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Wednesday, April 9, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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With Rosie O'donnell, You Get The Real Deal

Indianapolis Star And News

NEW YORK - They come bearing gifts for her: Barbra Streisand albums, stuffed toys, a child's backpack in the shape of a Dalmatian.

But those have been shoved away under the seats, along with the remains of the Ring Dings and milk that Rosie O'Donnell thoughtfully provides for her audience each day in Phil Donahue's old studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Instead, the 180 people, almost entirely women, are clapping, stomping, shouting - whipped up to a point near hysteria.

Down in front, in a corner, John McDaniel and his band, the McDLTs, are pumping out a feel-good rock oldie. Warm-up comedian Joey Kola, who had just been spinning laughs out of small talk with the audience, runs up and down the aisles.

The show's ready to start. Kola urges silence. The countdown begins: Ten-nine-eight . . .

At the count of one, an audience member, a physical therapist from Cleveland, introduces the day's guests: Harrison Ford, Anne Meara, singer Robert Palmer.

The McDLTs start rocking. Kola waves his arm around and around above his head like a human helicopter, signaling the audience to keep up the clapping and noise level.

No danger of that stopping, for a woman with a full, round face and dark hair suddenly pops out from behind the curtain, points an index finger at the crowd and dances/struts to her mark. The studio audience goes wild.

America, welcome to "The Rosie O'Donnell Show."

The talk show, which premiered in June, is the hottest thing in daytime. Indeed, in markets where Rosie airs alongside or against Oprah Winfrey, the queen of daytime talk and clear ratings leader, the show sometimes beats "Oprah." In the women-only demographic, O'Donnell is a solid No. 2 to Winfrey, and some stations have signed up her show through the year 2000.

Despite her hit movies like "A League of Their Own" and "Sleepless in Seattle," a hit run in Broadway's "Grease" and friends like Madonna, O'Donnell is "just like anybody you'd meet on the street," said Kelly. "She's in awe of the stars she interviews, just as you or I would be."

America loves the fact that Rosie talks about her relatives' goldfish, her toddler son Parker, shaving her legs and the hair on her chin. They recognize themselves when she gets ga-ga over celebrities like Streisand (who still hasn't done her show) and Tom Cruise (who was a guest last winter).

After years of gag-o-rama talk shows about topics like cross-dressers and teenage girls seduced by Grandpa, O'Donnell's show is a refreshingly light-hearted, fun hour of celebrity interviews.

By most accounts, O'Donnell - host, star and co-executive producer of her show - is a demanding boss. Most of the production staffers who started with the show are long gone.

The show - formerly broadcast live in the mornings - began taping in the afternoon recently because O'Donnell felt the former 10 a.m. start did not give her and her writing staff enough time to prepare.

And woe to the celebrity or company that runs afoul of O'Donnell. Just ask Donny Osmond, who made an unflattering reference to her weight on the air and eventually had to don a dog suit and croon "Puppy Love" for forgiveness.

When a Scope poll pronounced O'Donnell one of the nation's least kissable celebrities, she said on her Feb. 18 show, "I just want you to remember that Listerine kills the germs that cause bad breath. And remember, just say nope to Scope."

Competitor Listerine agreed to donate $1,000 to For All Kids, an O'Donnell fund for disadvantaged children, each time O'Donnell kissed someone on her show. Since then, the bussing has raised more than $310,000.

When the show ends, audience members receive small bottles of Listerine with another giveway, a Koosh ball on a pencil, as they file out of the studio.

"With Rosie, what you see is what you get," said Este McLoughlin, her co-producer and a former vice president of Telepictures, which produces her show. "She says what she thinks. I think that's why America loves her."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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