on November 23, 2013 - 12:01 AM
, updated November 23, 2013 at 5:36 PM
Like a turkey, like a big acorn squash, like all of us after a family-style feast, Thanksgiving week in Buffalo is …
This year, it’s late, so it has had more time to fatten itself up. We’ve got the Bills, the Sabres, the “Nutcracker,” the World’s Largest Disco, the Turkey Trot and Handel’s “Messiah” – at Our Lady of Victory, no less.
Wednesday night is the biggest bar night of the year. Friday is the biggest shopping day. In between is the biggest road race. Plus Buffalo being a relatively religious town, you might have to work in worship. In which case, one of your questions to God might be:
What did we do to deserve this town?
We are the kind of town people come home to. Every Thanksgiving, countless expats, friends and relatives, depart from the cities they currently call home – New York, San Diego, Charlotte – and come back home.
Once here, they want to dive into everything Buffalo has to offer.
“It’s not as if you’re coming home for a funeral or wedding or another thing you might come back for,” muses Steve Cichon, former WBEN news chief turned pop culture historian. Thanksgiving, he adds, is more open. “Thanksgiving is like, cool, man, three days to spend in my hometown. How can I spend it and really have a great time? I think that’s when we get these things that are traditions. Visiting whatever bar, trying to recapture some part of our past.”
Cichon said returning Buffalonians want things to be the way they always have been.
“They come back to the same idea that you’re using the same gravy boat that you were using as a kid,” he says. “If you’re flying in for just a couple of days, your whole trip can be nostalgia. If you’re eating food you can’t get wherever you are now, you might even be a different person while you are here.”
Year-round Buffalonians can also become different people over Thanksgiving. We revel in our four seasons, our food specialties, even our snowflakes.
The feeling unites Buffalonians across the groaning board. So suggests Buffalo playwright Tom Dudzick, whose “Miracle on South Division Street” is on stage at the Kavinoky Theatre through Dec. 8.
“The Thanksgiving/Buffalo lure for me is more than just getting together with family,” he said in a quick Facebook message.
“Buffalo is, of course, a large city, but it’s just small enough that one gets a strong sense of community here. Like the song says, ‘We are Family!’ When you come home to the family in Buffalo on Thanksgiving, it’s not just to be reunited with parents and siblings. That family feeling takes in the whole town. And it will always be that way for me.”
Phone calls to Vidler’s
The long weekend gets under way with a feeling of timelessness, Buffalo style, as we celebrate the biggest bar night of the year. For many, that means gathering with friends and cousins at old Buffalo bars: Cole’s, say, or the Central Park Grill, or the Steer.
“The longer the bar’s been around under the same name, the more likely that is to happen,” Cichon said. “When you say, ‘Let’s go to Cole’s,’ even if you lived there 30 years ago, you still know where Cole’s is.”
“The bar can change, the feeling can change, but it’s being there and being in that place. And if you’re in that same building with the same 10 guys that you were in high school with 20 years ago, it’s still the same,” Cichon says. “You may never visit that bar at any other time, but it’s still that place in your past.”
To complete the time warp, even the music can be the way it used to be.
This year, Junction West is playing the Tralf Music Hall on Friday. The Tails, the long-running band that features News Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers, celebrate the 20th anniversary of their “Spiral Worlds” album at Nietzsche’s on Saturday. Also on Saturday, for the patchouli set, Workingman’s Dead plays two sets at McGarret’s.
By the time the Turkey Trot kicks off, Buffalo pride is in full swing. Crowds cheer the runners as they round Niagara Square – past old St. Anthony’s Church, where a 10 a.m. Latin Tridentine Mass is in progress, and on to the Convention Center, where everyone celebrates their physical fitness with free beer.
The scene hasn’t changed for a century, and many don’t want it to. It’s one reason a lot of Buffalonians are at odds with Black Friday, a relatively recent Thanksgiving development, or with the growing number of stores open on Thanksgiving.
Beverly Vidler, of picturesque Vidler’s in East Aurora, makes a point of closing the store.
“We get phone calls thanking us,” she said. “People say, ‘Thank you for not being open on Thanksgiving.’ ”
The nature of the Thanksgiving feast, in itself, is a bastion against commercialism. The plain menu endures, foiling attacks by trendy cooking magazines. And it’s stubbornly cheap.
