A Fitting Farewell to 25 Years of Oprah

Twenty-five years in the bat of an eye.  I was fortunate enough to attend the final extravaganza at Chicago’s United Center to bid farewell to “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as it concluded its quarter-century run.  Winfrey’s gala farewell as the “Queen of Talk” was attended by more than 20,000 fans and it was the hottest ticket in town.

Aside from the growth of Oprah’s Harpo Studios and her creation of the Oprah Winfrey Network, Chicago has reaped countless economic benefits from her presence. Writing in Illinois Issues, John Carpenter says that “Most seem to agree that the surrounding West Loop neighborhood has developed to the point that the loss of the show won’t hurt too much.  And Harpo Studios will still be in business there, taping other shows.  As for the city as a whole, the loss will be more psychological and hard to define.”  Lee Bey, executive director of the Chicago Area Central Committee and a former deputy chief of staff to former Mayor Richard M. Daley, agrees.  “The three things people talk about when you travel and tell them you are from Chicago are Michael Jordan, Mayor Daley and Oprah,” he said.

According to Carpenter, “More directly in Chicago, though, Oprah brings people here. There is no definitive study of how much economic activity the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ creates in Chicago.  But even a very simple, decidedly inexpert look at the numbers shows the impact to be significant.  Oprah tapes 140 shows in Chicago every year, with a studio audience of 325 for each one. ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ spokesperson Jamie Goss estimates that about two-thirds of audience members are traveling to Chicago from out of town.  That means about 30,000 tourists every year, coming to see the show. Figure that each one is staying in a hotel — or at least sharing a hotel room — eating a few meals, riding a few cabs and hitting a few stores, and the dollars spent by show attendees quickly passes $15 million.”  Additionally, Harpo Studios currently employs 400 people.

By establishing her Harpo Studios in Chicago’s West Loop, Oprah led the revitalization of a down-on-its-heels section of town that today is home to dozens of Chicago’s hippest clubs, restaurants and art galleries.  University of Chicago economist Charlie Wheelan believes that the yearly impact of Harpo is easily in the millions.  “At bottom, the most significant thing that Oprah did was to produce a show that people wanted to watch more than they wanted to do anything else for that hour that it was on.  So at the end of the day, that’s the supreme accomplishment here and she did it for decades.  That’s an enormous economic value,” Wheelan said.

Additionally. Oprah is a long-time Chicago philanthropist and helped fund downtown Chicago’s Millennium Park, a Michigan Avenue showpiece. Oprah donated $1 million dollars to build the park, but that’s just a fraction of her largesse.  The exact figures for Oprah’s philanthropic impact in Chicago are impossible to pin down, but one person with some insight – is former Mayor Daley, who said “In so many different ways she’s given.  Also quiet ways that no one really knows about.  She doesn’t have to have great accolades about this.  She just does it.”

The gala evening was full of surprise celebrity appearances, musical acts, and moving video montages of the Oprah show through the years.  Hosted by Tom Hanks and Will Smith, Oprah was guided through numerous tributes to her work at the Oprah show as well as her charitable work around the world.  The show was heartfelt and sincere and surprisingly spiritual. Highlights include Stevie Wonder singing “Isn’t She Lovely” and Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up routine on the male perspective on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”  Rosie O’Donnell, who will be recording at Oprah’s Harpo Studio, presented a chorus-line song and dance routine along with Dr. Phil, Nate Berkus, Dr. Laura and Dr. Oz.  Oprah was visibly moved by the appearance of 400 Morehouse College graduates who received scholarships from Oprah when they stood on stage to thank her for helping them.  It was announced the Morehouse alums had established a scholarship fund of $300,000 Maya Angelou read a poem she wrote for Oprah while Alicia Keys accompanied her on the piano.  The show ended with Aretha Franklin singing a soul-stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace” and hip-hop artist Usher leading everyone back on-stage for gospel classic “Oh Happy Day”.