Phil Donahue, Chicago's gift to the Great American Housewife, bade a fond farewell to the Windy City today after 10 years, taping a tearful final show before moving the production to New York City.
At a warm, nostalgic farewell luncheon later, Donahue, 48, daytime television's most famous and controversial host, told a crowd of more than 400 friends and local colleagues, "We're going to take a bite out of the Big Apple!"
Actress Marlo Thomas, Donahue's wife since 1980, recalled that her father, entertainer Danny Thomas, was warmly received by Chicago nightclub audiences early in his career. "Chicago has been home to the two most important men in my life -- my husband and my father," she laughed.
On hand to say good luck, good ratings, and goodbye at the Chicago Marriott grand ballroom luncheon were as eclectic a group of personalities as any week's worth of Donahue shows. Among them were Carol Channing, Gloria Steinem, Ralph Nader, Studs Terkel, Ann Landers, and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
Landers, who wondered, "How do you say goodbye to a national treasure?" described Donahue as "having that won- derful quality of Catholic guilt that comes through in everything he does."
Nader extolled Donahue, saying, "Phil Donahue is the First Amendment . . . he gives voice to people whose views he genuinely disagrees with."
Steinem said Donahue's relocation "is sending a national gift to the rest of us." She said Thomas and Donahue are "a couple who really do share . . . the best example, so far, including Ferraro and Zaccaro, of the two-career couple."
She said she was envious of Thomas. Steinem recalled commuting long distance to visit her boyfriend in Washington. He had two children. Donahue had five children, but Marlo got him to visit her in New York, she said. "I asked Marlo how did she do it?" And the crowd loved it.
Steinem, who hails from Toledo but now lives in New York, welcomed Donahue to join "the revolutionary midwesterners in exile."
Channing, who is in town starring in "Jerry's Girls," gave Donahue "my diamond award," a bejeweled tie tack. Batting her false eyelashes in the style she has made famous, Channing explained, "When people ask if the diamonds I give away are real, I tell them that the value of a diamond is its sentimental value -- and mine are priceless." She gave Thomas a diamond ring as well.
Illinois proclaimed today Phil Donahue Day, honoring the white-haired, workaholic success story who moved his show here from Dayton, Ohio, in 1974, and now syndicates it to 214 stations around the country, plus stations in Australia and Canada.
The daily, hour-long show, called simply "Donahue," features upfront confrontation between guests, audience and host. Donahue, a father of five whose first marriage collapsed on the rocks of his ambition nine years ago, has built a national following and a fortune out of unhesitatingly dealing with such trendy, sensitive subjects as sexuality, politics, religion, social deviance, race and feminism.
Although he dominates his shows, Donahue's largely female, midwestern audiences have been a key factor in creating the atmosphere of tension, confrontation and excitement that has made the show a staple for millions. At today's farewell luncheon sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the unspoken question was whether Donahue will be able to cast the same kind of spell over audiences of New Yorkers, who pride themselves on their capacity for world-wearied cynicism. He begins broadcasting from there Jan. 7.
Of Chicago, Donahue said, "This is a town that doesn't necessarily cotton to everyone. When we came here 10 years ago, we were scared to death." At that time his show had been on the air since 1967. "I can't think of another major market in which what we do would have been so nourished." But looking relaxed after the tearful windup to the final Chicago taping at his studios at WBBM-TV, he seemed unworried by the legend of jaded New Yorkers. "We will bring to New York City a history, tradition, and legacy which is richer than any that could have developed . . . in any other city in the world," Donahue declared.
Reflecting upon his own success and what he characterized as much less promising prospects for future talk-show hosts, Donahue said, "This industry has become much too hard, much too difficult, to get into. The gates are closing."