In American culture, cheese has overtaken corn. A vast body of all things tacky and tawdry, cheese extends from karaoke to “Xena.” The adjective “cheesy” often is used with ironic mockery to lump synth-pop tunes with watercolors by Norman Rockwell. Corn and its derivative “corny,” on the other hand, are reserved almost exclusively for “Touched by an Angel.” Thankfully, “Don McNeill and His Breakfast Club” ignores this trend, offering a blast of unabashed Midwestern air. Author John Doolittle skillfully chronicles this radio pioneer in a genial, Sanka-sipping tone perfect for McNeill, who proudly proclaimed himself the King of Corn.
McNeill’s imprint on American public life in the 20th century rivals that of Walter Cronkite and Ed Sullivan. His show aired on network radio every weekday morning from 1933 to 1968, paving the way for every future talk and variety program. (The domains of Oprah Winfrey and Jay Leno seem all the more derivative as one fully considers McNeill.) The “toastmaster” philosophized, performed skits, welcomed musical acts and chatted with the studio audience.
Most uncannily, he gave an entire nation the sense of sitting around an enormous, communal breakfast table. In between the homilies and hokum, McNeill showcased his true gift. “He had a special ability to bring people out during interviews due, in part, to his self-confessed liking for ‘people who aren’t very likable,’ ” Doolittle writes.
A former radio news anchor who is now a professor at American U., Doolittle displays great affection for McNeill and offers a wealth of anecdotes, data and history. He largely succeeds in making the material accessible to generations raised on John Hughes’ 1985 film “The Breakfast Club” as well as fans of McNeill’s unrelated version.
Occasionally, there are jarring moments, such as when O’Neill ushers in a “moment of silent prayer” in every broadcast, pushing the show dangerously close to Pat Robertson territory. And Doolittle’s cornpone sometimes congeals into phrases like, “The boys had spunk” and “The twinkle never left his eye.”
But thanks to a companion CD, a vivid portrait emerges of an overlooked broadcast phenomenon. On the 72-minute disc, Bob Hope launches a fusillade of one-liners, Aunt Fanny draws guffaws with her spoonerisms and news breaks of Germany’s surrender to the Allies.
The most evocative snippet comes from the twilight of the “Breakfast Club” in the mid-1960s, when jazz great Duke Ellington visits the show.
Early in the interview, McNeill gushes, “You’ve written so many doggone wonderful pieces.”
Ellington chuckles softly, obviously touched — as the reader is apt to be — not only by the compliment, but by the unaffected use of the word “doggone.”