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Laurence Levite, Spree publisher and former WBEN owner, dies at 77

Larry Levite had an XL-sized personality.

He decided to get some tattoos, starting around age 70. His office at Buffalo Spree magazine was filled with life-sized stuffed bears and other animals. He once got a $100 tip from Frank Sinatra and crossed paths with Gregory Peck and Judy Garland as a would-be actor in the early 1960s. He even bluffed his way into a job at New York City’s famed “21 Club.”

More recently, he ran radio powerhouse WBEN and later Buffalo Spree magazine during his 50-year local media career that earned him a spot in the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

Laurence A. Levite, a giant in Buffalo’s broadcasting and publishing circles, died Wednesday in Buffalo General Medical Center after a brief illness.

Levite died on his 77th birthday.

“It gave us comfort,” his wife, Sharon, said of the full-circle timing.

“It’s a perfect ending,” added one of his sons, Adam. “He did it his own way. He wrote his own story.”

Four of the six 2003 Hall of Fame inductees — from left, Sandy Beach, Carol Jasen, Larry Levite and Tim Russert — at the Buffalo Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame Night at the Tralf. (News file photo)

Everyone knew when Larry Levite entered a room, with his booming voice and infectious, loud laugh. Never shy, he was the life of any party, toast or roast. He’d be the first to offer a bid at any benefit auction, a habit that sometimes proved costly, especially when stuffed animals were being hawked.

Those who knew the radio-station and magazine owner of the last four decades might not know about his eclectic background. He transferred from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and a few years after graduating from there he attended University at Buffalo Law School. In the early 1960s, the aspiring actor and singer attended a lot of auditions in New York City, served as a CBS page at the Ed Sullivan show and sold orange drinks in Broadway theater balconies.

One day, in 1963, he walked into the 21 Club, looking for a job.

“They said, ‘Do you have a tuxedo?’” Sharon Levite recalled. “He said, ‘Of course I do,’ and the guy hired him on the spot to work the door. Then Larry immediately went to the Lower East Side to buy a tuxedo.”

In that job, he once hailed a taxi for Peck, received a $100 tip from Sinatra at Christmas time and attended a New Year’s Eve party with the likes of Judy Garland.

But Levite, a Buffalo native who graduated from Bennett High School in 1958, made his true mark in Buffalo broadcasting and publishing.

He started as a sales executive at the old WYSL and WPHD in 1967, rising to sales manager and then general manager. After three years as general manager at WEBR, he began his longtime association with WBEN-AM and Rock 102, where he was credited with bringing the station back to the top spot in local radio.

His radio career was summed up in the citation read when Levite entered the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2003 – along with fellow media kingpins Tim Russert, Carol (Jasen) Nigrelli and Sandy Beach:

“Larry Levite spent the 1970s moving up and down Buffalo’s radio dial breathing new life (and ratings!) into stations like WYSL, WPHD, and WEBR. When, in 1978, federal regulations forced the Buffalo Evening News to sell off its radio and television stations, Levite formed Algonquin Broadcasting to fill the void, and purchased WBEN AM/FM. Larry continued the tradition of the News stations by bringing in top quality talent in all facets of broadcasting ... until selling the stations in the mid 90s.”

In 1998, Levite bought Buffalo Spree, transforming the quarterly magazine into a monthly. Buffalo Spree Publishing produces 32 different magazines, theater programs and events in both Buffalo and Rochester.

The high-quality, glossy Buffalo Spree, currently in its 50th year of publishing, bills itself as the area’s only regional magazine, with more than 136,000 readers. Buffalo Spree caters to a sophisticated crowd and boasts many high-profile advertisers, with an emphasis on arts, culture, food and drink, and homes and gardens.

“Just days ago, Larry was working with ‘Spree’ staff on the celebration of the magazine’s 50th anniversary,” editor Elizabeth Licata said Thursday. “Anybody who knows Larry can guess what his main concerns were: that the event be fun and ‘sexy,’ that nobody should be left out, that everyone should leave with a gift, and that there should be enough parking. It seems incredible to walk by his office — overflowing with magazines, art, memorabilia, and really cool toys — and realize that he won’t be sitting behind that desk again.”

Outside work, his family has countless stories about his being a man of strong passions, whether it was his late-life tattoos, his love of motorcycles and stuffed animals or his devotion to his family’s favorite summer camp, Tamakwa, in Algonquin Park, which he visited every year for more than half a century.

He also lived in the moment, his son Adam said.

Once in the late 1980s, Levite’s son Josh asked whether he could get a limo for his junior prom.

“Forget the limo,” Levite replied. “I’ll get the WBEN news cruiser for you.”

“And he did,” Josh Levite said.

Larry Levite also enjoyed a long history of charitable and philanthropic involvement.

He served in leadership roles or on the boards of trustees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo, the local chapter of the National Federation for Just Communities, the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the 100 Club of Buffalo, the Sisters Hospital Foundation Board, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Nichols School. He also served as chairman of the New York State Broadcasters Association and won more than half a dozen awards for his professional and philanthropic efforts.

Levite and his wife, Sharon, also led more than a dozen fund-raising and informational missions to Israel.

As the citation for his 2016 honor from the National Federation for Just Communities reads, “Laurence A. Levite is a force of nature who, in addition to his entrepreneurial success, has dedicated himself to improving our community and strengthening the bonds that bring WNYers together. ... He celebrates what is best about the Buffalo region.”

Surviving are his wife of almost 52 years, the former Sharon Cohen; two sons, Adam and Josh; one sister, Sylvia Pastor; one brother, Brian; and six grandchildren.

Funeral services will be at 1 p.m. Friday in Temple Beth Zion, Delaware Avenue.

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