May 18, 2011
Oprah Winfrey is one great storyteller.
So let her set the stage for the story of her years in Baltimore — seven and a half years starting in 1976 that would profoundly shape not only the life of the young anchorwoman, but also give birth to the media phenomenon known as Oprah.
"I came to Baltimore when I was 22 years old. Drove my red Cutlass up from Nashville, Tenn., arrived and was as close to 'The Beverly Hillbillies' as I could be," Winfrey says in that rich, inviting voice that millions have tuned in to for decades. "I had no idea what I was in for or that this was going to be the greatest growing period of my adult life. … It shook me to my very core, and I didn't even know at the time that I was being shaken."
Winfrey says she has been thinking quite a bit about her Baltimore days this spring. Perhaps, because her departure from Baltimore in December 1983 so relates to what she's going through now. In a few days, she'll walk away from a syndicated talk show that has dominated daytime TV for 25 years, making her one of the richest and most influential women in the world.
Of all the shows in the history of American television, only "60 Minutes" has been more successful in terms of doing critically praised work, making piles of money, influencing the culture and running for a long, long time. And "60 Minutes" had a major TV network behind it in CBS. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was built on the vision, talent and will of the young woman who left Baltimore for Chicago.
Now everyone knows her name. But when the 22-year-old native of Kosciusko, Miss., arrived in Baltimore, her viewers were actually asked "What is an Oprah?" And they were stumped. When Winfrey recalls her Baltimore history, she talks about being "humiliated," "embarrassed" and "sexually harassed."
"Not all my memories of Baltimore are fond ones," she says. "But I do have fond memories of Baltimore, because it grew me into a real woman. I came in naive, unskilled, not really knowing anything about the business — or about life. And Baltimore grew me up."
There are easier ways to grow up than getting publicly fired, after a big buildup, within months of starting a new job in a new town. But that's what happened to Winfrey, who began near the top of the local TV news food chain as co-anchor of WJZ's 6 p.m. weekday newscast with the legendary Jerry Turner. Winfrey's seven and a half months in that co-anchor chair amounted to the first and worst failure of her TV career.
She doesn't dwell on it, and the overall story she tells about Baltimore ultimately fits the larger grand narrative of her career and life: Obstacles and pain encountered. Pain endured and obstacles overcome. A better, stronger Oprah emerging and going on to greater triumphs. But she doesn't pull any punches either about the outrage she still feels 34 years later at the sexism she encountered in Baltimore — and the way Turner and station management treated her.
Winfrey's best friend, talk show host and "O Magazine" editor Gayle King, insists that a sense of balance is crucial in judging the Baltimore years. It is true that they were tough emotionally and professionally in some ways for Winfrey, but good things happened here as well — like the community she discovered at Bethel A.M.E church, the lifelong friends she made at WJZ and the TV talk-show voice she ultimately found in front of the camera alongside a more supportive co-host in Richard Sher.
Winfrey met King in Baltimore while both were in their early 20s and worked at WJZ, and their friendship has been one of the mainstays of her popular talk show.
It started when King spent a night at Winfrey's apartment because a snowstorm made it dangerous for the 21-year-old production assistant and budding news writer to drive back to Takoma Park, where she lived near her alma mater, the University of Maryland, College Park.
"What makes it so extraordinary is that I was in an entry-level position, and she was a news anchor, and in the newsroom hierarchy, there is quite a difference," King says today. "But we were the same age and we were both black and we were both single. And I ended up spending the night at her house, and we realized we had a lot in common. We talked that night — practically all night — and we've been talking really ever since."
'What is an Oprah?'
Winfrey's Baltimore story actually starts just before she arrived in that red Cutlass from an anchoring job in Nashville at a station that she says nurtured her — something that didn't happen here at first.
"When I came to town, there was a promo called 'What is an Oprah?' To this day, I wish I had saved it," Winfrey says. "If anybody out there has it, please let me know, and I will buy it from you. I've been looking for it forever, and we have not been able to locate the 'What is an Oprah?' tape."
