A Town of Tonawanda native took over Walter Cronkite's chair. A Canadian rock star who we embraced as our own breathed his last breath, but only after inspiring so many. Our art, from a city wall to silver screens everywhere, celebrated civil rights and the pursuit of freedom. Famous faces came to town. Familiar faces shifted on our TV screens. Favorite spots, for both food and tunes, closed their doors. A large cultural institution grappled with the challenges of growth.
For Western New York's arts and entertainment scene, this was a year in which we looked to the future while celebrating history. It was a year in which some of our greatest assets, from a favorite son to our favorite sites, gained national attention. And it was, as is every year, one of farewells. Some of them were expected, others were not; all conjured up memories of legacies worth celebrating.
Now that this year is nearly part of our past, too, here are our top stories of 2017:
Native son Jeff Glor named anchor of 'CBS Evening News'
There's Tim Russert. There's Wolf Blitzer. And now, if he does the job well, there will be Jeff Glor.
Glor, a graduate of Kenmore East High School, was named in October as the anchor of "CBS Evening News." That put the 42-year-old in high company not only on a national scale, but also amongst Buffalo-bred national broadcasters. The late Russert, a native of South Buffalo, became a legend as moderator of NBC's "Meet the Press." Blitzer, a Kenmore native, is one of the most recognizable faces on CNN.
Glor, who graduated from Syracuse University in 1997, replaces Scott Pelley in a chair formerly occupied by Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Katie Couric and Bob Schieffer.
In an interview with News TV writer Alan Pergament, Glor was exceedingly humble. When Pergament brought up Russert, Glor resisted the comparison. "No, Tim is a legend," he said.
And when asked how he is celebrating the promotion, Glor, who has a 7-year-old son, Jack, and a 2-year-old daughter, Victoria, joked: "I'm celebrating by changing a diaper and reading a book to my son."
Freedom Wall turns heads and hearts on Buffalo's East Side
Over the summer, near the intersection of East Ferry Street and Michigan Avenue, drivers were staring out their windows, honking, yelling words of encouragement. They were taken by the Freedom Wall mural, a public art project sponsored by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
The 300-foot mural features 28 civil rights leaders, both local and national, and was painted by John Baker, Julia Bottoms-Douglas, Chuck Tingley and Edreys Wajed.
Among the leaders depicted are national figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Frederick Douglass, and Western New York leaders including elected officials Arthur O. Eve and George K. Arthur, abolitionist William Welles Brown and activist and writer Eva Doyle.
"This wall is so important, especially now, because we have so many problems nationwide when it comes to race," Doyle told News art critic Colin Dabkowski. "One of the reasons we have so many racial problems is because we don't know one another. We don't interact with each other. This wall is an outdoor museum. It brings people together."
Albright-Knox releases plan for gallery expansion, met with resistance from local preservationists
In June, architect Shohei Shigematsu of the New York architecture firm OMA visited Buffalo to share his vision for the expansion of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The plans included the addition of a public entry hall and two new gallery buildings, along with the creation of additional green space.
"I love the fact that there's so much green, that they're keeping all the green and making it open and airy," one observer, Kate Soudant, told News art critic Colin Dabkowski. "I think that's bold."
The plan, Shigematsu said, was for the gallery to have 80 percent green space.
Soon, however, the vision drew ire from preservationists both local and national.
In a letter to Albright-Knox Director Janne Sirén, Buffalo Preservation Board President Paul McDonnell warned the gallery about the building's status as a landmark protected from radical renovations. McDonnell wrote: "The concept appears to require the destruction and radical alteration of character-defining elements of the 1962 Bunshaft building" — referring to gallery spaces and a courtyard designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft — "and to impact viewsheds of the original Green building and Olmsted landscape."
In November, the gallery announced that it is reconsidering the direction of its expansion.
Estefans come to Buffalo to oversee launch of national tour of 'On Your Feet!'
Western New Yorkers got on their feet — and in their seats, and apparently on their phones, too — for Gloria and Emilio Estefan. The famous couple spent about a week here in September coinciding with the launch of the national tour of "On Your Feet!"
The Broadway musical — which is produced by Mindy and Bob Rich, of Buffalo-based Rich Products Corp. — tells the story of the Estefans' ascent in the music business, from Cuba to Miami, through Miami Sound Machine fame and to Gloria's inspiring, and at times tragic, career.
"The people have been phenomenal," Gloria Estefan said at a press conference, where she described how a family at a theater district restaurant joined them and dialed up family members.
"We were Face-Timing everybody," Emilio said.
"On Your Feet!" kicked off the Broadway season at Shea's Performing Arts Center.
'Marshall' premieres at the North Park after filming in Buffalo
After filming in Buffalo during the summer of 2017, "Marshall" — the story of Thurgood Marshall when he was an attorney for the NAACP — premiered in October at the North Park Theatre.
