Studs on Studs
By Ray Elliott
If Chicago radio broadcaster and author Studs Terkel had
lived during the time of Christ, he would have wanted to have had a tape
recorder with him. The 71-year-old Terkel has carved an international
reputation by recording, in their own words, what it was like for ordinary
people who lived through the Great Depression and who work and dream in America
"In their own words you capture
what it was like. What it was like," Terkel said, biting each word as he sat in
his eighth-floor office overlooking Lake Michigan, talking about his work in
oral history, "for ordinary people? Even now I ask the question: What was it
"What was it like at the foot of
Calvary that day Christ walked up the hill and was crucified? Who was down
there? Who were these people? We know there was a subversive group called the
Christians, an underground group the Roman Empire thought was a sect.
"And so there they were," he said, his voice dropping to a whisper, "some were hysterical, some were heroic, some helped him carry the cross. Others informed. There was the young Roman solider. Who was he, this - he was a kid, you know. What was it like down there? It would be good if I had a tape I recorder."
That's the approach Terkel has used since the early '60s as he crisscrossed the United States, interviewing people and writing books like "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do," "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression," "Division Street: America" and "American Dreams, Lost and Found."
"Well, here," he said, waving his ever-present cigar in the air as he talked, "I suppose I use this as my credo: Histories down through the centuries have been written about big people, quote unquote, kings and generals and presidents and bankers and dictators. Famous names, powerful names. But what about those anonymous multi-millions through the years who are not known, who are the life-light for those powerful people?
"There's a (Bertolt) Brecht poem I use, part of it, to open 'Working': 'Who built the seven towers of Thebes?' When the Chinese Wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch? You know? When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army?
"And we've all read about the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Sir Francis Drake conquered it, and England ruled the seas. We read when the Armada sank that King Phillip wept. Phillip of Spain. Were there no other tears?
"Or 1066. William the Conquerer conquered the Saxons, right? The Normans conquered the Saxons. What did that mean to the Saxon peasants? What was it like in that little hut up there? Did they start speaking French, or what?"
Nothing in Terkel's background seemingly prepared him for the type of career he has had. Certainly he had no plans for it.
He was born in 1912 and grew up on the Near North Side of Chicago. His father became ill and was unable to support the family. It was left to his mother to take care of Terkel and his older brother. She did this by running a boarding house-type of hotel.
"Aaahhaaaa," Terkel said, laughing about going from that background to the University of Chicago, graduating from law school there and becoming a soap opera actor after graduation. "I don't know. It's just one of those things. When you think of it, my life is an attrition of accidents. The result of an attrition of accidents. I didn't plan it this way.
"Law school, I just did what was expected of me. Clarence Darrow and all that. I went to law school, and I didn't like it. I had corporation law, and then I had contracts. They drove me crazy. And there was a depression. Not that I was interested in practicing. I passed the bar, though."
Although he passed the bar examination, Terkel explained that it took him two tries. The first exam was yes-and-no-type questions. Simple sounding, perhaps. But he hadn't taken the cram courses in preparation and was in the minority of those who flunked. A few months later, he took a second exam, made up of essay questions, and passed.
"Yes, but-on-the-other-hand questions," he said, lighting his cigar again and tossing the match into an ashtray sitting on a chair a few feet in front of him. "Well, I'm good at that. Not knowing the answer, I could fake it."
Terkel took a civil service job in Washington for a while. He didn't like it because "you just count things." So he came back to Chicago and started doing gangster roles in soap operas.
"That happened because I joined a theater group," he said. "I didn't mean to be an actor, either. I liked going to the theater, and one of the guys in the project with me - it was a New Deal project called FERA (Federal Emergency Relief Administration), and we did statistics - was directing this theater group, a labor theater group called the Chicago Repertoire Group.
"I came to watch it. He said, 'Get on stage. We need a guy to do a small role.' I did, and he said, 'Hey, you're pretty good.' And then I did a bigger role. That's how I became an actor. Later, the guy said, 'Why don't you try out for some of those soap operas?' I auditioned and won the part - eight weeks.
"One thing led to another. The guy liked me. He was a fan of the labor theater group and liked the way I talk. I like jazz and folk music. He asked me to do one of these disc jockey - the word disc jockey wasn't used then - things. And so I did it."
One thing led to another in Terkel's life until he got involved in another New Deal project, the WPA (Works Project Administration) Federal Writers Project. That played an important role in his future. In fact, it changed his life.
"I mean I wrote," Terkel said, crossing his legs and exposing socks with a large diamond-shaped design on the front side of each one and covered his legs to mid-calf. "I never wrote before. Most guys were working on the state guide. Our particular division did radio scripts. We did some great stuff. So did the theater project. Orson Welles and John Houseman were in that project. And others. Artists. You find some of the work they did in the post office."
The phone rang once. Twice.
"But the Writer's - I'll tell you about it in a minute," Terkel said as he picked up the phone receiver. "Hello. Unhuh. Yeah, Peter. Unhuh. I don't know if I can go. When is it? Ooohh, I'll be working at something. I'm working. I won't be able to come to it, but I wish you luck on it.
"Naaa, naaa. Where you having it? Oh, no kidding? Well, if I can. See, I'm working - would you believe it? I'm working on a movie with Jane Fonda. Haaa. It's a bit role; it's a cab driver. See, the director of the film was the director of a show I did years ago called 'Stud's Place,' a TV show. Dan Petrie, his name is.
"They're doing it in Chicago. It's called 'The Dollmaker,' the story of - a very good novel, came out in the '40s - the migration of an Appalachian family to Detroit, and she's playing this woman. And so there's this scene, you see - he opens with this, oh, philosophical cabdriver. He said, 'You do it.' And I said, 'OK.' It's just a day. That's April 11. I know that. But I have no idea how long it'll go, you know. All right. Good luck. How's the performance?"
