Gazette Article by: Jane Lord
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 1999
He was “The Man Who Came to Breakfast.” For 35 years millions joined him five days a week, laughed at and with him, sang and prayed with him, and marched around the breakfast table at 15-minute intervals. Don McNeill, a Winnetka resident for more than half a century, created and hosted “The Breakfast Club,” a variety hour that made an indelible mark on radio.
Donald Thomas McNeill was born in Galena, Illinois, grew up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and entered Marquette University’s school of journalism intending to become an editorial cartoonist. During the depression McNeill took a job at a Milwaukee radio station to help pay for college. After radio jobs in Louisville and San Francisco, he returned to the Midwest, where he remained for the rest of his career.
It was 1933 when McNeill, then 25, auditioned to emcee “The Pepper Pot,” an unsponsored 8:00 a.m. show at NBC in Chicago. Hired for $50 a week, McNeill remarked that he had “taken over an hour that no one else wanted.” He quickly renamed the program “The Breakfast Club” and introduced a folksy quality that attracted loyal listeners and led to its distinction as the longest running network entertainment program in radio history.
In 1936 McNeill changed the show’s format, introducing live audiences and unscripted shows. The program aired without commercials until 1939, when its growing popularity attracted sponsors and made the morning hours a prime source of network revenues.
The first of its genre, the show combined sentiment with human interest, music, song, and prayer. One of its most popular features was “calls to breakfast” every 15 minutes—wake-up calls when the audience marched around the table. McNeill didn’t resent that his humor was called “corny.” He had a special ability to talk to anyone, from foreign heads of state to humble day laborers.
Jim and Marian Jordan, later known as “Fibber McGee and Molly,” and singer Johnny Desmond debuted on “The Breakfast Club.” Fran Allison, who later starred in the “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” puppet show, appeared regularly as the gossipy character, “Aunt Fanny.” Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Gary Cooper, Ginger Rogers, and James Stewart were featured guests.
At the height of its popularity, “The Breakfast Club” aired on more than 350 ABC stations across the United States and Canada. For a number of years memory books recalling highlights of the program were published and made available to listeners. For about five years during the 1950s, the show was simulcast on television, but McNeill felt that radio best captured the imaginations of his listeners. Although most programs originated in downtown Chicago hotels, McNeill occasionally broadcast from New Trier High School and sometimes took the show on the road to other cities.
During World War II “The Breakfast Club” was one of the few programs heard by American armed forces all over the world.
Robert NcNeill, one of three sons, has special memories of “The Breakfast Club.” He recalls the times his father had him emcee the show with little advance warning. “I came to realize how large his shoes were to step into. I gained a lot of respect for what he did on the job by experiencing how difficult it was.” Robert McNeill remembers that during 1948 “Aunt Fanny” started a “Don McNeill for President” movement, which amused the radio celebrity until “all of a sudden, there was a ground swell; so he dropped out.”
“The Breakfast Club” went off the air in 1968, and McNeill retired from radio. He remained active, teaching communications courses at Marquette and Notre Dame Universities. In addition to serving on numerous boards and helping various charities, he worked actively on a North Shore Senior Center program for Alzheimer patients and was a strong supporter of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.
McNeill concluded every broadcast of “The Breakfast Club” with a message to listeners, “Don’t forget Don McNeill and his gang saying ‘so long and be good to your neighbor’.” McNeill died on May 7, 1996 at age 88. The genial host and his show are still remembered by everyone who had a chance to “march around the breakfast table.”