BEFORE LENO AND LETTERMAN, before Carson, before Oprah and Donahue, before even Arthur Godfrey, there was the prototype of broadcasting hosts, a Homer of homespun talk. He was a genial fellow who would chat up a hodgepodge of guests—some famous, some just folks—trade puns and wisecracks with his bandleader and, when things got slow, cheerfully march around in the studio audience. In fact, every 15 minutes he would march the studio audience around itself, to the delight of listeners across the country and Canada who could only imagine the spectacle in Chicago. He ruled on radio for 35 years, an astonishing run that lasted from the Depression to Vietnam (1933-68). Don McNeill, who died on May 7, at 88, of heart failure in Evanston, Ill., played host to an earlier America—a national community of men and women who felt more at home sitting down and sharing breakfast with millions of other listeners than watching a TV show late at night, alone.
Everyone from farmers to high school kids would make the pilgrimage to Chicago’s Drake Hotel, one of the locations from which McNeill broadcast The Breakfast Club on NBC and, later, ABC. McNeill had a rotating cast that included Fran Allison (of Kukla, Fran and Ollie) and Jim and Marian Jordan (better known as Fibber McGee and Molly), but the show became a hit when McNeill tossed the script and made audience members the stars. He would interview them, read their poetry and recipes and share inspirational moments. Born in Galena, Ill., he never lost his folksy style or midwestern twang, but when TV grew up in the ’60s, the show went off the air, leaving behind millions of memories and a broadcasting world forever changed.