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Issue Date: July 1988


Little Philly

Phil Donahue would not be who he is— liberal, feminist, in rebellion against the Catholic Church—were he not the product of a conservative West Side upbringing.
By Evelyn Theiss
Phil Donahue slouches behind his big desk at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Plaza dressed in the preppy trappings you would expect on an all-American man — slightly faded Levis, a blue-and-white oxford shirt, navy sweater, and a Yankees’ baseball cap. The cap covers much of the familiar thatch of silver-white hair, but doesn’t diminish the startling blue eyes in which women get lost. Still, you can’t shake the feeling that there is something wrong with this picture of Phil Donahue. It’s more than the lack of eyeglasses he usually wears perched low on his nose. Ah, it’s the voice. This voice is low, not a monotone exactly, but close. Not that deep, cut-to-the-quick voice that startles daytime television viewers with grabbers like: “Three in a bed! Have you ever wondered what it was like? Watch DON-a-hue toDAY on TV-EIGHT!” This voice is not inviting, not exciting, and you wonder how he demands all that attention. Later, you understand. He dons a crisp white shirt and clips burgundy power suspenders onto Paul Stuart pants.

Only a whisk of Cover Girl face powder, and his ruddy Irish complexion is television-ready. Donahue strides down the narrow hall at NBC, jacket slung over his shoulder, political/commercial style. After a quick stop in the green room to reassure that day’s guests and his joking pronouncement to the control room staff—”Star’s here”—he enters the kingdom where his 200 subjects are waiting. He booms out, “Hey, are you in a good mood?” to a thunderous chorus of cheers, whistles and claps.

Every eye in the room stays on him. Only the biggest stars can turn it on and off like that. And Phil Donahue, a former altar boy from Our Lady of Angels on Cleveland’s West Side, is nothing if not one of the most visible and personally complex celebrities to emerge from this area. Somewhere along the way, he has acquired that special something called “star quality,” a physical presence or magnetism that draws attention to him when he wants it. Though Susan Gouveia is sitting in the back row of the studio audience, she is visibly drawn into Donahue’s aura. She and her husband George (“He’s in real estate,” she says with a slight air of superiority) made the hour-long trip from fashionable Westchester County after their daughter surprised them with Donahue tickets she bought at a silent auction. Though they try to appear worldly, the Gouveias are obviously impressed in Donahue’s presence.

“He’s a very good-looking man, isn’t he?” she says to her husband, whose disheveled hair gives him a slightly bewildered look. “Yes, he is an attractive man,” he says. Susan, whose ring finger sports the type of diamond commonly referred to as a rock, is in her late forties but attempting valiantly to look 15 years younger. Her auburn hair is teased to fullness, her eyelashes are thickened to a startling degree with mascara, and she wears a clingy red dress with black polka dots that shows off the trim figure she strives to keep. The topic that day is widowhood, and Susan tells the women sitting near her that, of course, she has no personal interest in the topic, but it’s nice to be here, isn’t it, to see Phil in person. Susan isn’t all that excited about being on television — she certainly doesn’t intend to stand up and ask a question — but she preens and sits up very straight, slightly cocking her head with interest whenever Phil lunges up the stairs toward the row she sits in. When the show ends and the studio lights dim, she smiles demurely, pats her hair, and says, “Well, that was very interesting, wasn’t it?”

The man who inspires such adulation was just a journalist once, a small-time radio reporter stalking the streets of Adrian, Michigan, calling on the sheriff’s department, hoping breathlessly for the words “We’ve got a fatal.” Now, as Donahue is the first to admit, he has his show, with his name on it, and he can “pop off” whenever he likes. And despite the incredible ratings garnered by sassy upstart Oprah Winfrey, Donahue, after 20 years, is still clearly the king of daytime television. His ratings over the last year have actually increased. But now, the man who created a television genre—the talk show with vigorous audience involvement — is at a turning point in his career. His contract with Multimedia Entertainment, Inc., which syndicates Donahue, is up in 1990.

