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The 1957 Winter Carnival: Feb. 9-16

February 12, 2011

It was a great thrill for the organizers of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival in 1957 to have the radio show, "Don McNeill's Breakfast Club" broadcast (Monday through Friday) from the stage of the Pontiac Theater.

I don't think it would be an exaggeration on my part (since my mother told me at least 10,000 times not to exaggerate) to say it would be the equal in 2011 of attracting the NBC "Today" show to come here to broadcast for Winter Carnival.

The Breakfast Club was one of ABC's oldest and most successful programs. It attracted millions of listeners along with a huge studio audience. The Carnival program described the show this way: "Today it is one of the oldest shows in radio and one destined to remain as long as folks enjoy a mixture of good old-fashioned corn, sentiment, family fun and music."

Article Photos

A crowd turns out at Saranac Lake's Union Depot train station during Saranac Lake's Winter Carnival.


The cast

Mr. McNeill was Carnival king and host and emcee of the show, and his ad-libbing sidekick Fran Allison was queen of the Carnival.

King McNeill, from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, began his career in radio in 1933 in Chicago; Queen Allison was a school teacher from LaPorte, Iowa. She had a degree in music and education from Coe College and gave up teaching when she got a job with a small radio station Waterloo, Iowa.

The remainder of the Carnival Royalty were also stars of the radio show:

-Dick Noel was prince. He was a World War II Coast Guard veteran, and his singing career was launched when he was "discovered" on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show.

-Betty Johnson was princess. She was billed as "a top recording star and TV headliner." (Remember, not everyone in Saranac Lake had a TV set in 1957.) She was from Cat Square, North Carolina and had graduated from Queens & Davidson College in Charlotte.

Sam Cowling was court jester. The program said, "Sam represents a new category in Saranac Lake Winter Carnival history as first court jester." Sam was the show comedian, and his bio says, "He started his career as a singer in Louisville, Kentucky in 1930 and moved on up to a starvation circuit around Chicago."

There were many other members of the cast along with a band and "47 persons to get the show on the air." The beautiful Pontiac Theater seated about 1,200, including the balcony. The Breakfast Club Show began at 9 a.m.; the audience had to be at the theater at 8:15. It was a full house every day, with hundreds turned away.

(The Pontiac seating number is a guesstimate evolved from information found by my third chief assistant researcher, Kerry Kelly. Mr. Kelly was a famous Pontiac Theater usher, so when I called to ask about the seating capacity of the Pontiac, he, strangely, came up with the seating capacity of the Palace Theatre in Lake Placid. That theater seats 926 or did, in its original configuration.)

The Carnival opened with the 12th annual Adirondack Speed Skating Championships at the municipal rink. Speed skating was then a big sport in the North Country, and every town and every high school boasted a speed-skating team. Janet Milne, a Saranac Lake girl, held the North American Outdoor Title in 1939, and Milford Dietz of Saranac Lake was the youngest skater on the U.S. Olympic team when the games were held in Lake Placid in 1932.

Also on the program was an intercollegiate wrestling match at the town hall: Paul Smith's College vs. R.P.I. The annual Rotary Show and Coronation ceremonies where held together on the third day of Carnival which was Thursday, Feb. 14. The Winter Carnival Ball was held at the Hotel Saranac on the 15th.

The big day was Saturday, Feb. 16 with the American Legion Sled Derby at Mount Pisgah, the Sled Dog Championships and the parade which included these bands: the R.O.T.C Air Force Band from St. Michael's College in Vermont; high school bands from Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Edwards Central, Peru, Lake Placid and the Immaculate Heart Academy in Watertown; and the Saranac Lake Boy Scout Drum and Bugle Corps. There was the band concert following the parade and the fireworks that night.

On Sunday, the Adirondack Golden Ski Championships were held at Mount Pisgah and also the last round of the Sled Dog Championships.



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