published Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Winfrey finale devoted to fans, her ’safe harbor’

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    Sisters Caitlin and Kelsey Warrick, along with friend Taylor Bartkowski, right, were among 60 "Oprah Show Babies" who were onstage during the taping last week of "Surprise Spectacular" celebrating the final week of the "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

CHICAGO (AP) — There were no free cars or vacations. No favorite things or makeovers. No celebrity guests on stage — though there were plenty in the audience.

The finale of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, taped Tuesday and aired Wednesday, was all about the one thing that made her a billion-dollar success: the unique connection she made with millions of viewers for 25 years. In what she called her “love letter” to fans, she made clear that to her, all those TV friendships went both ways.

“Something in me connected with each of you in a way that allowed me to see myself in you and you in me,” Winfrey said. “I listened and grew, and I know you grew along with me.”

Winfrey was the only person on stage with little background music and short flashback clips. The show went to commercials with “Twenty-Five Years,” a soft song that musician Paul Simon wrote and recorded for her.

She called fans her “safe harbor” and became teary eyed when reflecting on her upbringing in rural Mississippi.

“It is no coincidence that a lonely little girl,” Winfrey said, choking up, “who felt not a lot of love, even though my parents and grandparents did the best they could, it is no coincidence that I grew up to feel a genuine kindness, affection, trust and validation from millions of you all over the world.”

Winfrey told viewers that sometimes she was a teacher, but more often her viewers instructed her. She called Wednesday’s episode her “last class from this stage.”

At one point she thanked viewers for sharing her “yellow brick road of blessings” — something she said back in November 2009, when she announced that she would end her show. The program gave rise to a media empire, including a magazine and Winfrey’s own cable network, which she launched in January.

Wednesday’s show was the last piece of a months-long sendoff, but as the hour wrapped up, Winfrey stopped short of saying farewell.

“I won’t say goodbye. I’ll just say, until we meet again,” she said.

She hugged and kissed her longtime partner Stedman Graham and shook hands with audience members before walking through the halls of Harpo Studios in Chicago, hugging and crying with her staff. She shouted, “We did it!”

The last shot of the finale showed Winfrey walking away with her cocker spaniel, Sadie.

Some fans across the country had parties for the finale. Sharon Evans, 53, of Chicago had pancakes with her mother and girlfriends.

“She was very subdued today and I appreciated that she was taking that last hour not to showcase any celebrities or favorite things,” Evans said. “It was truly what she said, a love letter to us.”

Amy Korin, 32, of Chicago, was in the studio audience when the show taped on Tuesday. She described Winfrey’s monologue as having the feeling of a graduation commencement speech. “It was just amazing to witness,” she said.

Celebrities in the audience included Tyler Perry, Maria Shriver, Suze Orman and Cicely Tyson. None of them joined Winfrey on stage. A week earlier, Hollywood A-listers and 13,000 fans bid Winfrey farewell in a double-episode extravaganza at Chicago’s United Center.

In the bare-bones final taping there were just 404 audience members, according to Harpo Productions. The show received 1.4 million ticket requests throughout its final season, the company said.

Winfrey became famous over the decades for landing hard-to-get celebrity interviews and her annual giveaway shows, where she bestowed audience members with such stunning gifts as cars and Australian vacations.

Already a television journalist, Winfrey came to Chicago in 1984 to WLS-TV’s morning talk show, “A.M. Chicago.” A month later the show was No. 1 in the market. A year later it was renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Winfrey opened Harpo Studios on Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood in 1990. On Jan. 1 of this year she launched the Oprah Winfrey Network, which is based in Los Angeles.

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