Donahue won’t say if he plans to end the contract, and indeed, he would find it difficult to give up a show that draws peak ratings after 20 years. But Phil Donahue is the kind of man who thrives on challenge, on breaking new ground. And just when it seems there isn’t anything that hasn’t been done on television, Donahue’ wants to create a one-hour weekly newscast produced jointly by U.S. Public Television and Gosteleradio, the Soviet television/radio network. It would air in the United States and the Soviet Union, with Donahue anchoring in New York and Vladimir Pozner, a Soviet commentator, anchoring in Moscow, making it a kind of bi-continental Huntley/BrinkIey-style report.

PBS management is considering the proposal and could give its approval late this summer. Considered one of television’s most incisive interviewers, rivaled only by Ted Koppel, Donahue is ready to take his skills beyond daytime television. Phil Donahue has a problem with which legions of gorgeous, brainy women can sympathize — he wants to be taken seriously. And he wants to do it on prime time.

Donahue says it was an “act of God” that put him on the talk show trail. Had he not been a member of the first graduating class of St. Edward High School in Lakewood in 1953, he never would have been accepted to Notre Dame. And it was at the tiny, new Notre Dame television station where Donahue was introduced to broadcasting. Tb support the new St. Edward High School, the Brothers of the Holy Cross at Notre Dame agreed to accept any new graduate of St. Ed. So Donahue, with his mediocre high school grades, was welcomed.

But on a deeper level, Donahue’s conservative Irish-Catholic upbringing in Cleveland figured prominently in the development of his persona— that of a liberal feminist who has openly rebelled against the church and the guilt he says it lays like a cloak on its followers. Phil Donahue grew up in a two-story house on Southland Boulevard, near Kamm’s Corner and the Rocky River reservation. He was tiny for his age, peaked and sickly.

He had asthma as a baby and developed allergies to molds, mushrooms and animals. His parents never treated him as though he were ill, hoping it wouldn’t limit him. It didn’t. Donahue was more active than most boys in the largely Irish-Catholic neighborhood. His mother faced the battle so many others did — getting him to slow down and eat a meal. She often walked to a nearby baseball field to call him home for lunch. “He was so thin, and he just never wanted to eat, he was always so busy’ says Catherine Donahue, who lives in Rocky River.

“He would wash win¬dows for the nuns at St. Joseph, and they would have to try to get him to eat, too.” In the pristine 1940s, the nastiest term boys taunted each other with \vas the dreaded epithet “sissy.”

That, Donahue was not. He was a scrapper, making up for his small size by picking fights to show he wasn’t afraid, even if it meant going up against someone 30 pounds heavier. Reflecting on his feisty nature, Donahue now surmises that it was only by fighting that he could show his friends he wasn’t scared, even if it meant getting his face shoved in snow by some of them. Surprisingly, Little Philly, as he was called, wasn’t overly concerned with what his friends thought of another of his interests. He took ballet and tap-dancing lessons for four years — until he was 12 — and was often the only boy in class at Joyce Manning’s studio at West 98th Street and Lorain Avenue.

That led to razzing by his buddies. But Donahue be¬lieved the classes would in¬crease his strength and coordi¬nation and, most importantly, make him a better second baseman for the Our Lady of Angels baseball team. Later, his terpsichorean skills allowed him to smoothly lead girls around the floor at mixers at the St. Christopher Canteen. Donahue’s father, also named Phil, made a good liv¬ing selling furniture at the Bing Furniture Company down¬town. He was quite a salesman, able to assess what potential customers wanted and to con¬vince them that Bing’s had it. He was a likable man, whose friendly, charming manner was particularly potent to women.

“He had quite a way with women, like Phil does — they really liked him,” Mrs. Donahue says. “Not that I had to worry. I knew I was the most important person in his life. But he really knew how to make them feel comfortable.” George O’Donnell, a child¬hood friend of Phil’s and later his roommate at Notre Dame, says Donahue was always pop¬ular among his female class¬mates. “He doesn’t remember being particularly successful, but he got along with girls bet¬ter than anyone,” O’Donnell by someone with a car,” he says. “But, I was never without words. I was a good schmoozer” He was smitten by girls and even after some 35 years, remembers clearly how nice some of them looked in their clingy, soft angora sweaters. Donahue and his friends, in this innocent time, remained pure and chaste, though not without a great struggle.

