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Donahue to speak at Bombeck workshop

Popoular talk show host is keynote speaker for Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

Phil Donahue, who changed the face of television history when he introduced serious issues to daytime viewers, is returning to the city where it all began.

Donahue, who hosted his popular talk show for 29 years, will be the keynote speaker for the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop slated for April 10-12 at the University of Dayton. Although the workshop sold out within a record 12 hours, three events featuring workshop faculty are free and open to the public: a celebration honoring the winners of the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Competition, and book signings with New York Times’ bestselling author Lisa Scottoline and nationally syndicated cartoonist Tom Batiuk.

Donahue and Dayton

Donahue’s one-hour television show — with its successful blend of live audiences, viewer phone calls and mix of special guests — began in Dayton in 1967 and later moved to Chicago, then New York. The show earned 20 Emmy Awards through the years.

Hundreds of newsmakers, celebrities and world leaders spent an hour on the Donahue set — including Muhammad Ali, Johnny Carson, Ayn Rand, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Meade and every president beginning with Jimmy Carter.

Making history

Donahue was also known for broadcasting his show from remote locations ranging from the Ohio State Fair to Madison Square Gardens. He was the first to stage a live telecast from inside the walls of a prison — in 1971, he took his program inside the walls of the Ohio State Penitentiary.

In 1985, he introduced satellite “spacebridge” telecasts between the United States and the Soviet Union, and then brought his talk show to Russia for a week of programs. He was the first Western journalist to visit Chernobyl after the nuclear accident.

In addition to his weekday talk show, Donahue has also headlined numerous network and public television specials, including the Emmy Award-winning children’s special, “Donahue and Kids”, the landmark “Ryan White Talks to Kids about AIDS” and “The Human Animal,” an exploration of human behavior. In 2006, he co-produced and co-directed “Body of War,” a documentary film about a young Iraq War veteran left in a wheelchair by enemy gunfire who begins questioning America’s involvement in the war. The documentary captured a People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival.

The Cleveland native, who now lives in New York, is the father of five and grandfather of two. He is married to actress and author Marlo Thomas — the couple first connected when she was a guest on his show in 1977. He has also authored two books: “Donahue: My Own Story” and “The Human Animal.”

In anticipation of his upcoming visit, we asked Phil Donahue to reminisce about his early years in Dayton and his successful career.


Q. What are some of your early memories of your Dayton days—both professionally and personally?

A. Kids, diapers and winding up on the Channel 7 Eleven O’clock News with Don Wayne who couldn’t finish his kicker story at the end of the newscast without breaking up. All of Dayton waited for this nightly event. He didn’t just break out laughing, he almost fell out of his chair. When I left the show Don’s ratings went up.

Q. Do you think there was something about Dayton that allowed “The Phil Donahue Show” to blossom?

A. Dayton is a town built on brains. It has no navigable river and is certainly not the crossroads of America. From aviation to the cash register to Erma herself, Dayton’s population gave off an unusually bright light. Our show featured more than prizes and spinning wheels. We thrived on issues and the audience in the Dayton area immediately showed their interest in being more than just entertained.

Q. Who were some of the show’s early guests that best reflected your hopes for the program? What was it about them that accomplished those goals?

A. We were a visually boring program (two talking heads up against Monty Hall who was giving $5,000 to a woman dressed like a chicken salad sandwich). Our first guest was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the atheist. Our third guest was a homosexual. In 1967, no one was “out.” Mothers were convinced their kids would catch it if they watched it. The only thing that kept us on the air was a courageous General Manager, Don Dahlman, and a huge spike in the ratings.


Q. Can you share some memories of Erma in the early days?

A. We had stair-step kids, lived in the same plat one-story, no-basement house and attended the same church. I had a radio show on WHIO, “Conversation Piece.” One day she walked across the street to interview me for her column in the Journal Herald. I had never been so flattered, a reporter was interviewing me!

Q. What will you be speaking about at your address in Dayton? What would you like your audience of hopeful writers to take away from the speech?

A. I’m not sure. I am waiting for inspiration from Erma.


Q. What makes you most proud about the Donahue show over the years?

A. People come up to me in airports and other public places all the time and say variations of “Thank you, Mr. Donahue, because of your show I got out of an abusive marriage.” “Thank you, Mr. Donahue because of your show I came out to my parents.” One I’m hearing a lot these days, “Thank you, Mr. Donahue. Because of your show I learned to speak English.”

Q. How do you think your program affected the history of television?

A. TV Guide once named our program one of the fifty greatest shows of all time. We were 29th. If it weren’t for Lucy and Seinfeld we’d be 27th.

Q. What were a couple of your favorite shows and why?

A. I admired Muhammad Ali. He inspired young people all over the world, especially young black males. He surrendered his crown rather than fight in Vietnam, “I ain’t got nothin’ against no Cong.” I believe he was the Athlete of the 20th century and should have won the Nobel Peace Prize.


Q. What have you been doing recently?

A. I recently made an anti-Iraq War documentary about a 24-year-old American soldier who took a bullet in Sadr City. Tomas Young can’t walk, cough or hold silverware. When the sniper bullet smashed through the T-4 section of his spine, he also lost his sex life. This is the story of what harm means in the euphemism, “harm’s way.” I think of Tomas every time I feel sorry for myself.

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