When Joel Nickson opened Wishbone restaurant in 1992 at Morgan and Washington, the West Loop was largely an employment center, a place people came to put in their eight hours and then head home when the sun went down. After 5 p.m., the area was a “ghost town,” he said, a far cry from the residential community that has taken root today.
But there always were staffers from Harpo Studios, Oprah Winfrey’s production house just across the street, needing a meal. They helped Wishbone find its footing.
“We didn’t move there because of Oprah, but it was a big plus,” he said.
Over the subsequent years, Wishbone catered Harpo events, allowed Winfrey to do interviews in the restaurant and cooked for her studio audiences. The voluble TV host plugged Wishbone on the air and her celebrity guests dined at Nickson’s tables.
Winfrey’s announcement last week that she would cease her daytime talk show in 2011 came as a blow to Wishbone and other West Loop businesses that serve Winfrey’s employees and the fans she drew to the area.
“She’s going to be sorely missed. I think something else will be done there, hopefully. It’s a beautiful studio,” Nickson said. “Something will be going on. But it’ll be nothing like having Oprah there.”
Since Sept. 8, 1986, Winfrey has questioned and prodded guests big and small from her Chicago stage. Now a global media superstar, Winfrey is renowned for creating a business empire that includes television production, a magazine, retail store, a Web site and radio. After completing her 25th season in 2011, Winfrey will spend her time developing OWN, a cable television channel based in Los Angeles.
In addition to 453 employees at Harpo Studio working for Winfrey directly, said Harpo Studio spokesman Don Holcombe, the talk show drew tens of thousands of tourists to the West Loop each year.
The studio where her show is taped seats approximately 325 people, and Winfrey hosts up to 140 shows annually, Holcombe said. That means at least 45,500 people visited the West Loop because of The Oprah Winfrey Show each year.
“I think people underestimate how many people come into Chicago to go to an Oprah show,” Nickson said. “People don’t realize they come from out of town. They stay in hotels. They go out to eat. They spend money. She is like a little museum.”
Harpo Productions Inc. will remain in the West Loop, Holcombe said.
“There’s no transferring west of Harpo. OWN is located in Los Angeles. I know rumors had the Oprah Show moving to LA, but that is not true,” he said. “Our intention is to have a full slate of production of programs here at the studio.”
But no new shows have been announced for the Chicago studio. A new program developed around Dr. Mehmet Oz will be made in New York rather than the West Loop.
Asked about future shows planned for taping in the Harpo studio, Holcombe said, “We’re the most successfully production company in daytime television. I think our track record speaks for itself.”
The Oprah Store at 37 N. Carpenter won’t close with the end of the show; nor will the future of a television development group, online and radio operations, administrative offices and a charitable initiative.
That could change in the future, however. Holcombe said he wouldn’t speculate on the future of the divisions currently based in the West Loop.
Whether or not they ultimately leave, neighborhood retailers will lose business as Harpo employees and guests move on.
Alfredo Valle has owned Jazzy Flowers, 35 S. Racine, for the last four years. He said that three times over the last two years producers from Harpo bought flowers from him, and out-of-towners watching the show live sometimes bought corsages to decorate their outfits. One man who was trying to get a mention on Winfrey’s show had Valle create a rose arrangement that mixed real flowers and ones made of tissue.
But others saw benefits in Winfrey’s announcement last week. Lee Kaufman, who runs a balloon and party store at 1101 W. Randolph, said the end of the show could open up parking slots in the neighborhood.
Winfrey’s impact on the West Loop was more than the numbers, other business owners and advocates said.
Hosting a celebrity operation brought what restaurateur Ina Pinckney, of Ina’s, 1235 W. Randolph, called “a little twinkle of pixie dust” to the area.
When people ask her where her restaurant is located, she has been able to tell them, “I’m a few blocks west of Oprah.”
“It became a guidepost along the way,” Pinckney said.
Martha Goldstein, executive director of the West Loop Community Organization, echoed that sentiment.
“When there’s a celebrity in the neighborhood, there’s a buzz in the neighborhood – limousines all over, people waiting in line to get into the show. It’s a big thing,” Goldstein said. “I think she has a presence and that’s what she’s brought to this neighborhood.”