“I caddied at the Lakewood Country Club and would have a $10 bill in my hand by 7:30 Saturday night,” Donahue recalls. “I’d get on my bike, go home and shower, then go to St. Christopher’s Canteen where I could hold girls close while dancing. That was the closest a Catholic boy got to erotica.”

Donahue had a kind of Happy Days existence in Cleveland’s prosperous era — a time when mothers made hot soup for children who ran home for lunch, when boys greeted their fathers as they got off the bus after work, and when Mrs. Donahue and other mothers washed and ironed their sons’ white baseball uniforms.

Donahue says his mother encouraged him to try many things—clarinet lessons, drawing lessons, tap-dancing lessons. While at St. Ed’s, he played in the high school band, drew cartoons for the school paper, acted in plays, and played second base for a neighborhood team. Homework, though, was something to be dispensed with in 20 minutes. He was a quick study, able to rapidly cram dozens of facts into his brain and remember them well enough to get at least low Bs on tests. This rapid digestion of facts unwittingly served as a dress rehearsal for his daily Donahue preparation. When he got to Notre Dame, however, Donahue buckled down, fueled as he was by a healthy dose of Catholic guilt at the financial sacrifice his parents made to pay the $2,500 annual tuition bill. Though he had no particular inclination toward the rational world of business, it seemed like a solid career choice that would offer a return on his parents’ investment. Donahue, however, struggled through the tedium of accounting and finance and was more fascinated by esoteric subjects like philosophy and theology.

In odd moments, as he studied, Donahue would doodle his name, as though he were practicing signing autographs. Donahue’s relatively calm college years were marred early on by an incident that he repressed for years, until his friend, O’Donnell, jogged his memory when Donahue began work on his autobiography. The story explains why Donahue defaced his only copy of his St. Ed’s yearbook. At the beginning of his college freshman year, Donahue received a letter from a priest at St. Ignatius saying he wished to have Donahue and a woman who he had supposedly married reconciled to the church. Donahue thought O’Donnell had penned the letter in a warped attempt at a prank.

O’Donnell denied it. Donahue wrote a letter to the priest, saying he did not know the woman, whom he refers to by the pseudonym “Mary Johnson,” and that someone with whom she’d had a romantic liaison might have told her his name was Phil Donahue. Tb prove his theory, Donahue cut out photographs from his yearbook and sent them to the priest, believing the woman wouldn’t be able to identify him. But she did. Donahue, upset, flew to Cleveland and when he arrived at St. Ignatius, the priest said the woman had confessed she did not know Donahue, but had seen him in a St. Ed’s play once and had apparently developed a fixation for him.

She apologized to Donahue and his family and told Donahue she thought she might be crazy. (A year later, during the sensational Marilyn Sheppard murder case in Bay Village, a woman told police she saw Mrs. Sheppard being murdered on the beach. Police dismissed the woman as a mental case. It was the same “Mary Johnson”) George O’Donnell says the whole bizarre episode illustrates the impact Donahue has on women, even one who saw him briefly in a bit part in a play.

“Girls just went for the guy,” he says, laughing. Donahue resumed his interest in theater at Notre Dame, playing small parts in several musicals. He and O’Donnell capped their senior year by starring in Death of a Salesman, with O’Donnell playing the part of Willy Loman and Donahue playing Biff. While Donahue gloried in the attention he got on stage, he was realistic enough to consider it only a hobby. No Irish-Catholic student at Notre Dame would have seriously contemplated a career in theater.

For the same reason, Donahue had a difficult time considering a career in broadcasting, although he loved working at WNDU-TV, the Notre Dame station in South Bend. He signed on the station at 6:30 a.m., read station breaks and did cutaways for the Chicago White Sox. But he could not have imagined facing his father to announce that this was what he wanted to do with his life. Still, Donahue auditioned at KYWTV Channel 3 in Cleveland and was signed on as a summer replacement announcer.

