Oprah Winfrey announced Tuesday that she’s closing Harpo Studios and consolidating her production operations in California. “I’ve spent more time there than anywhere else,” she said in a statement, referring to the Near West Side complex that once housed her eponymous talk show — and many of her dreams. “I am so proud of what we created.”
Winfrey’s announcement brought back memories of a morning in March 25 years ago when she opened the doors of Harpo Studios to members of the press for the first time. TV critics and writers from around the country flocked like pilgrims to the Chicago media mecca.
Here is my Sun-Times column of March 15, 1990. (Posted with permission.)
America’s TV reporters get their minutes with Oprah
Thirty-one of the nation’s top television critics traipsed through Oprah WInfrey’s new Harpo Studios Wednesday — and you were there:
11:14 a.m.: Buses deposit members of the out-of-town press corps at the side entrance to the 100,000-square-foot studio at 1058 W. Washington on the Near West Side.
While workers are putting the finishing touches on the $20 million renovation project, the place is up and running as home of Winfrey’s syndicated daytime talk show and “Brewster Place,” her upcoming ABC prime-time series.
Winfrey’s super-efficient publicist and a senior vice president greet their first official visitors and outline the day’s itinerary with military-style precision. Although they convey a casual air, they have been planning this event down to the last detail for weeks.
Giddy anticipation is in the air.
11:29: The visitors split into two groups to begin their tour. Stops include one of two “green rooms,” the holding areas where talk-show guests hang out before tapings, and several control rooms, editing suites, offices, the main studio for “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” a fitness center, cafe and a waiting area for audience members.
Everything looks gleaming, new and extremely expensive.
The high point is a look inside Winfrey’s office. Giddy anticipation gives way to hushed reverence.
No one dares to rifle through Winfrey’s desk drawers, but every framed photo in the room gets inspected, including those of Bill Cosby, Quincy Jones, Dolly Parton, Fred Savage (Fred Savage?), boyfriend Stedman Graham, best friend Gail Bumpus and business partner Jeffrey Jacobs.
Strategically placed on her desk are four books by Zora Neale Hurston.
12:15 p.m.: The critics are assembled in a cozy, 36-seat screening room, complete with popcorn machine and twin 35-mm projectors. “Dailies,” or unedited raw footage of some “Brewster Place” scenes, are shown on a big screen. Winfrey, reprising her mini-series role as Mattie Michael, looks older, heavier and decidedly less glamorous than the talk-show queen known to millions.
Following a particularly emotional scene, several critics remark admiringly about Winfrey’s power as an actress.
12:45: After a walk through the interior sets for “Brewster Place,” the critics break for lunch with members of the cast. It’s a simple but elegant catered affair.
12:55: Winfrey makes her first appearance. Dressed as Mattie, she is wearing an unflattering green dress and white oxfords. She confides to one reporter that she’s battling a cold.
1:02: Winfrey leaves. Other “Brewster” cast members and producer Reuben Cannon stay for lunch with reporters.
1:43: The critics return to the studio used for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for a press conference with Winfrey.
1:58: Seated onstage and holding a cup of tea, Oprah meets the press. Asked how it feels to own Harpo, she says: “It’s hard to put in my mind that all of this belongs to me. I think I have managed to handle this very well.”
Winfrey, still in costume, says she doesn’t know when ABC will air “Brewster Place,” but would accept any time slot except Thursday nights. “I will not be put in a situation where I’m up against ‘Cosby,’ ” she says.
2:54: Winfrey excuses herself to resume shooting scenes for the second episode of “Brewster Place.” “Regardless of what you write, thank you for coming,” she tells the critics.
As Winfrey gets up to leave, someone finally asks her about weight. “It’s a psychological and emotional conflict I have,” Winfrey says. “Mattie feels comfortable with this weight. I do not.”
3:00: Producer Cannon and others stay behind to answer additional questions about the series.
Asked how Winfrey can maintain her schedule of taping her talk show and drama series simultaneously, Cannon says: “It is our obligation that Oprah not burn out.”
3:30: The press conference breaks up and reporters are ushered back onto the “Brewster” set to see Winfrey film a scene in Mattie’s restaurant, La Scala. A reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business gets bopped in the head by a dangling light cord, but he is not injured.
3:45: Most of the out-of-town press corps leaves.
4:15: Jacobs tells the three Chicago reporters who stick around how Harpo Studios will serve as a catalyst for more local film and TV production. He smiles. He looks relieved.