The silly-sounding question formed the core of major promotional campaign by WJZ intended to launch the former beauty queen and 1976 graduate of Tennessee State University, a historically black university.
"I was on the back of buses. I was on billboards," Winfrey says. "That was the promo on WJZ: 'What is an Oprah?' — done to the tune from 'A Chorus Line.' And [on-camera] people would say things like, 'I don't know. Did you say Opree? Did you say Opry? Did you say Opra? Did you say Opera?'"
"And what happened is that when I arrived, people were expecting this big something. The buildup was so strong. And I'm just a colored girl with a lot of hair sitting next to Jerry Turner, and everybody's like, 'Whaaaaaaaaattttt? That's what an Oprah is? She's not all that?' I could not live up to the hype."
Worse, she came to quickly believe that the older man sitting next to her, the biggest star in local TV, did not want her to succeed.
"First of all, he wanted to be alone from the beginning," she says. "And then, if he had to have a co-host, he didn't want a young, green-behind-the-ears one like me."
She says Turner, who died in 1987, ultimately made no secret of his hostility to her.
"At every chance he could get, he would embarrass me or, like, try to make me feel bad about where I went to school," Winfrey says. "That's when I first learned that, oh, where you went to school is an important thing, because he'd go, 'Where'd you go to school again? What little college or university?' So I would have to say my memories of Jerry Turner are not fond ones."
Richard Sher, her ultimate WJZ onscreen partner, says her time with Turner was "an almost impossible situation" for Winfrey.
"Well, she was paired with the king, King Jerry, right?" Sher says. "They brought in this young, African-American Miss Tennessee State from Channel 5 in Nashville, Tenn., and the show did not do well. And Jerry certainly did not get blamed for it. I mean, what's different about it? Well, for the first time, somebody was sitting next to the king of local television, the ruler, the best."
So impossible that she was dropped from the 6 o'clock newscast — a huge, public failure, especially in the way it was handled.
"I was removed from the 6 pm. news exactly April 1, 1977," Winfrey says. "The general manager called me upstairs, and I thought it was an April Fool's joke when they told me, 'We have bigger plans for you; we're going to put you on the morning cut-ins.' (In the 1970s, that involved reading headlines for a few minutes at the top of the hour early in the morning — a job of near-invisibility.)
Winfrey roars when she says, "And he said that to me with a straight face." She repeats the phrase "with a straight face" two more times to make the point that green as she was, even she knew reading news cut-ins on morning TV was a long way down the food chain from co-anchoring the evening news.
"I'll never forget the way he said, 'We're going to put you on the morning cut-ins where you can shine all by yourself,'" Winfrey says, clearly still channeling some of the emotions from that day. "As you know, when you're humiliated that way, you never forget."
'I was so sexually harassed'
Things would get even worse at WJZ as Winfrey cycled through a series of jobs ranging from news writing to street reporting after her fall from the anchor desk.
"Oh my God, I was so sexually harassed," she says of her time in the newsroom.
Winfrey didn't speak of catcalls or sexual advances, but she did speak about being singled out as a woman and being treated with less respect than her male colleagues.
And she recounts an incident involving a supervisor whom she declines to name.
"I shall not name him, because he'll be trying to sue me," she says.
This supervisor ordered Winfrey to let his girlfriend live in her two-bedroom Cross Keys apartment free of charge, she says. (The management team from Winfrey's era is long gone. The station that was then owned by Westinghouse is now the property of CBS.)
"He said to me one day, 'You have a two-bedroom apartment, and my girlfriend is looking for a place to stay, and I don't want her living with me,'" Winfrey remembers.
"So he says to me, 'You need to make room for her and let her have that space — and not charge her.'"
And Winfrey's voice is rising again as she says, "Yes, this is exactly what happened to me. And that … girlfriend moved in with me, because he said that's what he wanted to happen."
When King is asked if she remembers a supervisor asking Oprah if his girlfriend could live with the young anchorwoman, King says, "Oh, the girlfriend did stay in her apartment."
