Is the WMMS Buzzard just a big bird?
Collector buys pricey costume; WMMS says it never existed
NILES — Brian Orfin is a hunter, and his prey is memorabilia, whether it’s rare Mahoning Valley Scrappers items or pop culture collectibles.
Last weekend he bagged a Buzzard. Or did he?
Orfin, who lives in Cortland and owns Nowhere Toys, 416 Robbins Ave., has a vivid memory while growing up of seeing a black-and-white photo of a costumed version of the WMMS Buzzard mascot riding on a parade float.
He’s talked to other northeast Ohio residents who remember seeing the costumed character during the Cleveland FM radio station’s heyday in the 1970s and ’80s.
“When you lived here, that’s what you listened to,” he said.
Orfin, 46, has wanted to own that costume since he first saw it and has tried repeatedly over the years to find it.
Through someone who knows someone who knows someone, he finally tracked it down. Early on July 18, he drove to a Cleveland suburb, paid “a lot” of money and brought the Buzzard home.
“I saw the feet and the head, and I was so excited,” Orfin said. “There it was, the holy grail I’ve been searching for for 20 years.”
There’s only one problem — John Gorman says WMMS never had a costumed mascot.
Gorman would know. He ran the album-oriented rock station from 1973 until 1986 (and again from 1994 to ’96). He and DJ Denny Sanders commissioned the now-iconic bird logo from David Helton, an artist for American Greetings who came to their attention after he sent the station a complaint letter in the form of a cartoon.
In his 2007 book “The Buzzard,” Gorman (with co-writer Tom Feran) says a costumed mascot was suggested, but he was opposed and, “I won that one.”
He confirmed the story in an interview Thursday.
“I wanted there to be a mystique (about the Buzzard),” he said. “I didn’t want to turn it into a Slider (the Cleveland Indians costume mascot). Then you have to create a personality for that character.”
The Buzzard adorned T-shirts, hats, buttons and other merchandise. There were Buzzard figurines and a giant inflatable Buzzard, but Gorman said he preferred having on-air personalities make personal appearances rather than a costumed mascot.
In the book, Gorman says someone once showed up at the station in a homemade Buzzard costume, hoping to land a job as mascot. Gorman told him he better take the costume off or he would be hearing from copyright lawyers.
“I never saw the costume again,” he said in the book.
After being emailed a photo of the costume Orfin purchased, Gorman wrote back, “This is the first time I have seen this costume … Given that I was at WMMS from the Buzzard’s inception to 1986 — and again from 1994 to 1996 — and lived in Cleveland in all of those years in between, I would have known about this costume.
“It’s creative. Perhaps it was used as a Halloween costume. But it was never used at a sanctioned WMMS event.”
Orfin didn’t quite know how to react when told about what Gorman said. His memory of that old photo is strong and seeing other people talk about the costumed mascot in WMMS fan groups online is what sparked him to renew his quest to find the costume.
He’s also familiar with “the Mandela effect,” however — a term used to describe the phenomenon of a large group of people all misremembering the same event.
“Whatever it is, it’s cool,” Orfin said.
And, unlike Bigfoot, there’s no disputing its existence. Orfin has the costume on a mannequin in his shop, and with its massive head, it stands about 6-and-a-half feet tall.
The head is a pretty accurate representation of the Buzzard logo, and it has oversized, bird-like orange feet. While the Buzzard’s body on the logo traditionally was black, the costume has a fuzzy blue body, making it look a little like the Buzzard’s head and feet on the frame of Grover from “Sesame Street.”
The costume also shows extensive wear and tear. The nose has some damage. The yellow hair is worn away in spots, exposing the netting underneath. The feet are stained, and the soles are damaged. It doesn’t look like a costume that was worn once and stored away.
Maybe it was used by a fan of the station without its knowledge, Orfin said. He plans to keep it on display in his shop regardless, and he has seen the power of WMMS nostalgia. Buzzard hats and T-shirts from the ’70s frequently sell for $100 or more on sites like eBay.
“I’ve been doing this for a living for over 20 years, and I can count on my hands the number of WMMS stuff that’s come through here,” Orfin said. “On any given day, I know something ‘Star Wars’ is walking through the door … But ‘MMS? Nope, nobody’s selling it. It’s just (under) lock and key.
“People like to surround themselves with when it was pure in their life. With WMMS they go back to the time, they remember the first time they were with a girl and maybe that station was playing. You remember your friends and things like that.”