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‘Eyewitness News’ team regales crowd with tales of fame, foibles at Ch. 7

Irv, Rick and Tom.

You always felt like you knew them on a first-name basis.

And that they knew you, too.

That’s why Buffalo’s most famous trio next to the French Connection – Irv Weinstein, Rick Azar and Tom Jolls – drew a standing-room-only crowd at the Buffalo History Museum Friday night for the highly anticipated reunion of the legendary Channel 7 Eyewitness News team.

“We had something that money couldn’t buy,” said the 83-year-old Weinstein, who now lives in Irvine, Calif. “You knew who we were and boy, we knew who you were.”

Weinstein, who was flanked on stage by Azar to his left and Jolls on his right, kept those in attendance in stitches all night with behind-the-scenes tales of life at Channel 7 during a tenure that spanned nearly a quarter century, ending with Azar’s retirement from the station in 1989. Weinstein retired on New Year’s Eve 1998.

“They were real and there was a genuine camaraderie that came together and came through the cameras and into people’s living rooms,” said Constance Caldwell, director of communications at the museum, about the connection the trio made with viewers in Western New York and Southern Ontario.

“Buffalo Blazebusters,” “Pistol Packing Punks,” “Rick with the Sports,” and “Salubrious Summer Days” are but a few of the phrases that many can recall like it was yesterday, said those at Friday’s event.

“If you lived in Buffalo at a certain time, they were the mainstays in your life,” said Steven McCarville, president of the Buffalo History Museum board. “Everyone has a personal story about them. Buffalo celebrates these types of events in their lives.”

WKBW’s current longtime anchor, Keith Radford, who emceed the “M&T Third Fridays Giants of Buffalo” discussion at the museum, opened the night with a – maybe more true than funny – quip about how ingrained Weinstein and the old team are in Buffalo.

“There’s no truth to the rumor that I’m Irv’s illegitimate son,” said Radford. “To this day, I walk through the Walden Galleria mall and sometimes people say, ‘Look, there’s Irv!”

Added Radford of Irv, Rick and Tom: “They don’t make them like this anymore, believe me.”

There was a downright giddy level of excitement during an hourlong cocktail hour that preceded the discussion in the museum’s atrium.

“It’s like a rock concert,” quipped McCarville of the atmosphere.

“We grew up with them,” explained Diana Monaco, one of those lucky enough to score a ticket to the sold-out event. “We went through the same snowstorms together, the same school budget battles. Even if it was bad news, it was so comforting from them. It was as if we were all going through something together.”

The legends traded tales all evening. They told stories of how they had bigger opportunities elsewhere, but always returned to each other in Buffalo.

Accounts of Irv’s unique ride: a French-built Citroen automobile.

And an insider’s secret about how Irv often tagged a neighbor’s name onto the end credits when introducing the late-night movie following the 11 o’clock Eyewitness News.

Longtime anchor Susan Banks, who worked alongside Weinstein, recalled the strength of Irv’s creditability among viewers when he once inadvertently “rewrote the Bible,” announcing during a breaking news report of a shooting that the killer “broke the first commandment.”

“I’m not a biblical scholar,” said Banks, “but, I didn’t think it was the first commandment.”

Banks said a viewer called in later to say: “I never knew that was the first commandment, but if Irv Weinstein says it is, it must be.”

The three giants of Buffalo broadcasting, who first came together in 1965 and comprised the longest running anchor team in the history of television, were last together for a 2012 telethon but say they communicate daily by email.

They embrace their celebrity but seem to feel blessed by each other.

“Working with these two guys was the most wonderful experience any one person could have,” said Jolls, a Lockport native who now lives in Orchard Park. “It was the best family you could possibly have away from your own family.”

Jolls, 80, served up the “Weather Outside” for 34 years and was “Commander Tom” on one of the region’s most popular children’s television programs.

Added Azar, now a North Carolina resident, who first welcomed viewers to the beginning of Channel 7 in 1958: “It was a great run for the three of us. I don’t know if anybody would put a team like this together again and have us feel about each other the way we do.”