It’s called the house that Michael Jordan built, but Tuesday night, it was the Queen of TV, Daytime, or All of Media (depending on who you talk to) who held court in Chicago’s United Center — even forcing the Bulls, who are in the midst of an NBA Eastern Conference Finals series with the Miami Heat, to cede the stadium for a night to her royal highness, Oprah Winfrey.
Before taping of the two penultimate shows got underway (they will air on May 23 and 24), loyal fans and adorers speculated about which celebrities would show up. For a city not known as a hot bed of celebrity sightings (the paparazzi certainly couldn’t make a living here), it was abuzz with gossip about who was likely in town for the Oprah show. Beyoncé was sighted at Hubbard Street Dance fairly early in the day. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were glimpsed having lunch, and Maria Shriver was said to be having dinner Monday night with Oprah.
With all those sightings, the “Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular” shows didn’t have too many truly unexpected appearances. It was rather impressive that Hanks served as a kind of master of ceremonies for the first show, while Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith emceed the second episode. But Oprah only seemed genuinely surprised a handful of times, like when Stedman Graham, her longtime companion, showed up on stage to offer his personal thanks to her, and when Aretha Franklin made her way down the stage steps to perform “Amazing Grace.” Beyoncé performed “Run the World (Girls)” and Maya Angelou read a piece she’d written about Oprah’s life while Alicia Keys accompanied, playing an instrumental “Superwoman.” Stevie Wonder sang a song he said he had originally composed for his mother but never finished. The performances were certainly spectacular (save for the cheesy Rascal Flats set that closed out the first taping, but maybe that’s just personal taste), but not an altogether unpredictable adieu-bidding for the woman who shut down Michigan Ave. for a taping last season.
The shows were less about the performances, though, and really about celebrating Oprah. Her fans and supporters bid her farewell by thanking her for everything she’s done for them over 25 years, inspiring them to lose weight, go to college, and, for Madonna, open a school in Malawi. Dakota Fanning, for whom, at 17, there has always been an Oprah Winfrey Show, actually had the best summary of just what Oprah’s done for people: She said that Oprah taught them that “we are enough… that our lives have value.” Other guests and performers included Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Jerry Seinfeld, Jamie Foxx, Simon Cowell, Halle Berry, Queen Latifah, Rosie O’Donnell, Diane Sawyer, Patti LaBelle, Josh Groban, Tyler Perry, Usher, and, yes, Michael Jordan. Their gratitude was so genuine, and the effect the media mogul and philanthropist has had on her adorers was so obvious, that it was hard to be cynical.
With some 20,000 people packed into the United Center, many of them locals, it was also night for Chicago to say goodbye to The Oprah Winfrey Show. For Chicagoans, though, perhaps the biggest change will be no longer having to explain to out-of-town friends and relatives that just because you have a Chicago address does not mean you can get tickets to Oprah. But, of course, you’d be happy to take their picture in front of the Harpo Studios sign.