Three weeks into the job, when the glamour of working for a television station in the then-l0th largest market waned, Donahue decided announcing was tedious. So he spent his long, lonely evenings composing letters to his love, Margie Cooney, whom he had met while at Notre Dame and who now lived in Albuquerque. By that October, when his summer job ended, he had married Margie and started looking for steady employment in television or radio in Albuquerque. Donahue thought he was, in his words, hot stuff-he had audition tapes and wonderful reference letters from his bosses in Cleveland.

Shockingly, no one was interested. His ego shrank. The Donahues returned to Cleveland, where they rented a furnished apartment on West Boulevard that came complete with flatware, and Donahue took a temporary job at KYW — again. It was not until three months later that he got his biggest break and was hired at a 250-watt radio station in Adrian, Michigan as a reporter. Donahue chased every story in sight, covering his first fatality and first murder. He was hooked. He was only 23 and made less than $6,000 a year, but he could ask questions that made the most powerful men in gray flannel suits squirm.

“I was so impressed with my own power,” he says. “People would talk to me!” From there, Donahue went to WHIO Radio and Television in Dayton, eventually working his way to evening anchorman for the television news. He also hosted a call-in radio show called Conversation Piece. There had been no great plans for what was to become WHIO television’s The Phil Donahue Show.

A variety-show host was leaving the television station, so management asked Donahue to host a television version of Conversation Piece that would carry his name. It premiered on November 6, 1967, with outrageous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair as the guest. Another show that week featured Donahue holding up an anatomically correct male doll, prompting enough phone calls that Dayton’s circuits overloaded. The studio audience practically jumped out of their metal chairs to spout off. Donahue knew he had stumbled upon something that hit these conservative, corn-fed Midwesterners right in the gut. Because movie stars did not travel through Dayton, Dona-hue and his producers had to rely on issues to carry their show. And in the late 1960s, there were issues galore. Can a school principal suspend a boy for having long hair? Can teachers search lockers? Seemingly trivial questions like these resulted in near audience riots.

The phones rang incessantly. Women’s lib, natural childbirth, black power. The late sixties were busy, bloody years and there was plenty to rage about. Two months after the show premiered in Dayton, Phil Donahue Sr. died of a heart attack at Fairview General Hospital having never seen the show that carried his and his son’s name. His death, in January 1968, at the age of 64 was a tremendous shock to Phil and his sister Kathy, who had just spent the Christmas holidays with their parents in Bay Village. Phil Donahue Sr. was tall and trim with a healthy glow that belied a heart condition aggravated by years of smoking. As an only son, Phil was especially close to his father. Both were sports fanatics, baseball being their favorite. When Kathy Donahue would bring home a date who was not interested in sports, Mr. Donahue would tell his wife that that wasn’t normal, and he couldn’t like the boy. Phil and his father also shared an outgoing, charismatic nature. Phil Donahue Sr. never had the forum his son would have, but in his own professional and social circles, he left an indelible impression.

“We would attend parties and gatherings, and people would tell me that he would remain the center of conversation long after he left,” says Mrs. Donahue. “And he was so proud of his kids — he would have just burst his jacket buttons if he could have seen how successful Phil became.”

There was another trait Phil and his father shared — a passion for work. It wasn’t enough to support one’s family. One had to leave competitors in the dust. Mr. Donahue used to brag that he could sell to anyone. The fact that a woman walked into Bing’s meant she wanted furniture, and that meant he would sell it to her. It was that simple. When his son was a reporter, he worked twice as many hours as anyone else and was so relentless in pursuing stories that photographers and cameramen would sometimes refuse to work with him. The work ethic was strong in the Donahues’ neighborhood.

You worked to make a living. But both Phil and his father lived to work — to love what they were good at and be the best. For the younger Donahue, it paid off. By 1968, he had a hit, and just how far he could take it became clear when WJKW-Channel 8 in Cleveland bought the show. Within three years, the syndicated show was being seen in Columbus, Cincinnati, Detroit, and other Midwest cities. Seven years later, the show moved to Chicago, and within 12 years, now renamed Donahue, it was being seen in 200 cities around the country.