No, Chadwick Boseman, who played the role of the civil rights icon and first African-American Supreme Court justice, wasn't there. Nor were his famous castmates, a list that included Josh Gad and Kate Hudson. But two of the producers, Chris Bongirne and Jonathan Sanger, took the redeye from Los Angeles, and they were joined by a cadre of local actors who appeared in the movie.
One of those was Judson Price. The 86-year-old, who appeared in one scene as a milkman and another as a courtroom spectator, told News reporter Samantha Christmann that after living through the civil rights milestones key to the story, it's been difficult to absorb the racial relations of today.
“I think the young people just don’t know the problems,” he said. “They just don’t know their history.”
TCM chooses Buffalo for Backlot award
When Turner Classic Movies put out a call to its Backlot fan club members for a city to host a big event, Buffalo came calling.
Specifically, Toni Ruberto, who is the News' Gusto entertainment section editor, came calling with an essay that touted Buffalo's love for classic movies, Hollywood ties and deep offerings of historic movie theaters.
The folks at TCM agreed, and in October, the network filled the North Park Theatre for a special screening of "The Natural," the 1984 Robert Redford baseball story filmed in Buffalo. Director Barry Levinson, who went on to become one of the most celebrated filmmakers of his era, came to town for the event. So did TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, along with a packed crowd at the North Park.
In Buffalo, Levinson reflected on how "The Natural" was a steppingstone in his career. He was in his early 40s when he made it with a star-packed cast that also included Glenn Close, Robert Duvall and Kim Basinger.
Levinson and “The Natural” were good for Buffalo, and the film and its backdrop were good for Levinson’s career.
“It was a big step,” said Levinson, who went on to become an Oscar winner for 1989's "Rain Man." “It was a huge step.”
Two iconic Buffalo restaurants close their doors
Buffalo said goodbye to two storied downtown restaurants.
In June, the owners of the Rue Franklin surprised the community with this Facebook message:
“Saturday June 24, 2017 was the last dinner service for Rue Franklin,” the post read. “With the heaviest of hearts we say thank you to all of our guests who have supported the restaurant through the years.”
In the fall, the chain Morton's Steakhouse took over the space formerly occupied by another steakhouse, E.B. Green's, in the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Every year since 2003, E.B. Green's, which was independently owned, had been rated as one of America's top steakhouses.
WGRZ personalities spin through a revolving door — and settle in
TV is a fluid business. Broadcasters come and go. But some — and perhaps more here in Buffalo than in other cities — settle in, and become familiar favorites to viewers.
When those personalities shift jobs, people notice. And so it went this year at WGRZ, where a trio of well-known broadcasters spun through a bit of a revolving door.
First, in March, evening new co-anchor Scott Levin announced he was leaving the station after 19 years to take a job at West Herr Automotive Group. Days later, morning co-anchor John Beard, who was planning to leave in June, announced that he agreed to stay on till the end of the year — thus giving WGRZ executives time to figure out how to replace two key anchors.
Then, three months after leaving, Levin announced a change of heart: He was coming back to WGRZ. Which now put into question the next step for Adam Benigni. The longtime sports director had stepped into the evening co-anchor seat alongside Maryalice Demler. But with Levin's return, he'd likely need a new role. And that turned out to be replacing Beard as the morning "Daybreak" anchor next to Melissa Holmes.
Benigni will step into that role in January, the same month that Beard plans to leave. For real, this time. (He insists.)
Death of Canadian rock star and Buffalo favorite Gord Downie
In December 2015, Gord Downie — frontman of the iconic Canadian rock group Tragically Hip — was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Fans across Canada, and in America, too — and especially Buffalo, where Downie and the Hip were embraced as our own — celebrated the man and his music during a 2016 farewell tour.
On Oct. 17 of this year, Downie died.
Nothing captured the man or his impact as well as News music critic Jeff Miers. Here are his words, published the next day:
I've been lucky enough to write about the Hip for 20 years, and have been religiously attending the band's shows, and Downie's occasional solo appearances, for even longer. During that time, I got to know the man a bit, and found him to be a beautiful, kind, funny and endlessly interesting person who took his bond with Hip fans incredibly seriously.
He was a poet, an artist capable of turning abstractions into universal statements, and though he was rightly claimed as Canada's pre-eminent son, the impact of his writing, his stage presence, and his unflagging faith in the power of the concert ritual did not stop at the border to be frisked, fingerprinted and detained. Downie was ours, too.
Record Theatre sells its final tune
For decades, it was Western New York's top spot to buy music, with six locations and thousands of albums (or cassettes, or 8-tracks, or CDs, depending on the era). But in June, following the death of founder Lenny Silver, Record Theatre announced it was closing its final location, located on Main Street in Buffalo.
"I hoped this day would never come," said Mike Pierce, chief financial officer of Transcontinent Record Sales, Record Theatre's parent company.
Pierce had hoped that consolidating all of the company's stock in one location, following the closure of its University Plaza store, would help boost sales. It did, for a while, at least; Pierce said the company got a "30-percent bump." But neither that nor the renewed interest in vinyl was enough to sustain Record Theatre over the long term, he said.