Oprah's Kind of Town, Chicago Is

Many fans hit the Windy City just to see her show

One of the toughest tickets to score in American entertainment is to Studio One of Harpo Studios, where Oprah Winfrey tapes 145 shows per year. Hundreds of thousands of requests arrive annually via mail, telephone and the Internet, but only 43,500 people will sit in one of the studio's 300 seats over the course of a year.

This makes Dorothy Coyle, director of the Chicago Office of Tourism, more than a little wistful.

Convention, tourism and business travel generate $9 billion per year in Chicago, rendering Winfrey's contribution to the industry a mere drop in the bucket. But Coyle can't help pondering how big a draw the Windy City would be if every Oprah fan could be accommodated.

That is because fully 20% of the telephone and mail inquiries her office handles are pleas for information on obtaining tickets to The Oprah Winfrey Show. Fans walk in daily to tourism offices throughout the city, hoping to get their hands on a coveted ticket.

“If every out-of-towner had access to tickets, it would be unbelievable,” Coyle says. “People are always interested in her show—especially lately, since she's been giving things away.”

But even if Winfrey decided to tape all her shows at Soldier Field, there likely wouldn't be much of a bump in tourism fortunes. Oprah fans, it seems, come to Chicago to see her and little else. Many arrive the night before a taping, catch the show and then zoom out of town.

On a gloomy January morning, nearly 200 people are in line an hour before the doors to the building will open. They congregate under a long white tent, which protects them from the nastier elements of Chicago weather. Only about a dozen men are scattered throughout the well-dressed crowd.

On this day, out-of-town fans—who make up about two-thirds of the average audience, Harpo staffers say—are in from Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Kentucky, Florida, California, Colorado, Texas, Tennessee, Washington, Connecticut, Oregon, Maryland and Maine.

At the head of the line are Phylana and Robert Stowers Jr., of Pittsburgh. They spent three months trying to get through to the switchboard at Harpo, even programming Phylana's phone to speed-dial the studio, before finally scoring tickets. Today, they have arrived at the studio door at 4:30 a.m. to assure themselves of choice seats.

Winfrey is in awe of all this. Speaking last week, she said, “I mean, yesterday I said to them, I said, 'You know I got up this morning at 3:00. I always get up between 3:00 and 3:30 in the morning because that's when I have to tinkle. And as I got up, I was thinking about y'all. I knew you all were getting dressed and thinking about what you were going to wear to the Oprah show.'”

And that is the truth. “It's exciting,” says Phylana, “We really love Oprah.”

Any visits to local retailers, museums or other attractions? “No,” Robert says emphatically. “We're just in for the one day.”

Even the Scott family—mother Jan and daughters Marci, 29, and Taylor, 19—are here only to see Winfrey, despite the long flight from Seattle. A visit to the show is a belated Christmas gift from mother to daughters.

“She's the only reason we're here,” says Jan Scott. “We just love Oprah.”