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Tom Breneman’s Breakfast in Hollywood

In the 1940s, millions of Americans started each day with “Breakfast in Hollywood,” broadcast live from host Tom Breneman’s restaurant.

Tom Breneman's restaurant
Tom Breneman's at 1525 Vine Street

After years of recording the radio show at Sardi’s on Hollywood Boulevard, in 1945 Breneman opened an eponymous eatery at 1525 Vine (across from NBC Radio City), where he served up breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and a side of entertainment. Within two years, he expanded his radio-restaurant empire to a 1,000-seat space a few doors down at the former Hollywood Recreation Center (1539 Vine).

Tom Breneman's on Vine Street
Tom Breneman's second location (Huntington Library)

Every morning at 5 a.m., hundreds of fans lined up outside the venue, eager to snag a front-row seat to Breneman’s shenanigans. Especially popular with older women, the ABC Radio personality hosted an interactive program, wandering the dining room with a portable microphone to banter with audience members over bacon, eggs, bran muffins, and coffee.

Breakfast in Hollywood show ticket
Tickets for the show cost $1.25 and included breakfast

More so, he gave a voice to the overlooked: At Tom Breneman’s, elderly women were the stars of the show. Many made pilgrimages to Hollywood from some of the smallest American towns for a chance to be recognized on national radio. “Orchid Lady” was a bit that earned the oldest in the room a flower and a kiss from the affable host. “God bless you, honey,” Breneman would say as he pinned an orchid on her lapel. Enlivened by his sentiment, “they leave the restaurant stepping faster, looking perky and proud.” Back to reality at home, the glittering moment stayed with them the remainder of their lifetime.

Tom Breneman's restaurant interior
Interior of Tom Breneman's (LAPL)

“He has glamorized age, kids it instead of pitying it, and makes it a living thing,” Breneman’s secretary Dorothy Hegle wrote in a 1946 Radio Mirror ode to her boss. “Life begins at 70 since Breakfast in Hollywood.” Indeed, it wasn’t uncommon to celebrate a 100-year-old fan on the show—some proudly brought their birth certificate to prove it. The oldest was 105 (pictured below).

One special moment, captured on phonograph and distributed by the radio network, featured an 83-year-old woman from Los Angeles who used her brief appearance on Breakfast in Hollywood to flaunt her special talent: poetry. Breneman invited her to recite one for the national audience—and it’s clear from his reaction he got a genuine kick out of it.

Breneman also doled out orchids to recipients of his “Good Neighbor” award. During the “Wishing Ring” segment, lucky fans got the opportunity to slip on a sterling silver band and reveal their dream. A housewife who hoped for twins later wrote Breneman to share her wish had been granted. Once, he was touched by a 90-year-old who wished to visit her family in Minneapolis but couldn’t afford the necessary plane ticket. “Well, go home and start packing, Mother,” Breneman told her. “We’ll fly you there and back.”

Breakfast in Hollywood cast photo
The voices of Breakfast in Hollywood (California State Library)

Another schtick was handing out a prize for the silliest hat—and then trying it on for laughs. The gag was popular, he put out a line of Tom Breneman Hats sold in hundreds of leading stores across the country. In 1946, after disagreeing with Hedda Hopper that housewives could create high-fashion millinery, the two sponsored a national hat contest that encouraged entrants to let their imaginations run wild. More than 60,000 were mailed to Vine Street, adorned with seashells, pine needles, feathers, burnt matches, plastic toys, and more. The grand prize, won by a woman in Illinois, was a 1947 automobile, all-expenses-paid trip for two to Mexico, and a hat from Hopper’s personal collection. All submissions were auctioned off for charity in an event hosted by Mickey Rooney at the Earl Carroll Theatre, raising $100,000 for the Braille Institute for the Blind (equivalent to $1.6 million in 2023, with inflation).

Breneman’s generosity encouraged goodwill among his listeners. When he requested towels for servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen, “the office soon began to look like a Turkish bath,” recalled Hegle. The show’s staff lost count at 52,000.

Tom Breneman and servicemen
(California State Library)

Over the radio waves, Breneman exuded sincerity, cheer, and encouragement. Letters from fans read like a letter from an old friend. Shut-ins wrote to credit his booming laugh and cheerful personality for giving them a reason to smile every day. Others asked the radio host to play matchmaker, a scenario that mirrored the plot of Breneman’s 1946 comedy Breakfast in Hollywood starring Bonita Granville, Beulah Bondi, Billie Burke, and ZaSu Pitts, as well as cameos from Nat King Cole, Spike Jones, and Andy Russell as themselves.

Breakfast in Hollywood movie
Breneman appeared in the 1946 film based on his radio show

On the morning of April 28, 1948, Breneman was making breakfast at his Encino home when he dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 47. The news quickly reached Vine Street, where 600 fans were lined up for the ABC Radio show. Overcome with shock and grief, many openly wept on the sidewalk at the loss of their favorite host.

Breakfast in Hollywood continued to air, with Garry Moore and others tossing their hat into the ring as host. But none could capture Breneman’s spirit and eight months later in January 1949, the radio program ended its seven-year run.

Tom Breneman family at home
The Brenemans: Gloria, Tom, Tom Jr., and Billie in 1946


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