Don McNeill and the cast and crew of his “Breakfast Club” radio show took over the WNBZ radio airwaves in Saranac Lake for a week in 1957 during their reign as Winter Carnival royalty.
McNeill was Winter Carnival King. Fran “Aunt Fannie” Allison was Queen.
Vocalists Dick Noel and Betty Johnson were Prince and Princess, and Sam Cowling, the show’s “chief heckler,” was Court Jester.
McNeil broadcast his morning variety show to 351 ABC stations in 48 states, Hawaii and Alaska, which were not yet states, and Canada, and also worldwide on the Armed Forces Broadcast Network, bringing a blizzard of publicity to the Adirondacks.
A 13-member orchestra comprised of musicians from Saranac Lake and Watertown backed up the national entertainers for the week. In the afternoons, the Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce introduced the celebrities to local recreational activities such as skiing, skating and bob sledding.
“The program for them is designed to let them enjoy the outdoor sports of our community and area as much as possible,” said Chamber of Commerce President T. Jefferson Newbold. “Don McNeill, who is an avid fisherman, will try his hand at ice fishing.”
McNeill and most of the cast arrived via special train at Saranac Lake around 1:10 pm on February 11th. Johnson, coming from a performance in New York City, arrived by plane a little later in the afternoon. The train came from Chicago, where the broadcast usually originated, and was routed through Utica.
About 1,000 people were at the train station to greet the celebrities. “It was quite a scene down at Depot Street,” the Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported. “It took at least twenty minutes, with everyone including His Excellency Mayor Alton B. Anderson pitching in, to get all the baggage off the train.”
The celebrities participated in the Winter Carnival Parade on February 16th featuring 33 floats and eight bands.
McNeill, who also had a television show, started his radio program in 1933. He was known for is homespun style, patriotic commentary and for his “Memory Time” segment during which he read inspirational poetry over the air. He personally wrote some of the poetry.
“Memory Time is not a time for morbid reflections, for over sentimentality,” McNeill wrote in a 1951 anthology of poetry from the program. “It’s a time for sentiment, for thought, for a chuckle – a reminder in the swift moving affairs of the day to think of things we like to recall.”
Sources: Adirondack Daily Enterprise; Historic Saranac Lake Wiki; “Don McNeill’s Favorite Poems,” 1951, Don McNeill Enterprises Inc.
The Saranac Winter Carnival is underway this week.
Photo from the 1957 Winter Carnival Program provided by Historic Saranac Lake Wiki.