updated 02/05/2004 AT 12:00 AM ET
•originally published 02/05/2004 AT 10:26 AM ET
Fans of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show might have thought her live 50th-birthday show Jan. 29 was one rockin’ party. Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder and John Travolta turned up as surprise guests, Jay Leno wheeled out a 400-lb. banana cake, and the show won its best ratings since 1996. But that was only a warm-up. Two nights later at a private estate in Montecito, Calif., Winfrey was back on the dance floor, bopping with girlfriends to “We Are Family” and getting her groove on with pals from Tom Hanks to Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston to California First Couple Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It was a get-down, funky, dance-floor jammin’ celebration,” says Ellen Rakieten, executive producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Surveying the scene, the ecstatic birthday girl declared to the crowd, “Have you ev-ah, ev-ah seen anything like this?”
Not even close. The Jan. 31 bash – “better than a White House state dinner,” says Winfrey’s long-time love, Stedman Graham – capped a five-day birthday extravaganza. “It literally took my breath away,” Winfrey tells PEOPLE of the main party, which was held at the estate of friends and neighbors Bob and Marlene Veloz, from whom she purchased her Montecito spread for an estimated $50 million in ‘01. “I felt like a princess at the ball.” (Highlights will air on Oprah Feb. 6.) Adds her best friend, Gayle King: “It was one jaw-dropping moment after another.”
And so it went throughout the moveable festivities, which kicked off Jan. 28 at Chicago’s Metropolitan Club, where Graham, 52, hosted a dinner for 75 Winfrey intimates, including her father, Vernon, 71, and mother, Vernita Lee, 68. “It was a very personal, this-is-your-life-Oprah party,” Graham says of the evening. At one point Vernon gave a toast in which he recalled his daughter’s first public speaking gig, a church reading of the poem “Invictus,” at age 9. As he told the assembled guests, “A lot of the older folks said, ‘Oh, brother Winfrey – she’s going places!’ ”
Following the Chicago party and the surprise Oprah birthday show, Winfrey flew to L.A., where she was the guest of honor at a Jan. 30 luncheon at the Hotel Bel-Air. “We were the – capital T, H, E – ladies who lunch that day,” pal Dianne Hudson says of the fete, which drew Diane Sawyer, Toni Morrison, Ellen DeGeneres and Salma Hayek. Nancy Reagan, who’d been dining at the hotel with pals, stopped by to say happy birthday; at another point a reading of “Continue,” a poem written for the occasion by Maya Angelou, moved Winfrey to tears. (Angelou was ill and missed the proceedings.) Amid a string of emotional highs, the poem “was the most touching moment for Oprah,” says close friend (and wife of Dr. Phil) Robin McGraw.
If the Friday luncheon was a flowery ladies-only affair, the Saturday-night blowout was a chance for the birthday girl to let down her hair – and flaunt her toned self in a cream-hued Valentino ensemble. “I told her, ‘It’s the best outfit I’ve ever seen you in,’” says Graham, whose gift to Oprah is a planned trip to Australia. “She was stunning.”
The same could be said of the party, which featured, among other spare-no-expense touches, 50 violinists, 200 waiters (that’s one per guest!) and the piece O’ resistance: a circular white-chocolate-and-raspberry-filled pound cake gilded with 23-karat gold by Napa baker Sam Godfrey. Tom Hanks led a “Happy Birthday” sing-along, and everyone dug in – including Winfrey. Although these days she avoids sugar, “obviously she relaxed a little,” says her personal trainer Bob Greene. “If you can’t have exactly what you want on your 50th when you’re Oprah Winfrey, then something is wrong!”
No worries there. Winfrey got exactly what she wanted – and then some – at the gold-themed bash, for which event designer Colin Cowie created two outdoor venues: a Versailles-inspired dinner “tent” – made of drywall and glass windows – and “Club O,” modeled after Monaco hot spot Jimmy’s. It was there that guests really let loose to a live set by Stevie Wonder and later to deejay-spun tunes. “Grown people were screaming like 16-year-olds,” says pal Dianne Hudson. As for Winfrey herself, “She can keep up with Tina Turner,” says Gayle King, adding, “Stedman and Oprah do a beautiful two-step together.”
The two-stepping continued until 4 a.m., when the guest of honor finally packed it in – only to invite John Travolta and wife Kelly Preston back to her home to keep the party going. “It was just too good!” she said afterward. The next morning, Winfrey treated her partied-out guests to brunch at the nearby San Ysidro Ranch resort. Although she had previously admitted to suffering from a “happiness headache,” by Sunday afternoon she was feeling just plain happy. “She’s still on an incredible high that I think is gonna last for a very long time,” says King. So maybe she’ll do it all again for the big 5-1? Don’t count on it. Said an exhausted Winfrey, departing the festivities: “This ain’t gonna happen again next year!”
By MICHELLE TAUBER and JD HEYMAN. KELLY WILLIAMS and BARBARA SANDLER in Chicago and ULRICA WIHLBORG and FRANK SWERTLOW in L.A.