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Breakfast Show Started Day Right:
An OTR Article by Read G. Burgan
Published In RADIO WORLD June 12, 1996:



Don McNeill
Read G. Burgan

How do you start your day? Do you leap out of bed with unbridled enthusiasm? Or do you pull the covers back over your head to shut out unwelcome reality?

During the 1940's and 50's, millions of Americans began their day with Don McNeill's "Breakfast Club" on the NBC (and later ABC) radio network. McNeill died recently on May 7 at the age of 88.

McNeill was born in Galena, Illinois on December 23, 1907, raised in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and never forgot his rural roots. He grew up with radio and began his long career in broadcasting as a singer on the West Coast in the late 1920's. New York was where radio careers were made and he and his new bride Kay Bennet set out for the big apple in 1931.

When New York proved less than hospitable to his career, McNeill returned to Chicago. In the early 30's, networks considered the early morning slot as commercially worthless as the Sunday morning "ghetto". The NBC Blue network hired McNeill for $50 a week to host an early morning weekday show called "The Pepper Pot." No one at the network expected much so McNeill had carte blanche. The first show aired from Chicago on June 23, 1933.

For a while it looked as if the pundits were correct. Six years passed before the network was able to attract consistent commercial sponsors.

But McNeill had a vision of his own. First he changed the name to "The Breakfast Club." In the beginning he wrote the scripts for the program himself. Soon he started reading comments submitted by listeners. And then McNeill pushed the envelope to the limit by asking for permission to run the program with no script at all. In a time of network censors and exaggerated FCC programming oversight, that was a bold idea. Fortunately network officials had so little expectations for the program that they scarcely batted an eye as they granted McNeill permission for this change.

It's a bit hard to describe what made The Breakfast Club such a success. A lot of it had do to McNeill himself. The program was very much a family affair with his wife featured regularly and his three sons Tom, Don and Bobby appearing frequently. Both spontaneity and nostalgia characterized the program. It was performed before a live studio audience that was in effect a surrogate for the millions of unseen listeners who held sway over the program through their cards and letters.

From the very first year McNeill would read bits and pieces he gleaned from listeners' letters. He was fond of saying that the people who wrote in could do a better job of writing the show than he could. Once a year McNeill brought the program even closer to his listeners by taking it on the road for a month.

The program was loosely divided into four parts that were each punctuated by his "call to breakfast." One of his regular sponsors was Kellogg's cereals -- a natural tie-in.

The program had an orchestra, guest stars and a regular cast that gradually changed over the years. Once the program hit its stride, young entertainers were eager to appear knowing that a successful guest spot could launch them into an entertainment career of their own. A young Jim and Marion Jordan honed their dialectal skills on his show in the thirties and went on to their own Fibber McGee and Molly program. Bill Thompson who later joined the Fibber McGee and Molly program as Wallace Wimple and the Old Timer also developed his skills on the Breakfast Club.

So did Lawrence Welk's Alice Lon, Johnny Desmond and Homer and Jethro. Fran Allison, who later achieved fame with her Kukla, Fran and Ollie Show on television played the role of the spinster Aunt Fanny who delighted in sharing the secrets of her country neighbors.

During World War II McNeill added a "Prayer Time" to the format as a means of comforting those with family members affected by the war. It was so well received that he continued the feature long after the war had ended.

He also had a segment entitled "The Sunshine Shower" during which he solicited listener letters for those confined in hospitals and nursing homes. One can only imagine how many lives were brightened by the letters generated by his program.

During its peak period, the program that originally couldn't attract a commercial sponsor generated one million dollars a year from each of its four sponsors. McNeill who first earned $50 a week ($2,600 a year) received $200,000 during the program's peak years.

In 1954 the program had the distinction of being one of the first to be simulcast on television. The format didn't translate well to the TV of that era and the television portion was soon dropped.

But McNeill himself had staying power. While there's some debate over when the golden age of radio ended, few will argue that it was in the final stages of rigor mortis in the late 1950's. McNeill's Breakfast Club continued on until December 27, 1968, long after his contemporary radio artists had fallen by the wayside.

Nearly thirty years later many of us still drag ourselves from the sack -- some later than others -- but it's not nearly as much fun as when we knew that Don McNeill was waiting to entertain and delight us. How nice it would be to hear him say just one more time, "Good morning, Breakfast Club-bers. . . ." Maybe that's why I yawn so much now. Come to think of it, I yawned a lot then, too.

-- The End --

Read Burgan is a free lance writer and a former public radio station manager who can be reached at (906) 296-0652 or through e-mail at rgb@up.net.