Memories of Rocketship 7 and WBKW’s glory days

BY NORBERT RUG

A long, long time ago, in a place that seems far, far away, many Buffalo area children, myself included, would turn on their TV sets in the morning and were greeted by a trusted friend.

In 1961 the space race was on! Before a special joint session of Congress, President Kennedy announced his goal to put a “man on the moon” before the end of the decade. If you were a preteen, rockets and robots ruled. It was in this environment that one of the most popular television programs in the history of Buffalo broadcasting was created.

During the span of a few months, the USSR’s Yuri Gagarin made history as the first human in space and Alan B. Shepard made America’s first ride into the stratosphere. From toys to television programs, it seemed that everyone was looking towards the future including Buffalo’s WKBW. Channel 7 management looked to add an additional children’s show to its morning line-up which already consisted of a local version of Romper Room. Looking to attract kids 5 to 12 years old, a space-themed program was a natural.

The station’s creative minds developed a program that would have an academic focus with a foundation deeply rooted in scientific facts rather than fanciful fiction. To host the program, Channel 7’s station manager Doug McLarty called upon a fresh-faced broadcaster named Dave Boreanaz. He was calling himself Dave Thomas then and it was thought he would be the perfect choice to host the program. He had adopted the stage name “Dave Thomas” when he joined WKBW-TV in 1961 first as a booth announcer and weatherman. His boyish good looks, a calming manner of tone, and a slight hint of mischievousness in his eyes appealed to children and adults alike.

In the autumn of 1962 WKBW-TV’s new children’s program was ready for its television debut. September 10 was chosen as the “launch date” of the newly christened Rocketship 7 with Dave Thomas. Featuring educational segments interwoven between Warner Brother’s cartoons and the animated shorts like the stop-motion curiosities “Gumby” and “Davey and Goliath”. The show was quickly adopted by its young audience. Rocketship 7 aired on WKBW-TV for 16 years. Thomas, in what passed for an astronaut jumpsuit, stood next to a stack of cardboard boxes with epaulettes known as Promo the Robot. They were joined by Mr. Beeper, their puppet pal.

A Buffalo native, Thomas began his broadcasting career in 1954 at WAER-FM, Syracuse, New York and later worked at WOLF-AM, Syracuse, New York. In 1956, he started in television at the NBC owned and operated WBUF-TV in Buffalo, later joining WGR-TV (now WGRZ-TV) before joining Channel 7. For months prior to the show’s launch, Thomas travelled to the Bell Testing Laboratory in Wheatfield, New York to learn about aeronautics and space flight. At the time, the Niagara County facility hosted some of the nation’s brightest engineers and test pilots. As the show’s future space cadet, Thomas would practice in a Mercury-era program training capsule and helicopter simulator.

The name of the program, “Rocketship 7,” referred to Channel 7 and lent itself to NASA’s Mercury space program. From 1961 to 1963, seven of America’s first astronauts made pioneering ventures into space. National audiences would follow the likes of Freedom 7, Liberty Bell 7, Friendship 7, and Aurora 7 as spacecraft reached towards the heavens. Rocketship 7 would join the local lexicon and would prove to have the right stuff for television success.

With the calming influence of Dave Thomas at the helm, the show ran weekday mornings from 1962 thru 1978. Rocketship 7 was cancelled because Thomas left his native Buffalo for another job. After the show went dark, the original Promo sat in a prop room for a while. When WKBW moved to a new building, the robot costume was thrown in the trash but it was rescued by a guy from the crew who put it in his garage. Eventually, it was fixed up and, for a while, put on display at a toy museum.

The fate of the shows themselves, thousands of hours of children’s programming, is even sadder. Very little exists today. Most of those early, local children’s shows were shot live and if they were on tape, they were erased or thrown out. Back then, few saw the need to archive copies for future use like DVD collections or specialty channels. Forgotten Buffalo has compiled an excellent photo montage for a Youtube video:

Rocketship 7 has been reincarnated twice. The first time was The Commander Tom Show hosted by Tom Jolls. This was cancelled in 1991 but WKBW chose to resume the “Commander Tom” character bringing back Rocketship 7 as a Saturday morning show. “Captain” Mike Randall took over hosting for this edition of the show. Rocketship 7 was cancelled for the last time in 1993. It blasted off for good as infomercials, public affairs, and educational/informational programming began to dominate the Saturday morning lineup.

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