In the back row, two women who came to Easton's Avalon Theater just after the crack of dawn yesterday were saying something that their host probably didn't want to hear.
"We don't really care that much about the issue," one of the women said. "We just wanted to go to a 'Donahue' show."
"It took me 20 minutes of calling to get the tickets," the other noted of her persistent calls to a local radio station that gave away the 300 available tickets in 20 minutes. "I just kept hitting that redial button."
Undoubtedly, Phil Donahue is glad that he has fans who will go to such lengths to see him, but for his audience participation format to work, he's got to have people who care a lot about the issue, the more passionately the better.
Donahue would have relaxed if he had heard a discussion taking place in the back corner more than an hour ahead of his 9 a.m. start. The issue was a proposal to hand out condoms at Easton High School, and the debate had already started.
"You just have to teach abstinence at home, that's the only answer," an older woman said to a man sitting behind her.
"But that won't work," he nearly shouted back at her in the midst of a discussion that filled up much of the two-hour wait for the show.
The Avalon, a beautifully restored 60-year-old house that now is a performing arts center, will probably never again see its seats filled by shortly after 7 a.m. Ticket holders were told to get there between 7 and 7:30 for the third of a week of shows on the road that Donahue is doing, and they were prompt.
About a half hour before the 9 a.m. air time, the star himself appeared, wearing an Easton High letter jacket, and was greeted with a deafening ovation.
He worked the crowd like a combination of a self-deprecating stand-up comedian and a perfectly poised politician, using a variety of old chestnuts from his repertoire of stories and jokes to get people used to being in the presence of a major media star, relaxed enough to raise their hands and speak their minds on national television.
That proved to be no problem. Once the show began, the passions that the proposal, which was advanced by Talbot County health director John Ryan but voted down by the school board, quickly surfaced and the debate was joined. If there was any problem, it was that the arguments got a bit repetitious, but that did not deter many from wanting to add their opinions.
The panel on stage was equally divided. Ryan and the high school's student government president, Tom Farmer, argued for the distribution as a practical way of protecting sexually active teen-agers from disease and pregnancy, and two parents of children in the school system, Sharon Boggess and Jerome Nicolesi, voiced moral and religious objections to the plan.
But Donahue's cordless microphone was in such demand in the audience that the host rarely had an opportunity to get the panelists' opinions.
After the hour-long show whizzed by, Donahue showed the patience of a politician, shaking hands with everyone who wanted, signing autographs, posing for picture after picture. He then talked passionately with a reporter about the condom distribution issue, saying that the threat of AIDS, which is reaching every community in the country, will force small towns to face up to the need for such a program.
Then it was off to Dallas where his next show would deal with the savings and loan crisis. Indeed, this week of shows on the road is dealing with surprisingly substantive issues considering that this is a sweep month when talk shows often resort to the sensational.
On the back row, the two women had quietly paid close attention to the proceedings, pleased that their fellow citizens had acquitted themselves well in their national TV debut.
Back in the corner, much hand-waving and shouting had failed to deliver the microphone to their midst during the hour. So they just had to continue debating among themselves.