Winfrey tells of another situation involving a producer who used the budding talk-show host as a babysitter — and this was after she had already established herself as a co-host with Sher on "People Are Talking."
"Now, I know it's unheard of, but when I was a talent there, [a supervisor] would say to me, 'I need you to babysit for me tonight,' and I would," Winfrey says.
"At the time, we didn't even really realize how bad it was," King says. "And inappropriate … She was taken advantage of many, many times."
Some of Winfrey's friends urged her to sue the station over such matters.
"But I knew if I complained or spoke too loudly or, for God's sake, filed a suit, that would be the end of my career. And it just wasn't worth it to me, because I came into Baltimore knowing I would not stay. I never even learned the streets."
Arleen Weiner, a former producer of "People Are Talking," who, like King, has remained a lifetime friend, provides a glimpse of the private Winfrey during her Baltimore years at WJZ.
"I can remember many days after work, because we started early, when I would stop at her place on the way home just to chill or something, and she was not happy here — she really wasn't," Weiner says.
Coming of age
Friends say Winfrey's sense of humor helped her through the toughest times at WJZ. And there is a real sense of fun and even joy in her voice as she recounts coming-of-age, newsroom memories.
"This is after I got removed from the 6 o'clock news, so I'm sitting in the newsroom now, and I'm supposed to be writing, which is not exactly a strong point of mine," Winfrey says. "And there was this guy, an executive producer, and every day, I'd hear, 'Oprah, where is that goddamn copy?'"
Then, she drops her voice another octave and shouts even louder, mimicking the daily refrain, "'Winfrey, where is that goddamn copy?'"
"So, that's also where I learned to curse — in the newsroom," she says. "When I came to JZ, I was churchgoing and never cursed. But in a newsroom, everybody is always saying the 'f' word or the 'g' word or whatever word.
"So at first, I was like [she does a Dorothy from "Wizard of Oz" voice], 'The language in here is very disturbing. Very disturbing, the way these people talk to each other.' But after a couple of months, you're in there, too, doing it."
Winfrey says she also had problems with some of the conventions of TV news.
"I was a terrible writer, terrible writer. I was a good talker, but it would take me much longer to sit down and write the scripts. So I got a lot of the live Action-cam assignments, because I could talk better than I could sit down and compose a story," she says.
"But I'd go out and cover a story and then, in that little transition thing where you're supposed to toss it back to the anchor at the end of the story, I couldn't think of anything to say, because I felt I'd said it all in the story. I was like, 'I've already said everything in the story,'" she says, laughing at the memory.
But there were deeper issues that made Winfrey decide that maybe she was more suited to some line of media work that wasn't strictly journalism.
"I once went back the next day after covering a family that had been burned out and brought them some of my blankets and stuff," Winfrey says. "And the assistant news director at the time told me how wrong that was and that if I did that again and they found out about it, I could be fired, because I was involving myself in other people's stories. Which is true, you're there to cover the story, not get involved in it, but …"
Despite appreciating that journalistic principle, Winfrey says, "by the time I left Baltimore, I was solidly aware that I no longer wanted to just do television news. I was very uncomfortable doing television news."
A talk show host
Ultimately, Oprah did find success in Baltimore on several fronts. After more than a year in the newsroom, she was paired with Sher, and on Aug. 14, 1978, "People Are Talking" debuted. It quickly found an audience despite a highly critical, opening-day review by then-Sun TV critic Bill Carter.
"Channel 13 unveiled its much-touted new morning show, 'People are Talking,' yesterday," Carter's review began. "There was nothing much worth hearing — or seeing."
But that's not the way viewers saw it.
"The chemistry was there right from the beginning," Sher says. "Whereas Jerry didn't want to work with her, I did. I loved her. … In all those years, we never had a fight."
In addition to a compatible co-anchor, Winfrey also found friends in Sher and his wife, Annabelle. He says Winfrey had her own drawer in one of the kitchen cabinets in the Shers' Mount Washington home.
