By Lisa James
It has been said that Studs
Terkel celebrates the uncelebrated. In the process, he has become a spokesman
for everyday Americans. An entertainer, author, radio show host, and lecturer,
he has established himself as one of the world’s most popular oral historians.
At 86 years old, Terkel has the spry step of
a man half his age and a sparkling wit. He spoke at the University at Albany
during a Writers Institute visit last May 5 to audiences that hung on his
every word. Wearing his trademark “uniform” of red and white checkered
shirt, loosely tied red tie and red socks, he shared his knowledge after
announcing, “Ask me any question you like. If I don’t know the answer,
I’ll fake it.”
For most of his life, Terkel has been best-known
as the person asking the questions. For more than 30 years, he was host
of the Studs Terkel Show on Chicago’s WFMT radio station. Over the years
he has interviewed thousands
of people, many of them authors, famous and not-so-famous. He amazes
everyone with his seemingly expert knowledge of the subject matter and
an almost photographic memory.
“I have people on my show whose work I respect.
How dare you interview someone and not read their work? It is simply a
matter of showing respect to the interviewee,” Terkel said when asked how
he does it all. He compared the interviewing process to that of a gold
prospector. “When I hear about a certain person, that’s the gold. Then
I dig and dig and that’s the ore. Editing is sort of like the sifting.
But it’s still not a bracelet or necklace. You still have to get them to
talk and I get people to talk by listening,” he said.
Terkel came to radio by way of the stage. In 1935, as a 23-year-old,
he landed a part in a play called Waiting for Lefty. Radio soap operas
were becoming popular, and a producer of one of those shows saw him on
stage and offered him a role. Other parts soon followed, and eventually,
one of the stations gave him his own show.
Radio led to television. In 1949, he played
a bartender on an NBC series called “Saturday Squares.” Once again, he
so impressed those around him that he was offered his own show, “Studs’
Place,” which aired
from 1950-52. Two years later, he was back on radio. His long-running radio
show began on WFMT in 1954.
Terkel is as well-known for his books as he
is for his radio shows. In fact, the name “Studs” was an outgrowth of his
literary endeavors. In 1956, he had written a book for children called
Giants of Jazz and an editor wanted him to come up with a name that was
catchier than Louis. He became “Studs.”
Terkel has produced some of the most admired
and widely discussed books of oral testimony in recent times. In Division
Street: America (1967) he interviewed people about contemporary life in
Chicago, America and the world. For Hard Times: An Oral History of the
Great Depression (1970), Terkel collected from people memories of how they
survived one of the toughest periods in American history. The book, Working:
People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They
Do (1974), which was also made into a musical, offered the same kind of
personal testimonies about people and their jobs. The Good War: An Oral
History of World War Two (1984) won Terkel a Pulitzer Prize. Mike Royko,
the late Chicago newspaper columnist and friend of Terkel, once joked that
“while being mugged, Terkel had tried to interview his assailant as the
man wrestled Terkel to the ground.”
One of the reasons Terkel is so successful
at interviewing people is that he is interested in what they have to say.
However, he is not such a success when it comes to recording those interviews,
and is famous for his aversion to all things technical. “I am as possessed
by the tape recorder as only one other guy—Richard Nixon,” he quipped.
Although officially retired after a 52-year
career on radio (his last show on WFMT was Jan. 1, 1988), he still does
interviews and an occasional radio show. Now a Senior Scholar-in-Residence
at the Chicago Historical Society, he is working to catalogue all of his
taped interviews, which will serve as a journey through this century. In
addition, he is working on a book, which will feature his thoughts about
movies and plays and how they have affected his life.