“The Oprah Winfrey Show” wraps up its tapings next week, does that mean that Chicago will be saying goodbye to one of its most beloved citizens? Not at all, Winfrey insisted in a recent interview with the Tribune.
“Chicago will remain forever the home base for me,” Winfrey said. “I will keep my apartment here. I will maintain my infrastructure for business here. I will be knocking around.”
That surely means knocking around — some of the time, at least — at Harpo Studios, which is to be the principal (albeit not the exclusive) supplier of programming for the Oprah Winfrey Network, Winfrey’s next major TV venture, and, Winfrey said, the base for all of her television work in the future, wherever that may land. Then there is also the little matter of that 25-year catalog of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that can surely be repackaged, rebroadcast, reissued and resold in myriad chronological, pedagogical, thematic and other ways. Winfrey said she plans to oversee that long process at Harpo.
Striking a more personal note, Winfrey said her ties to Chicago, which named a West Loop street in her honor last week, are far deeper and more emotional than many people realize.
“I have spent more time here than any place in my lifetime,” Winfrey said. “It was love at first sight for me. From the very first day I arrived in the city (in 1984), I remember thinking that if I didn’t get hired at WLS, I would have to change my profession so that I would live in Chicago. I knew that this would be my Tara.”
In time, of course, Winfrey achieved a level of fame that far eclipsed Scarlett O’Hara of “Gone With the Wind,” and the walls around her grew. So did the clamor for her to support local causes, and (in some quarters) the grumbling when she seemed to pay more attention to national and international affairs.
Did her celebrity limit her ability to enjoy the city she loved?
“That is a question that causes me to pause,” Winfrey said. “I will say that, in the early days, when I wasn’t as known, I was out and about a lot. I was drinking on Rush Street at night. I was in the restaurants. In the early days, when we were live, the producers were busy booking, and I’d be the one to take the lunch orders. No exaggeration. I’d go to Burger King. Taco Bell. I’d stop at The Limited on State Street, and I’d buy sweaters for everybody. … Then, as we grew, it became harder and harder to go out and truly be yourself. Those days of hanging out on Rush Street ended. It wasn’t so much the notoriety; as the show grew, it just took up more and more of my time.”
And did she feel that Chicago loved her back?
Winfrey paused again. “I didn’t in the beginning,” she said. “I got a lot of criticism from the black community about not having enough black people on the show. Huggin’ white people too much. … Dennis Swanson (then program director at WLS) hired me at a time when the city was pretty racially volatile. They told me there were racial land mines in Chicago. They told me I would never survive in the city. Can you imagine how many people called Dennis up and said, ‘Get that black girl off the TV,’ without actually saying ‘black girl’?”
Winfrey, of course, stayed on TV. In Chicago.
“None of this could have happened anywhere else,” she said. “It couldn’t have happened the way it happened if we were in LA. The thing I held steadfast was the heart of the country. … That was better exhibited, experienced and executed through Chicago… It would have been harder to maintain a dedicated staff. We would have all been caught up in the ‘let’s do lunch, babe’ thing. It would have been harder to maintain a connection to what was real. What was of value. Being here grounded me, and grounded my team.”
So. Time to exit but not entirely fly away from Chicago.
“I will not be a stranger,” she said. “You will see me eating at RL. I walked into the East Bank Club the other day and ran around the track. I was thinking, wherever you go in the world, you’re never going to find a gym like that. And I should have gotten my ass in there more often.”