Donahue had hit a nerve, and the timing couldn’t have been better. For women around America, the show was a welcome respite from mindless game shows and soap operas, and it dovetailed with the burgeoning women’s movement. Women waited up to two years for tickets to the Chicago tapings, and the show was a solid number one in the ratings. The format of the show was particularly suited to Donahue, who was himself becoming a feminist after being divorced from Margie in 1974.

Donahue was raising his four sons (his daughter, Mary Rose, stayed with his wife in Albuquerque) and knew the perils of single parenthood, as well as how much tougher it would be if he were a woman and not a celebrity. The format of the show also allowed him the freedom to address his strong newly formed liberal views. Donahue did not have to worry about presenting the image of objective journalist. And he loved it. Phil Donahue had become a new man. Swept up by the change that swirled around him, he became a vociferous rebel, and the object of his revolt was the belief system under which he had been raised in the conservative, West-Side Irish-Catholic community. His parents had never forced him to go to church, but in those days, not attending would have been unthinkable. Little Philly even became an altar boy (and observed that only males were allowed to touch the altar accoutrements.)

He had been lectured in school on the evils of sex and having bad thoughts about girls, who were viewed not as friends or equals but as occasions of sin. Donahue began to question the teachings of the church and began to blame its view toward women, which he had unquestioningly absorbed, for what he now saw as his chauvinistic attitude toward Margie—an attitude that had likely cost him his marriage. Soon, with a fire stoked by guests on his show like Gloria Steinem, he openly blamed the church for fostering sexism through its view of women and racism through its paternalistic attitude toward the “poor” minorities. Donahue also resented what he saw as convenient duplicity when the rules he and other Catholics had followed under threat of eternal damnation, such as not eating meat on Fridays, were lightly dispensed with in the late sixties.

As hard as he was on the church, Donahue was harder on himself, and compensated for his once conservative views by becoming a vocal political liberal and feminist. The transformation of Phil Donahue didn’t occur overnight, but it progressed steadily. By the late seventies, Donahue, in the minds of many, was grouped with Alan Alda as a symbol of the “sensitive man” (the word sensitive being equated with “wimp” by the less enlightened). His marriage to actress Marlo Thomas, a well-known feminist, enhanced that view. Television was clearly Phil Donahue’s medium, so what better place for him to meet his second wife than in the atmosphere where he shone — on Donahue. Marlo appeared as a guest in 1977 and the television audience could have been forgiven for feeling they were eavesdropping on a couple who had just met at a singles bar and found that they had so much in common.

They talked about love, family, careers, and the Catholic upbringing they shared. Donahue asked Marlo how she felt when there wasn’t a man in her life. She said, “Depressed.” Then, in front of millions of viewers, she told him, “You are loving and generous and wonderful, and whoever is the woman in your life is lucky.”

Well, Donahue did not have a woman in his life, and he was not about to let an opportunity like this — with a woman he would later jokingly describe as an “occasion of sin” — slip by. They began dating a few weeks later and married in 1980. Having blossomed with social awareness, it would have been tortuous for Donahue to have operated under the stricture of conservative network bosses. Donahue needed freedom, syndication provided it and there was no holding him back.

Donahue could produce the kind of show he wanted without being slapped down by groupthink managers. If the Peoria station refused to air footage of a live birth, 100 other cities would. If the show was dropped in Cincinnati, it might be picked up in Minneapolis.

Donahue answered to no one but his viewers, and he long since had them in the palm of his hand. All of this explains why Donahue has been able to stay with the same show for 20 years without becoming bored to the point of immobility. He knows what he has.

“There’s a lot of ego gratification here,” he says. “My name is on the program — I’m the leader of the band. I can chase down a guest who might waffle. I don’t have to walk down the center of an issue like Tom Brokaw does. I have a blank check.”

Donahue admits he is intrigued most by power, and his favorite guests are those who have it, who are near it, who will soon get it, or who have just lost it. In most cases, that power is political, so it is not surprising that Donahue daydreams of perhaps, someday, acquiring such power. Though he has said he would enjoy being a U.S. senator, Donahue considers that more a fantasy than an objective. “I just couldn’t stand to go around


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