It was inevitable. Oprah’s Harpo Studio was an empty shell waiting for conversion into pricey condos when the talk show host headed for Hollywood two years ago. Now the studio that long ago was once a roller skating rink and converted into a film studio by producer Fred Niles, is in the process of being sold.
The four-building campus being purchased by Chicago developer Sterling Bay Companies, for an undisclosed price, in a sale-leaseback transaction that would keep the studio intact for at least the next two years, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The transaction is expected to close in 30 days. The 3.5-acre property would be leased back to Harpo for two years, to continue producing programming for Oprah’s OWN cable network.
The studio has been in existence for 40 years
Although Harpo, Inc. has owned the studio for 26 years, it dates back 40 years to when Fred Niles convinced his employer, Kling Studios, a commercial art studio, to buy the 100,000-sq.ft. roller rink at 1058 W. Washington, with its solid wood floors and high ceilings throughout, and use it solely for film production.
In 1958, Niles, who had operated his own film company at 22 W. Hubbard St., bought the studio from Kling for $270,000. For 30 years thereafter, Fred A. Niles Productions thrived on commercials, corporate and sales meeting films, branded entertainment, the occasional TV show and the filming of evangelist Oral Roberts campaigns.
When Niles in 1982 was stricken with rare, paralyzing Guillian-Barre disease, the studio fell into in disarray. He sold it for a reported $3.5 million to a former Congressman and labor leader, who operated it as Studio Network, Inc., but not successfully.
When Oprah went studio shopping in 1988, 1058 Washington was ideal for her growing enterprise. Harpo, Inc. paid $4.75 million for it in September, 1988. Her partners included King World, syndicators of her TV show and her attorney, Jeffrey Jacobs. Harpo invested another $5.25 million for much-needed rehabbing (including roof repair and installation of air conditioning) and state-of-the-art equipment.
The hope had always been that the city, or a studio entity like a Cinespace, would buy the studio when this moment arrived, and it would continue as a TV and film production center. Given the prosperous growth of the West Loop, thanks in no small part to Oprah, it was a futile hope at that.