One day on Facebook, my chum Jason Togyer—editor of the online Tube City Almanac, The Voice of McKeesport, PA—asked me if I knew the origin of a gag he had heard the great comedy duo of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding do in a routine: “You win my orchid for today.” Fortunately for Jase, my synapses were firing on all cylinders (to mix a metaphor) and I recognized it from Breakfast in Hollywood, a popular daytime radio program that premiered on January 13, 1941 on local L.A. station KFWB (The Voice of Warner Bros.) as Breakfast on the Boulevard. When it went national over the Blue Network in August of 1942, the name was changed to Breakfast at Sardi’s…and in March of 1943, it started answering to Breakfast in Hollywood (it was also called Breakfast with Breneman—after the show’s host, Tom Breneman). (They stopped referring to the program as Breakfast at Sardi’s to avoid confusion with the famed eatery in New York.)
The “orchid” referred to in the preceding paragraph was a daily segment on the Breneman program, in which he handed out that flower (courtesy of “Joe the Express Boy”) to the oldest member (usually female) of the studio audience as…well, I guess as a prize for growing so old. Breakfast in Hollywood thrived on participation of women willing to be up at the butt-crack of dawn (they started seating the audience at 7:30am) for a chance to be on the show; the “Wishing Ring” segment handed out the titular jewelry (from Joseff’s of Hollywood!) to lucky ladies who only had to reveal their hopes and dreams in return, and “Beauty Kit” auctioned off a collection of cosmetics to one fortunate matron. If it all sounds silly, keep in mind that mind-numbing small screen fromage like Dr. Phil and Judge Judy inexplicably racks up big ratings today; Breakfast in Hollywood had at the peak of its popularity a nationwide audience of ten million loyal listeners, second only to the granddaddy of all “breakfast” programs, The Breakfast Club.
Tom Breneman, an ex-vaudevillian and radio station manager, saw his radio show balloon in popularity to the point where the West Coast Sardi’s could no longer accommodate the large crowds for the program…and he eventually opened his own Vine Street eatery in March of 1945, allowing Breakfast in Hollywood to comfortably resume broadcasting. The story goes that producer Robert S. Golden was taking a stroll by Breneman’s joint one day and had his gob completely smacked at the sight of a line of women lined up around the block to get into the show. (Bob didn’t know anything about the program.) Cartoon dollar signs no doubt appeared in Golden’s eyes, and he set up his own production outfit which executed a deal with United Artists to release a silver screen version of Breakfast in Hollywood (1946) that got underway in the fall of 1945. Screenwriter Earl Baldwin put together a script that spotlighted four tales of woe and non-woe among different characters attending a Breneman broadcast, described by Hal Erickson in From Radio to the Big Screen as “a 1946 version of the 2004 Oscar-winner Crash, in which a number of disparate lives are woven together by a single traffic incident.”
Serial philanderer Richard Cartwright (Raymond Walburn) plows into 82-year-old widow Annie Reed (played by the 56-year-old Beulah Bondi) with his car as the Widder Reed is on her way to attend a broadcast of Breakfast in Hollywood. Octogenarians don’t normally walk away from that kind of traffic mishap as a rule, but Annie is so determined to see the show that she soldiers on (and winds up winning the orchid) … only to collapse after the show’s sign-off. Also in Breneman’s audience are Dorothy Larsen (Bonita Granville), a young girl who hails from the wilds of Minnesota, who’s in town to meet up with her fiancé and winds up the recipient of the “Wishing Ring”; as good movie plotting would have it, her beau’s best buddy from the Navy, Ken Smith (Edward Ryan), is also in attendance…but he’s got some unpleasant news to relay to Dottie.
Rounding out the Breakfast in Hollywood crowd are Frances Cartwright (Billie Burke)—and yes, she’s married to the aforementioned Richard—who emerges victorious in the “Beauty Kit” segment; she uses her cosmetics prize as an incentive for a complete makeover…and then coincidentally runs into her husband in the beauty salon/barber shop, where he’s found boasting of his latest romantic conquest with a pair of chippies. (I predict he’s going to be subletting a doghouse soon.) Finally, we have Elvira Spriggens (ZaSu Pitts)—who’s sporting millinery so hideous she’s hoping host Breneman will try it on. The “goofy hats” worn by female audience members—which host Breneman would “test drive” to appreciative laughter and applause—were a trademark of Breakfast in Hollywood; odds are in your favor that if you were to pick out any random publicity photo of the show from a pile, Tom will be sporting a woman’s comical chapeau. (Elvira finally gets her heart’s desire in Hollywood’s closing gag, when Tom agrees to try on another hideous hat she’s acquired—from the queen of outrageous hat accessories, Hedda Hopper [playing herself]—to discourage her from continuously stalking him.)
Because it’s languishing in retirement at the Old Public Domain Home, Breakfast in Hollywood can be easily located in any number of venues, including YouTube and inexpensive DVDs like Alpha Video. I downloaded the movie from Vault on Demand during our Epix freeview…and to be honest, I was initially reluctant to watch the film because of the poor write-up (one-and-a-half stars) it received in Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide (Len calls it “uninspired”). (Life’s too short to intentionally watch bad movies, though it has paid off handsomely for some.) Here’s the thing: there are a lot of classic movies in that book that are in dire need of revisiting, and after reading about Hollywood in Hal Erickson’s book I decided to take a chance. (Plus, I’m a sucker for ZaSu and Billie.)
“Director Harold D. Schuster of My Friend Flicka fame handles the contrivances of Breakfast with Hollywood so adroitly that it seldom enters one’s consciousness that Real Life never works out this conveniently,” notes Erickson. Movies are magic, baby; I know that I can’t take any frame of the film too seriously (particularly when I spot familiar character faces like Robert “Weenie King” Dudley, Minerva Urecal, and Byron Foulger as the “radio” audience) but Hollywood is such a charming, unpretentious romp I didn’t mind a bit. Granted, the romantic subplot between Granville and Ryan isn’t much to write home about, but the musical interludes from the (Nat) King Cole Trio (they perform separately—all the better to snip their numbers so as not to enrage the segregation-minded South) and Spike Jones and His City Slickers help smooth out the rough spots. (I know all this musical talent and star cameos might seem like “stunt casting” …but in all honesty, Hollywood would frequently play host to “surprise” celebrity guests [Jimmy Durante, Orson Welles, etc.] throughout its run.) Moreover, I can see why Breneman had such a fan base—he’s a most gregarious and engaging presence, and I couldn’t help but grin when the subplots take him outside of his radio show environs so he can get personally involved in the lives of the character played by Bondi and young lovers Bonita and Edward. (Mr. Anthony should have filed a lawsuit against this guy.)
After Breakfast in Hollywood ended its theatrical run, Tom Breneman returned to his radio gig and continued successfully broadcasting weekdays until April 28, 1948…when, two hours before he was to go on the air, Breneman collapsed and died at the age of 46. Garry Moore stepped up to the plate and signed on as Hollywood’s replacement host, but neither him nor a succession of other emcees (including Cliff “Charley Weaver” Arquette) could capture the Breneman magic, and the program left ABC on July 6, 1951. (A revival attempt ran on NBC from 1952 to 1954…yet it, too, found little success.) A smattering of the original broadcasts has managed to survive the ravages of time and neglect, and can be found for purchase here.