The Boundless Enthusiasm of The Phil Donahue Show

Last week we learned a bit about The Mike Douglas Show which debuted in Cleveland.  Today we get the back story on The Phil Donahue Show which also started in Ohio, in Dayton, in 1967. In 1970 it went into syndication and was seen weekdays until 1996.

Photo: daytonarenaproject.com

Donahue was a reporter at WLWD and when the Johnny Gilbert Show ended, Phil got his chance to host his own show. In 1974, Phil moved his show to Chicago. In 1985 He moved to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.

Photo: columbiajournalismreview.com

Donahue described himself as “the Cal Ripken” of television hosts. With interviews every weekday for more than a decade, about 7000 total, it’s hard to argue with him. Donahue was interested less in celebrities and more about investigative-type stories and popular issues. He covered topics such as interracial marriages, homosexuality, bigotry, poverty, drug trafficking, political scandals, cross dressing, the Catholic priest abuse of young boys, and current events. However, he did do interviews with important newsmakers including Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela, and Jane Fonda. He shunned tabloid-type stories that Jerry Springer and Geraldo Rivera featured.

with Gloria Steinhem Photo: usatoday.com

In an interview with the Television Academy, Donahue talked about some of his favorite interviews.  He said he enjoyed Gloria Steinhem and the discussion they had about women’s liberation. He said this was an issue he was able to watch from the beginning through its transitions.  (As an aside, I was able to interview Steinhem and later meet her at a university event in Eau Claire, and I understood his description of her charisma and insights.) The eye-opening perspectives he received from Steinhem about the oppression of women pushed him to explore views on homophobia and racism as well. He realized he could make a difference in these matters if others could understand these problems and the people who were bringing life-changing messages. He said he didn’t want the white guys doing all the talking anymore and he gave non-white guys the floor.

Another person he admired was Ralph Nader because he stuck to his guns and continued to fight for what was right when the cameras were off and he was alone.

Photo: wikimediacommons.com

One of the most interesting shows he did was in December of 1985. He was asked to participate in the first people-to-people satellite meeting between the US and the Soviet Union with Vladimir Pozner who had appeared on Nightline with Ted Koppel who recommended him to Donahue. They taped in Seattle and Leningrad. When he asked the Russians where they wanted to visit in the United States, he got the typical responses: Disneyland, Las Vegas, New York City, and then someone said Oxford, Mississippi. Donahue asked why and the person said that it was because one of the world’s best authors, William Faulkner, was from there.  From that point on, the conversations got more interesting and culturally significant.

Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

Donahue realized in the 90s that he could not compete with Oprah and hosted his final episode in September of 1996. His career produced about 7000 shows. Oprah always respected his show and often said, “If there hadn’t been a Phil, there wouldn’t have been a me.”

Photo: walmart.com

He was awarded with his first Emmy in 1977. By 1988 he was the owner of nine Emmys.

Don Grady, best known for playing Rob on My Three Sons, composed the theme music for the show. In 1979, he published an autobiography, Donahue: My Own Story

Although Phil had five children with his first wife, Margaret Cooney, he has been married to Marlo Thomas, daughter of Danny and star of That Girl, since 1980.

Photo: nydailynews.com

I remember watching this show and Donahue was typically right in the middle of the audience running up and down the stairs to get input from his visitors. I think it was literally that bounding enthusiasm that set him apart from the other television hosts during this time. He was more concerned about improving life than improving ratings.

Mr. Hospitality: Mike Douglas Hosted 30,000 Guests

For the month of July we are taking a look at some of the innovative talk shows of the past. With only three channels to choose from in the sixties, almost everyone tuned into The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.  However, talk shows were also popular during the day.

The Mike Douglas Show began in Cleveland, Ohio in 1961. It had light banter with guests and featured musical performers daily, although more serious interviews were also conducted from time to time.  In 1963, the show was expanded to Pittsburgh, Boston, Baltimore, and San Francisco.

In 1965, the show moved to Philadelphia and went into national syndication that same year. One final move was made in 1978 when it relocated to Hollywood. For 1980, Douglas handed the show over to John Davidson to host. It went through some changes and replaced about one-third of the staff, but the ratings continued to plummet and it was officially cancelled in November of 1981 with more than 6000 shows and 30,000 guests.

Douglas was born in Chicago in 1925 and became a teenage singer, entertaining on the radio and in supper clubs. He sang a lot of big band numbers and became the staff singer at WKY in Oklahoma City before joining the Navy in WWII. He had two hits in the fifties, “Old Lamplighter” and “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” but his career was not going anywhere, so he decided to turn to television.

Photo: eyesofageneration.com

Douglas had a different celebrity co-host every week, and they interviewed a variety of entertainers. The show was very popular and had high ratings.  Douglas had a fun personality .  In 1976, Match Game received higher ratings, so Douglas made an unscheduled appearance on the game show to congratulate Gene Rayburn on having the number 1 daytime show on the air.

Photo: muppetwikifandom.com

I could literally fill pages with the guest stars and musical performers who appeared on the show. Some of the more interesting ones included two-year-old Tiger Woods who showed off his golf swing for Bob Hope and James Stewart.

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Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope and a very young Tiger Woods Photo: pinterest.com

A Who’s Who listing of guests also included Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, George Burns, Sid Caesar, Angela Davis, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Alfred Hitchcock, Malcom X, Mother Teresa, the Muppets, Ralph Nader, Richard Nixon, Vincent Price, and John Wayne.

The “Supreme” music guests Photo: pinterest.com

A variety of musical genres were represented with performers including ABBA, The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees, James Brown, Ray Charles, Cher, Sam Cooke, Electric Light Orchestra, Marvin Gaye, Genesis, The Jacksons, Jefferson Airplane, Elton John, John Lennon with Yoko Ono, The Mills Brothers, The Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, The Supremes, and Frank Zappa.

With Gene Simmons and Cher Photo: vintage.com

Critics also liked the show. It received its first Emmy in 1967 and would go on to win four more.

Tom Kelly, who co-authored with Douglas on his memoir, revealed why he thought Mike was so successful: “One big key to his great success was he had his ego in check. He always let the guest have the limelight. He was a fine performer. He could sing, he could do comedy, he did it all, but he always gave the guest the spotlight.”

Photo: wikipedia.com

I can remember my mother watching Mike Douglas most days while I played with my toys.  Here we are sixty years later and afternoon talk shows like Ellen DeGeneres and Kelly Clarkson are still going strong thanks to pioneers like Mike Douglas who showed us the classy way to be a host.