by Caryn Rousseau
Associated Press Writer
CHICAGO (AP)—They shrieked, they gasped, they cried, they hugged— and that was before Oprah Winfrey’s studio audience got a trip to Australia.
Winfrey kicked off her 25th and final season of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on Monday with promised surprises. After teasing the 300 audience members with a suggestion she might take them on a trip to New York, Philadelphia or Los Angeles, she said her last season merited something “bigger.”
“So I started to think about where would I most want to go,” she said over the din of an audience that suddenly understood they were going somewhere far away.
“Maybe I should take you all with me to the other side of the world. We’re going to Australia,” Winfrey shouted.
With that, a mock-up of a Quantas Air Lines jet rolled onto stage, its door opened and actor John Travolta, who also flies airplanes, stepped out dressed as a Quantas pilot.
Winfrey, who opened her 19th season six years ago by giving out cars to everyone in her studio audience, will take this group in December on an 8-day, 7-night trip.
The audience was made up of some of who the program called its most loyal viewers over the years. And throughout the show, Winfrey introduced audience members, including a man named Larry who received word he’d been invited to the program via a taped message from Winfrey delivered to his house by NASCAR driver Jimmy Johnson.
There were some surprises for Winfrey as well. Actor Don Johnson, who declined to appear on the program when it first aired in 1986—when he was a much bigger television star than Winfrey — came by to explain he’d wanted to appear but “Miami Vice” bosses wouldn’t let him because he was too busy.
“But I understand things have been going OK for you,” he joked to Winfrey.
Winfrey teared up during a surprise appearance from singer/songwriter Paul Simon, who sang a song he’d written in honor of the show’s 10th season with updated lyrics.
The rest of this week’s show will include an appearance by country music stars The Judds, and a return to Williamson, W.Va., where she filmed a town hall episode about AIDS in 1987. The week will end with a live show on Friday, in which Winfrey will announce her first book club selection in nearly a year.
This season a parade of celebrities are likely to follow Travolta, who danced with Winfrey to open Monday’s program. Over the years, Winfrey has interviewed a host of celebrities, including Michael Jackson, Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise—who made headlines when he jumped on her sofa to proclaim his love for wife Katie Holmes.
Winfrey also might land some major interviews, as she has done throughout the years with presidential candidates George W. Bush and later Barack Obama.
But Janice Peck, author of “The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era,” expects Winfrey will fill her season with giveaways, flashbacks and visits from past guests “who can come in and talk about how they’ve been affected by her.”
While Monday’s season premiere is the beginning of the end of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” it’s not the end of Winfrey. She’s set to launch her Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN, on cable Jan. 1.
The end of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” will be featured on that network with “Behind the Scenes: Oprah’s 25th Season,” a one-hour series giving viewers a look at the making of the last season of Winfrey’s talk show.