once lived; the Fitzgerald family dwelled in an overhead apartment.

Buffalo has one of only four spots outside the nation’s capital where a U.S. President took the oath of office. The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site recounts the tumultuous days of September 1901 when President William McKinley met his demise from an assassin’s bullet at Buffalo’s Pan American Exposition.  TR quickly made his way to Buffalo and took the oath within the stately Wilcox Mansion along Delaware Avenue, which has been meticulously restored to its 1901 grandeur.

Buffalo also boasts two presidents of its own – Grover Cleveland, whose road to the White House included stints as mayor and sheriff, and Millard Fillmore, who helped launch the city’s historical society and the University at Buffalo. The Millard Fillmore House in East Aurora is the only one left standing that a U.S. president built with his own two hands.  Fillmore is also one of the most famous permanent residents of Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, which has seasonal tours.

One of the most prestigious automobiles to roll off the assembly line in Buffalo, the Pierce-Arrow, was also the car of six U.S. presidents. President William Howard Taft ordered two Pierce-Arrows as the White House’s first official car in 1909, and the Buffalo-born autos continued to serve the executive branch through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration.  The Pierce-Arrow and thousands of other pieces of auto memorabilia and Buffalo-made cars are on display at the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum.

Tim Russert’s Buffalo upbringing was central to the down-to-earth personality he espoused while interviewing presidents and other dignitaries as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press every Sunday for 16 years.  Russert’s NBC workspace was posthumously moved to the Buffalo History Museum, which also dutifully recounts his early years in the Queen City. Other must-stops for Russert fans include Hoak’s Restaurant, where he enjoyed hanging out during and after college, and St. Michael’s Church downtown, where he answered the phones at the rectory next door as an after-school job.