‘Dinner With Donahue’

MAYVILLE – The man who has been proclaimed “the godfather of talk show television,” and been credited by Oprah Winfrey as paving the way to her own success with “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” made a rare visit to Chautauqua County this weekend.

Media personality, writer and film producer Phil Donahue – along with his wife, Marlo Thomas – were hosted by representatives of the Robert H. Jackson Center at Mayville’s Chautauqua Suites on Sunday for a fundraiser that will benefit the center’s youth education initiatives.

Donahue’s presence at Sunday’s “Dinner with Donahue” fundraiser marks his third visit to the area as a fellow of the Robert H. Jackson Center. According to Greg Peterson, board member and co-founder of the Jackson Center, the “Dinner with Donahue” fundraiser was different from Donahue’s previous visits in that it was to be specifically focused on the broader scope of his life and career as opposed to any one specific facet.

“This is Phil Donahue on Phil Donahue; a retrospective of his life,” Peterson said.

Indeed, there is no shortage of notoriety to the life and career of Donahue, who has the distinction of creating hosting the longest running syndicated TV?talk show in U.S. history – “The Donahue Show.” Though he spent 26 years interviewing controversial figures on hot topics during a more conservative time in American history, the man found himself the subject of a more tame interview – administered by Peterson – at the fundraiser as he discussed his life experiences.

A number of topics were explored throughout the evening. Conversation meandered from how he came to meet and subsequently marry Marlo; to his days as a Notre Dame student; to the experimental international telecast series near the conclusion of the Cold War known as the U.S.-Soviet Space Bridge; to his upstart career in broadcast journalism prior to “The Donahue Show”; and to his life after the show finished its initial run in 1996. That a handful of stories from his college days were shared was fitting in the sense that a handful of Donahue’s friends and fellow 1957 Notre Dame alumni – referred to as “The Gang” – were also present at the event.

Also mentioned was Donahue’s awareness of and connection to Chautauqua Institution, a venue at which he was most recently seen administering a lecture in 2010.

“This is a thinking community,” Donahue said. “Chautauqua is my kind of place, and I’d be nowhere without people like those at Chautauqua.”

When asked by Peterson whether wrapping up the “The Donahue Show” after nearly three decades was difficult to handle, Donahue replied that the show’s conclusion was bittersweet.

“I have to say there was relief,” he said. “I would put on a shirt and tie and go out there every day, and eventually it got to the point where I thought, ‘Alright, they’ve heard you speak. Enough is enough.’ But it was a tremendous ride, and I would wish it on everyone I love.”

As host of “The Donahue Show,” Donahue changed the face of American daytime television in pioneering the audience-participation talk format. His contribution to TV journalism and entertainment has earned him 20 Emmy Awards – nine as host and 11 for the show – as well as the George Foster Peabody Award; the President’s Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus; the first Media Person of the Year Award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance; and induction into the Academy of Television’s Hall of Fame. In 1996, TV Guide named “The Donahue Show” one of the Greatest Television Shows of All Time.

He is known for his penetrating, groundbreaking interviews as much as for the astonishing list of individuals he interviewed throughout his career. Among those who have been put to the question by Donahue include world leaders, celebrities and newsmakers such as: Muhammad Ali; Johnny Carson; Ayn Rand; Nelson Mandela; Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was his very first guest on “The Donahue Show”; Margaret Meade; and all U.S. presidents since Jimmy Carter.

The Robert H. Jackson “Dinner with Donahue” fundraiser was sponsored and supported by: Chautauqua Suites; DFT Communications; Philips Lytle; Shults Auto Group; and Star Media Group, which underwrote the costs of the event.