Donahue: After Hours

So, how in the heck am I here at The Pine Club sitting next to talk-show icon and Dayton’s own Phil Donahue?

Well, I’m not quite sure, but I’ll explain as best as I can.

It all began when Teri Rizvi, the wonderful director of communications for the University of Dayton called. She secured Phil Donahue as the keynote speaker for the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, which the university puts on every two years in honor of the nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, humorist, author and UD grad.

Her next comment floored me; she asked if I could put together an introduction video for the talk-show pioneer.

Well, I have to think about it for a moment, so can I get back to you, maybe in the next day or so … want to check my schedule and see if I can fit … HELL YES!

Now, if that wasn’t enough, she put me in contact with Phil’s personal assistant, Jill, so I could get some background information.

“Would you like to talk to Phil instead?” Jill asks.

After I dropped the phone, the next thing I know I’m on the phone with the media legend.

“Hi Butch,” Phil says. I didn’t dare correct him and for the next 45 minutes, I’m reminiscing with Phil Donahue about his early days here on local television before his show was syndicated around the country.

“Great memories of Dayton,” Phil says.

But after all the stories of people he interviewed, ground he broke and all the movers and shakers he had as guests, the one thing he wanted to know is how Bob and Chuck are.

Bob is Bob Phillips, the now-retired, long-time chief photographer at WDTN Channel 2 and Chuck Upthegrove was Bob’s counterpart at WHIO Channel 7.

Many people don’t know that Phil worked at both television stations while here in Dayton.

“Please tell them hello and if I had more time during my visit, would love to get together, but don’t think time will allow,” Donahue says.

As we hung up the phone, I thought that was it, until an email arrived from Jill.

“Butch, can you gather up the boys? Phil would like to meet for a late dinner at The Pine Club after his speaking engagement,” Jill writes.

And, she says, “Do you know they don’t accept reservations?”

Yes, well aware of that. Heck, Vice President George Bush had to wait for a table years back. I’m sure the Donahue name won’t work either, let alone Butch.

But what stood out the most for me was that I was included on the list.

Was it a typo? Did she mean another Butch—I mean Buch? Is she confusing me with Jim Baldridge?

I didn’t ask.

At the Bombeck event, I was amazed that Donahue stopped and chatted with everyone and took pictures, too. He sat down for interviews from anyone with a TV camera and microphone. It was a long day for the 78-year-old television personality.

Next thing I know, after his wonderful keynote address at the event, I’m walking into The Pine Club with TV royalty.

“Boy, this place hasn’t changed a bit,” Donahue says, remarking on the interior of the restaurant and the wood-walled décor.

“No, but the prices sure have,” I say with a nervous laugh.

Which, by the way, didn’t receive so much as a chuckle.

Now I’ve decided to be a fly on the wall. I have this nervous trait where I talk too much. (If you’ve followed my career at all on TV, you know exactly of what I’m speaking.)

I was determined to sit quietly and absorb the stories from all these great icons of the industry, which between the three, is around 150 years of broadcasting experience.

“I would have been here earlier, but we were driving around looking for NCR,” Donahue quips.

As I made my way to the table, everyone takes a seat, and the only empty chair is the one right next to Phil.

You’re kidding me, I thought. Not only am I having dinner with the legend, but I’ll be sitting right next to him.

In between bites, the talk soon turns to laughter as the gang is holding court. Donahue looks a little older to me, but his wit and charm are as sharp as ever.

Bob Phillips brings up the time he and Phil interviewed Marie von Trapp, the woman on which The Sound of Music was based.

Upthegrove talks about all the fires and homicides they covered together when Phil was covering news for WHIO.

“Some things never change, unfortunately,” Phil says. “Now, I can’t imagine being a parent putting your child on a school bus thinking, ‘Will I see my child again?’ ” Donahue says, remarking on all the school shootings.

I’m secretly wondering if a Donahue-type show would work today. Donahue’s show began in 1967 in the WDTN studios. The show he replaced in the 10:30 a.m. timeslot was that of Johnny Gilbert, now the announcer on Jeopardy.

Originally the Donahue format would be a one-on-one, with a guest, two chairs and a black backdrop. All of a sudden people—mostly women—showed up at the station to wave at the camera and win prizes for the Gilbert Show.

“The next thing they know,” Donahue says. “I’m sitting next to the most hated woman in America [at the time], atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hair, who had just successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to ban prayer from public schools.”

“My studio audience, made up of folks with Midwestern values, looked uncomfortable. About halfway through the program, I could see the group squirming in their seats. So during a commercial, I had an engineer hook up a microphone with a long cable and I started working the audience for questions. They had better ones than I did,” Donahue shares.

That little stroke of genius began the audience participation talk show wave that Phil rode for 29 years and every show afterward copied.

After more stories and laughs, alas, it’s time for our evening to end. Phil picks up the check, and we all grab our phones for pictures.

Now you’d think with Chuck, Bob and me, and the many years of experience behind the camera, we could figure out how to grab a few moments in time.

It looked like a three-ring circus; flashes not going off, or when they did, no one being ready.

Finally the night ends. As we walk out together, Phil leaves in classic Donahue style.

“There’s nothing like old friends. Thank you gentlemen, for a wonderful evening that I’ll cherish forever.”

Wow, how awesome. I wonder if he was including me in that goodbye.

“Oh, and you, too, Butch.”

I’ll take that as a yes.

Cheers, Buch