However, there is an excuse for shopping in Buffalo on Thanksgiving weekend, a reason no one will challenge.
That is if you are buying Buffalo stuff.
Expats are looking for souvenirs, and the rest of us are shopping for Christmas presents. WNY Book Arts Center in downtown Buffalo was stocked weeks in advance with the kind of things former Buffalonians crave. “Buffalo Hates You Too,” reads one greeting card, designed to send to someone who dares show us disrespect.
The Buffalo gift shop in Main Place Mall was overflowing – caps, T-shirts and a giant $999 stuffed bison in the window, designed for the most homesick expat. A poster showed bison stampeding down a city street. It was titled “The Buffalo Commute.” The shops at the Hotel @ the Lafayette, windows decked out for Christmas, were selling Buffalo photos and Buffalo-shaped pillows (an especially good seller, the clerk said).
New this year at the History Museum’s gift shop is a butter lamb Christmas ornament. And the museum feeds into Thanksgiving nostalgia with Train Day on Friday, when someone flicks the switch to start the museum’s famed model trains running for the Christmas season.
The trains will be clattering merrily around on Saturday when, at noon, the museum plays host to its 10th annual Buffalo book signing.
“This year, it’s safe to say we’ve doubled the authors,” says Constance McEwen Caldwell of the History Museum. “Usually we have a little over 30. Now we’ve got over 60.” Why the popularity? “It’s a gift that’s easy to give for the person who has everything. And for expats, it’s always fun to get a Buffalo-themed book.”
Disco and opera
The big Thanksgiving weekend events have their traditional time slots. Friday night is the Sabres game (they’re playing the Toronto Maple Leafs at 7:30 p.m. in the First Niagara Center). Sunday is the Bills game. (They’re home, sort of, for the annual Toronto game, and playing the Atlanta Falcons at 4 p.m.)
On Saturday night, two mammoth dance events go head to head. One is “The Nutcracker,” on stage at 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, courtesy of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Neglia Ballet Artists.
The other is the World’s Largest Disco.
There is something ritual and right about this orgy of fun and nostalgia taking over the Buffalo Convention Center at the height of the Thanksgiving weekend. But the disco came about simply because Buffalo abhors a vacuum.
“It was 1993, and I was driving around downtown Buffalo,” said the disco’s founder, Dave Pietrowski. “I drove by the Statler. The lights were off. The lights were off at the Convention Center. Jim Kelly’s Network was in the process of closing.”
Pietrowski brooded as he drove. “Wednesday’s the biggest bar night. Thursdays you’re with your family. Friday, families are looking for something to do, and by Saturday, everyone’s got cabin fever. I thought, everyone’s here, and nothing’s going on. I’m going to have a party next year.”
He admitted it can be hard to book the ’70s celebrities that are the disco’s big draw. “The only time they have off is Thanksgiving or Christmas. I’m asking them to travel the toughest travel weekend of the year.”
But it was the only time he could get the venue that his vision required.
“There’s never going to be a convention at the Convention Center the Saturday after Thanksgiving,” he said. Luckily, he laughed, this is one party that no one forgets. “You don’t ever have to tell anyone what the date is.”
A smaller Thanksgiving tradition, and one that’s not half as loud, was also an accident. At 3 and 7 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nickel City Opera is staging Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda.
A children’s opera about the Three Kings, “Amahl” was written for square 1950s television. It’s always pretty much the same – two white kings, one black king, a tent, a shining star. It looks like a Christmas card come to life. Yet Ruminski did not have tradition or nostalgia in mind when he began staging the opera four years ago.
“It was the only time I could get the Riviera,” he said. Unsentimentally, he adds that this “Amahl” will be his last. Next year, he is planning to offer a Halloween opera, “Night of the Living Dead.”
He might want to stick with what he’s got. “Amahl” follows the formula for Buffalo Thanksgiving success. That is, it follows a formula.
Just like Thanksgiving dinner, the Thanksgiving events we love the most are the things that change the least.
“Different ethnic groups can have different Christmas traditions,” Cichon reflects. “But Thanksgiving is pretty cut and dry. There’s no one with a different tradition. It’s turkey, and even if you don’t like football, football’s the only thing on, so you watch it.
“It’s very much the same thing as when you were a little kid. There are some changes with the stores open – which is a little crazy – but we’re all doing the same thing.”
Even better, we’re all doing it in the same place.