The drawer was filled with some of Winfrey's favorite things, like chocolate chip cookies and pretzels, and she had an open invitation to stop by whenever she wanted to grab a bite — or talk, or just hang out. Winfrey would often stop off while out jogging from her apartment "to grab a pretzel from the drawer and a Perrier from the fridge," Sher says.
To this day, the Shers and Winfrey remain close friends — talking regularly on the phone, visiting each other despite their cross-country locations and occasionally vacationing together.
In 2009, Winfrey made a surprise appearance at a regional Emmy Awards dinner and presented him with a lifetime achievement award.
"I learned something every day sitting in that chair beside him," she said of their more than five years as co-hosts. "And I laughed more than I laughed at any time in my life. And I learned to love him for his quick wit and charming ways."
Sher will be in Chicago for the taping of Winfrey's last syndicated show on May 23.
She forged a similar lifetime friendship situation with Weiner, who eventually became executive producer of "People Are Talking."
Weiner drove Winfrey to the airport when she left Baltimore for Chicago. Winfrey held a little Oprah Doll that a friend in makeup at WJZ had created for her, and both women were "crying hysterically," Weiner says.
"I was losing a very dear friend, and she was losing some connections, roots, a sense of safety that she had finally gotten here," Weiner says. "You know, most of her life hadn't been so [great] — mine wasn't either, which was part of our connection. So we were losing that kind of feeling. And I was worried. I mean, I knew she would do OK, but I said, 'It's gonna be rough for a while.' And then she got on the plane, and you know after that."
Weiner gets choked up when she starts to talk about her feelings for Winfrey: "She saw something in me that I hadn't quite seen in myself yet. And how old was she? She was 24 or 25. So she was wise at a very young age as most of us who know her know."
Nobody is said to know Winfrey better than King, who spent only 18 months at WJZ before leaving for a reporter/anchorwoman's job in Kansas City. But the two have stayed closely connected ever since.
"Actually, even in Baltimore, we didn't live in the same city," says King, remembering that her home was in Takoma Park, some 40 miles away. "We only worked together for that short period of time, but I'm telling you we're very like-minded and have very similar philosophies about life. And over the years, that's just gotten stronger."
King says that she and Winfrey have a "lot of great memories" from WJZ, despite the 6 o'clock setback and newsroom inequities. She says that Winfrey's strong "spiritual nature" and deep faith helped her keep a sense of perspective through the worst times
"I often think she has a direct pipeline to God," King says, laughing.
Signs of success
That spirituality is on display in a story Winfrey tells in trying to explain how the "life passage" she is going through now. It involves her first visit to the suburban home of Weiner and her husband, Arnold, a widely known Baltimore attorney.
"Arnold and Arleen Weiner at that time were the richest people I had ever seen or heard of," Winfrey says. "I remember going to their house one time, and there were four different cars. There was a BMW. There was a Corvette. There was a Mercedes, and there was something else. And I was like,' 'Oh my God, these are the richest people I ever heard of.'"
Winfrey says she can remember standing in the Weiners' kitchen later in the visit and looking out a window and seeing six trees in the backyard.
"And I determined then that's what really rich is: being able to have six trees in your yard. That became my standard: 'I'm gonna have me a house one day with six trees.'"
Saying "this is an absolute true story," Winfrey says she was standing at the kitchen sink making coffee one day in her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., and she looked out her back window and for the first time, noticed "the six trees right in the immediate view" of the window.
"There were the six trees. I counted them, and went, 'Oh my God, there are those six trees.'"
Like a skilled preacher, Winfrey pauses to let the story breathe for a second.
"And you know what?" she asks, "Beyond those six trees are over 2,000 other trees in my front yard."
Winfrey says she started to weep when she looked at those trees that reminded her of Baltimore, and thought, "OK, there are the six trees you wanted — and hundreds and hundreds more.'"
She wept, she says, because it reminded her, "God can dream a bigger dream for you than you can.'"