When Oprah Winfrey decided to end her TV talk show’s 25-year run this spring, her team of in-house designers at Harpo Productions knew the send-off would have to make as big of an impression as the host has made over the past quarter-century.
Huge-name guests from Tom Cruise and Will Smith to Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder were all on hand to bid Oprah’s show farewell, and the stage set needed to match that starpower.
The Harpo team started planning in March for the May farewell special, and eventually decided on Chicago’s United Center sports arena as the venue.
“We needed to do something really big that paid tribute to 25 years of television. We started off wanting to make it beautiful and grand. The three main words that kept coming up were ‘timeless,’ ‘historic’ and ‘epic.’ The design was a very big part of how the show was being produced,” says Harpo production designer Tara Denise.
Once the venue was selected the design team moved forward, making changes to the set as new guests and elements were added to the production. For example, it was decided that Stevie Wonder and his piano would be raised up from under the stage on a hidden lift, which presented a new set of challenges.
“As guests were booked, the team made the ideas work with the people. We knew we needed multiple displays and we knew we needed the lift for Stevie Wonder, to get him out there as a surprise, and that dictated the height of the stage,” Denise says.
The stage featured multiple entrances, a long ramp leading out into the crowd, and a backdrop
scenery piece that resembled the top half of Oprah’s signature “O” graphic. Huge LED screens flanked the stage to give the in-house audience a closer look.
An incredible custom-built LED “tree” was lowered at one point in the taping (to celebrate the 25,000 oak trees that will be planted in honor of Oprah’s 25 years on the air), and every audience member held their own LED light on a stick. The visual results when the lights went down was a big “wow” moment.
“It was pretty amazing, and you could hear the audience gasp,” says Harpo associate production designer Angelo Petratos.
Getting the audience involved with the production was an important goal from the get-go.
“We tried to pull the set into the audience. We wanted to include the audience in because they were such a huge part of the history of the show,” Denise says.
Huge graphics were mounted along the top levels of the United Center displayed images from the show’s history—another nod to the past.
The major challenge in pulling this project off was the fact that the United Center is also the home of the Chicago Bulls, who were in the midst of an NBA Playoffs run when the show was being taped.
More than 200 union workers loaded in 70 semis full of equipment for the show starting at midnight on a Sunday. The show taping was Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. Everything had to be out by Wednesday morning, as the Miami Heat had a practice scheduled on the floor for the playoff game that evening.
The amount of A/V and projection equipment that needed to be set up in that time proved challenging, as well. The rigging and the suspended LED tree challenged the weight capacity of the roof.
“We were working around the Bulls’ schedule. We did eight or nine days of pre-rig, because there were over 300 motors in the air for the project. We did that in between the playoff games and everything that we hung in there before hand had to be suspended high enough so that it wouldn’t block the TV lights. That was the only way we could have done it,” says Chicago Scenic senior project manager Gary Heitz.