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AUGUST 19 - AUGUST 27, 2014

Dinner for Prozeralik Celebrates Extraordinary Life and Career

By Frank Parlato

August 19, 2014

At 6 p.m. on Aug. 27 at the Como Restaurant, a dinner will be held in honor of Niagara Falls businessman John Prozeralik, aged 90.

Born in Pennsylvania, Prozeralik quit school in the eighth grade in order to work to support his mother and nine brothers and sisters after their father was killed in a Pennsylvania coal mining accident.

Later, he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization as a catcher.

His baseball career ended abruptly when WW II erupted and he was wounded in the South Pacific.

He won a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

Later, Prozeralik owned and operated the Engine House restaurant in Batavia for several years.

Then one day a representative of Pet Milk, looking to sell one of its unprofitable holdings, offered to sell a hotel to him in Niagara Falls.

Prozeralik told the Reporter in an earlier interview, "He told me I could take it over with no money down and just pay them a percentage of the profits. If I didn't make any money, I didn't have to pay them anything," he said. "They'd been losing money for years, so boy, were they surprised when I started sending them money."

The hotel, and restaurant within, opened for business on Jan. 1, 1954. It was renamed John's Flaming Hearth Motel.

John and his brother Nick -- who followed his older brother from Pennsylvania that summer -operated the Flaming Hearth for half a century. A couple years after Flaming Hearth opened, Prozeralik started operating a tour company, and, while in Ohio, looking for locations for tourist-information booths, Prozeralik stopped at a Stuckey's Hamburger Stand in Ashtabula, Ohio, thinking the roadside burger stand and store would make an ideal site for a tour booth.

He was told to call the owner who turned out to be Pet Milk, and the same representative who'd made the deal for the hotel offered similar terms for him to own Stuckey Hamburger stores in all 50 states.

Prozeralik took on 100 stores, but soon realized he overextended himself.

"I was never here -- I was on the road all the time," he said. "I had to get rid of them."

In the years that followed, he owned a meat packing business, two different airlines, and at one point controlled 16 different corporations.

He later owned and lost the Days Inn and Best Western hotels on Buffalo Avenue and Military Rd. the Hotel Niagara and the United Office Building,

Although he earned and lost millions of his own money, Prozeralik never lost anyone else's money in his ventures.

"You can call every bank in town and ask them if anyone lost one penny with me," he said. "When I shut down Air Niagara, I had investors and I paid every one of them back. I think I'm the only guy who ever did that."

He also won millions in a celebrated lawsuit often mentioned in the annals of libel law.

On May 7, 1982, news anchor Cindy DiBiasi of WKBW-TV of Buffalo wrongly identified Prozeralik in a television news report as the victim of an organized-crime beating, suggesting Prozeralik "owed money to organized crime figures."

Prozeralik sued.

After a trial, and appeal, in 1994, 12 years after the original broadcast, Prozeralik won $6 million for damage to his reputation, $3.5 million for emotional stress and $1.5 million for financial losses.

His attorney was Frank R. Bayger.

During the years Prozeralik was active.

A pilot, himself, he successfully opposed the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's plan to hand a 99-year lease to Cintra, a Spanish corporation, to take over the closed Niagara Falls airport.

He offered instead a local partnership with Joseph Smokin' Joe Anderson to develop it for commercial passenger traffic.

Although the NFTA wouldn't make the deal with him, they did not make a deal with Cintra.

The airport later opened for commercial travel after being closed for 30 years. When the new terminal was dedicated, Mayor Paul Dyster thanked Prozeralik.

"He was the guy who never lost faith in this effort," Dyster said.

During the days of Urban Renewal, Prozeralik again showed foresight. When much of downtown Niagara Falls was demolished to make way for empty plazas, vacant buildings and half-empty hotels, Prozerelik wanted to build a 34-story hotel near the Convention Center.

Ironically the Seneca Nation now owns a 26 story hotel there and the convention center was taken from the people and converted to a native American casino.

"The City of Niagara Falls wouldn't give me the land," he said. "Everything was being done under the table." So Prozeralik sued.

"But they got even with me," he said. "I told them I wanted to make the United Office Building into an international office building because all the doctors and lawyers wanted to stay there, but I needed more parking to make it go. They put the motel there so there wasn't any parking at all."

Later Prozeralik blamed the foreclosure loss of his last two hotels - the Days Inn and Best Western on Buffalo Ave in late 2004 to the loss of the convention center saying that conventions supported his hotel business during the spring and fall and the city's loss of them crippled his hotels.

By 2006, John's Flaming Hearth, the Military Road business that begat the Prozeralik empire, the final piece remaining, closed.

"It's a very end-of-an-era kind of feeling," said chef Paul Bunce, moments after sending the final meal out of the kitchen. "The final day of when quality meant something."

"Blame the smoking ban. Blame the exodus of good jobs from the region and the thousands of people who fled south and west," wrote Mike Hudson of the Niagara Falls Reporter at the time, "Blame the casino and its steakhouse, where you can pay for your meal with gambling losses, rather than cash. Blame the crummy chain restaurants and the crummier politicians who would rather lure them to the area than help locally owned businesses."

Over the years Prozeralik remained an activist.

At one time he called for a boycott of the Niagara Gazette, to take back control of the local Chamber of Commerce from NOCO Energy heir Robert Newman, oust the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority from management of the Niagara Falls International Airport and keep then-Buffalo Niagara Partnership head Andrew Rudnick from meddling in the affairs of the city and county governments here.

"Buffalo stole our name for their airport, they've taken over the Chamber and now they want to control our Convention and Visitors Bureau," Prozeralik said. "… it's time for the people to say, 'We're not going to take it anymore!'"

Another time he said, "There's not one politician around here I'd let run a hot dog stand for me."

After closing John's Flaming Hearth, Prozeralik worked at the Polish Nook on Cudaback Avenue and 24th Street (founded by Stanley and Stella Kajfasz in 1969) making, among other delicacies, his famous pumpkin ice cream pie.

In a recent column for the Niagara Gazette, Ken Hamilton said, "John Prozeralik is quite a guy, and if Niagara Falls had just a few more like him, then today we would be living in a very different city."

Tickets are available for the 6 p.m. Aug. 27 Spirit of Niagara dinner at the Como Restaurant, on 2220 Pine Ave, The Bakery Lounge on 3004 Niagara St., or the Polish Nook 2242 Cuddaback or call 804-8003.

"Come and celebrate a 90 year life of one of Niagara's foremost and famous citizens," the poster for the event reads.






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POB 3083, Niagara Falls, N.Y. 14304
Phone: (716) 284-5595

Publisher and Editor in Chief: Frank Parlato
Managing Editor: Dr. Chitra Selvaraj
Senior Editor: Tony Farina