For more than an hour, the audience at the Starplex Armory listens while Phil Donahue's theme music echoes against the ceiling, the floor, the thousands of empty seats. Finally, daytime television's biggest star enters the cavernous hall. Suggesting a twist on an old cliche', he is not "larger than life" but "smaller than television."

In a silver-gray suit that matches his silver-gray hair, Donahue mounts a stage that could conceivably be the site for a production of "The Ten Commandments." His voice bounces off the walls and dies out in the back rows. The microphone nearly obscures his face. Thousands of silver-blue strands hang in zigzags and crisscrosses from the ceiling; the gleam in Donahue's blue eyes cannot match their glitter.

On television he is an embracing papa bear. At the Starplex Armory he is swallowed prey, a wriggling salmon in the bear's teeth. "Live" is just not the right medium. At least not here.

But no one seems disappointed.

More than 2,000 women, and a few men, have paid $10 each to watch Donahue's Washington appearance during "Speak Week," his fourth annual 10-city tour to help "get in touch with what everyone out there is thinking" and to raise money for staff bonuses. This year, as part of his 15th-year celebration, he is taking 48 staffers and spouses for an all-expenses-paid, 10-day vacation to Paris. What a boss.

Suddenly, right at the beginning, every light in the place goes dead. Black. Nervous laughter, but Donahue is the master of disaster:

"Would I sound like an egomaniac if someone turned a light on me?"

The lighting system obeys and the evening begins.

He adjusts his glasses and points to them. "Do you like them?" he asks. "I think they make me look like a gynecologist." The audience titters.

The appearance is not for broadcast. Instead, Donahue launches into a 20-minute, semi-impromptu speech that covers all the right touchstones. He begins with a characteristic apology--"I should take a moment . . . I don't want to be too self-indulgent about this . . ." And then it's a run-through of his autobiography. Ex-altar boy. Former bank teller. Sexually repressed upbringing. Notre Dame. Marriage. Five kids in six years. Divorce. Bachelor father . . .

And then . . . Enlightenment! Marlo Thomas! Stardom! It could happen to you!

Donahue knows the demographics, the makeup of the nearly 8 million people who watch him on more than 200 stations every day. He knows the Starplex audience hasn't really come to hear him as they have to be with him. Large chunks of Donahue's talk is either straight quotation or paraphrase from his autobiography. You'd think a lot of people here have either read the book or magazine excerpts, but his speech is more ritual and reminder than event. He skips from one touchstone to the next in the manner of those horrendous Beatles and Beach Boy medleys: Put the opinions in a mixer, set it to 4-beat time and you have the Donahue Blend, ready for AM play. Everyone has heard the sentiments before, but to hear them for real is like a warm bath, like coming home.

The audience never really stops smiling. One exception is a man with a mustache in the front row. His wife is beaming but he is doing all he can to stay awake. He adjusts his coat. He takes it off. He pulls his sleeves. He rolls them up. He dozes off.

After the speech, Donahue fields questions from the audience.



But before the poor woman can ask her question, the sound system lets out a feedback screech the likes of which only Jimi Hendrix could duplicate.

One man gets up and suggests that perhaps Donahue's show tends to "exploit the sex question."

Donahue says no. True, he did air an almost self-parodic show featuring a lesbian interracial couple who had a child through artificial insemination, but Donahue denies the exploitation charge and says he "does fewer shows on sex than people think."

On stage, as on television, he is a fearless interviewer and commentator, confessor and host. But at the pre-appearance press conference, he appeared to be a somewhat reluctant guest. Reminded of Marlo Thomas' comments to the press after their marriage that she wanted a child, Donahue hesitated, smiled, then answered.

"I understand the curiosity about it, Marlo and I understand the question and I believe in the First Amendment but I think there are areas of your life that are better left to privacy. It's not good for navigating through the minefields of having a public face."

He was more forthcoming on the future of his own show: "I'm not stopping now, next year or anything like that but I might like to do something else sooner or later. I still have a lot of insecurity. I don't want to be an aging centerfielder getting hit in the head with the ball. It's a lot of pressure every day. I could have Adolf Hitler on today and people would want to know who I had for tomorrow."

After 15 years on the air it is getting a little easier to understand the range and depth of Donahue's popularity. Controversy is almost beside the point. Never mind that many viewers were enraged about shows on breast enlargement, 700-pound twins and impotence. Never mind that he trumpets his lapsed Catholicism and began his career with an interview with Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Phil Donahue's popularity might be summed up in this modest expression of domestic understanding:

"If I came to your house, I'd probably notice your floors."