Oprah! Winfrey Gives City A Big Hello Hug

June 20, 1991|By Mary Corey

Oprah Winfrey doesn't stroll down memory lane.

She struts down it. In red high heels, no less.

Her boundless energy -- and a support crew of limo drivers, security guards and hair and makeup artists -- allowed her to cram a week's worth of reminiscing into just a few hours yesterday.

During the morning, she managed to visit her old home, chat with former neighbors, pet the neighborhood pooch, eat lunch at the Cross Keys Deli, hang out at Harborplace, sing with an a cappella group, hug her favorite fatherly barber at Lenny's House of Naturals and sign, oh, about a jillion autographs.

She did have work to do, too.

She returned to Baltimore to tape a show at the Convention Center and receive a lifetime achievement award from the Broadcast Promotion and Marketing Executives, who were gathered here for a conference.

A crowd of nearly 2,500 gave her a standing ovation before her show on America's favorite commercials, scheduled to air July 2, and well wishers wreaked havoc with her already tight schedule.

"If I didn't want to be embraced by people, I'd work for the phone company," said Ms. Winfrey, whose syndicated talk show was recently renewed through 1995.

Yet not everything looked familiar to the Divine Miss O, who earned her broadcasting stripes at WJZ-TV from 1977 to 1983. When did Scarlett Place spring up? And where did Harrison's Pier Five come from?

"Kiss today goodbye," she sang with her nose near the glass of her limo window, taking a good look at the city she hadn't seen in three years.

But no matter how much architects change the skyline, Baltimore will still have a strong emotional appeal for her.

"I grew into myself here," said Ms. Winfrey, 37. "This is the place where I became a professional."

And, yesterday, she proved you can go home again, literally, as long as there's someone to answer the door.

After finishing promotional spots at WMAR-TV, which carries her show weekdays at 4 p.m., she had one request: to drive by her old neighborhood.

"Oh, it's my old home," she said, getting out of her limo and surveying Cross Keys Condo #8.

With her personal security guard hovering nearby, she bounded up the stairs to meet the new tenants.

"I've always wanted to do this," she said, knocking on the door now marked "The Barretts."

The teen-aged girl who answered was too stunned to say anything at first.

"Hi, I'm Oprah Winfrey," the TV star said. "I used to live here."

Once inside, she discovered that not everything in life stays the same. The Barretts, she conceded, have better taste in decor than she had. The carpet is no longer green, the kitchen walls no longer yellow, but her favorite spot -- the balcony -- is blessedly the same.

By the time she left, a small crowd had gathered on the sidewalk. People peeked out from the curtains, waved and called friends to report the Oprah sighting. One neighbor quickly changed out of her robe to meet her.

"I used to live here," Ms. Winfrey gushed.

"I know," the woman replied. "I've been waiting for you to come back."

Buster, the neighborhood dog, was still around and wagged his tail wildly as she approached. (Then again, he wagged his tail wildly when anyone approached.) The Orkin exterminator, lingering near the garage, eventually got up the nerve to ask for an autograph on the back of his business card.

Her nostalgic visit wouldn't have been complete without lunch at her favorite restaurant -- the Cross Keys Market and Deli -- where she once ate most of her meals, she said.

She nibbled on a crab cake and fries, giving what she couldn't finish to her security guard. ("It's a new thing I do," she said. "I stop when I'm full.") But deli employees wouldn't let her get away without dessert. Although she declined a plate of chocolate chip cookies, they insisted she take them for the road.

"Don't anybody call the Enquirer," she said with a laugh as she clutched the bag.

Over lunch, the usual subjects came up: How's the weight problem? She had lost 67 pounds, but has gained 70 and is now dealing with food as an addiction. "I'm now trying to resolve what the weight represents," she said. "It's a power struggle with me. I've allowed it to control my life."

And how are things with steady beau Stedman Graham, a public relations executive in North Carolina? Although she mentions his name frequently in conversation, she said simply, "I don't know if I'm getting married."

The crowds who greeted her at Cross Keys, however, were nothing compared to what she attracted at Harborplace. Walking toward the amphitheater, people eating at outdoor restaurants began chanting her name: "O-prah. O-prah."

But it was the music of Regency, an a capella doo-wop group, that set her running. Ever the performer, she dashed over to a microphone and began harmonizing with the men as they sang, "What's Your Name?"

The crowd multiplied. Teen-agers cheered wildly, and Ms. Winfrey stood in the center of the group -- a local girl who'd made good but still knew how to win over the folks in her adopted hometown.

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