While the person on the other end of the line answered, Terkel held his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and said, "See, they're doing a play - these young people - 'Bury the Dead.' That's the anti-war play I'm talking about, and that's one of the plays our group did years ago, the Chicago Repertoire Group. That's why he -
"Did you find that piece of music? Does it fit? Was it right? There's kind of a refrain there, you follow? It's--is it? It's the one that if I heard it, I'd know. It's when the guys get up, when the dead rise. It's going pretty good, huh? Great. Great. Will you do scenes from it at the benefit, is that it? Oh, that's terrific. Oh, if I can, I'd love to. Send me the invitation, the release. Good luck, Peter. Okay. You bet. So long."
The telephone conversation seems to be typical of Terkel's interest in young people and their theater productions. Teri Hollowell, Palos Hills, met Terkel when she was a student at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, and played the part of the waitress in a school production of Terkel's book, "Working."
"We called him and asked him to come and see the play," Hollowell said. "He came and then went out to a pub with the cast and bought us a drink afterwards. It really made us feel good."
After he hung up the telephone, Terkel explained that the people doing the play had originally called him because they knew he had done the play in the '30s and wanted to know how it went then. In the play, written by Irwin Shaw, the time is World War I. When the dead soldiers rise, everybody tries to stop them and wants them to go back to their graves. They won't and walk toward the authorities as the music Terkel mentioned plays.
"Now where were we?" Terkel said. "Oh, the Writer's Project. It never occurred to me if I had a flair for writing or not. I wanted to get on the project with friends of mine. I wrote something and submitted it. They said okay. And I started to write.
"Our radio scripts were in conjunction with the Art Institute. We talked to the curator and wrote incidents of in the life of the American Thomas Aikens or Winslow Homer. I remember one on Van Gough. Well, that was performed by professional actors on WGN. That'[s the Col. McCormick station.
"Col. McCormick hated the New Deal. He especially hated the Writer's Project. Every day he'd rap it. It was boondoggling bums, commies, but it was done on his station. And he apparently aired a couple of the programs, and he loved them. He must have fallen asleep during each program, because at the end, it would say my name or whoever wrote it of the Federal Writer's Project, Work Project Administration, Harry Hopkins, administrator. That was a friend of Roosevelt's, his sidekick. He was the one McCormick most hated."
From that point on, Terkel's career moved ahead until he got his own network TV show called, "Stud's Place." The show was set in a small restaurant and did quite well until Terkel got blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
"The show was dropped pretty much because of me," Terkel said. "I signed and spoke on things and wouldn't say I was duped. All I had to say was that I was a fool or some of these commies duped me or something. The hell with that. I signed this particular petition which said, 'Jim Crow gotta go,' because I believed it and wouldn't retract it. So I was blacklisted."
The irony of the blacklist, however, is that Terkel wouldn't have moved to WFMT where he has worked for 30 years and wouldn't have written the books he has had it not been for the blacklist. He heard a Woody Guthrie record on the station and called to see if he could go to work.
It was almost 10 years later when he was first introduced to the tape recorder and began doing interviews around the country and the world. Someone finally suggested that he make a book of his interviews. Now he is working on another book. This one is about World War II.
"Had I not been blacklisted because I had a big mouth, there wouldn't have been any books," he said. "I'm sure I was followed by the FBI back then. I know I was in the army, I know. I may use that in the WWII book, in the introduction somewhere. See, I didn't realize I was being spied on in the army. But my letters from my wife were being opened. I got my Freedom of Information file, and there were some copies of letters. Would you believe it?"
The book on the war is an oral approach to WWII. He is still collecting material, and Cathy Zmuda, who has transcribed almost all of his interviews, is transcribing these interviews. Terkel said she knows how he thinks. The scope of the book is far reaching.
"I'm talking to some niece in the internment camps," he said. "Conscientious objectors, uh, middle-aged guys, of course, who went on D-Day. What happened to the Hawaiian guy who was in Honolulu, Pearl Harbor that day? The wildness of it all. Naturally guys who were Bataan prisoners of war. But not just them.
"The woman at home, you know. Or even more significant, Victory Girls. Middle-aged women. Victory Girls for these kids. Girls about 14, 15, 16 years old. They'd be going along -- they'd be with sailors and soldiers. But this was innocent because these were country boys. Coming home.
"But it influenced her in such a way that she just loved uniforms. And couldn't be with one or the other of them. So her grown-up life was all twisted, involving several marriages. Adultery. Well, you see, that's also affected by the war. Or the widow at home. Or an army wife on the trains.
"And I'm doing stuff now on the interrogation of the Nazis. You read about Klaus Barbie. Well, you see, there's a guy who has been on trial. He's agreed to see me. He's a teacher at Wayne State. We'll see what happens."
So at 71 years of age, when most Americans have been retired at least five years, Louis Studs Terkel has other projects that will keep him working for years to come. He keeps so busy that he rarely takes a vacation, despite his wife's insistence.
"She's always trying to get me to take a vacation," he said. "But I usually find something else to do. Maybe I'll get around to it some of these days."
Posing for one last photograph, Terkel smoothed a wrinkle in his traditional red-checkered shirt and said to the photographer, "I'll give you a sort of a Spencer Tracy. That's what a TV critic named John Crosby of the New York Herald-Tribune called me when I was doing "Stud's Place" back in the early days. Now remember this was 1950. He spoke of me in his book as a 'young Spencer Tracy.'"
There is a resemblance there, I told him.
"Keep talking, kid. I like your style."
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