20th Century Project: Studs Terkel

An interview with Studs Terkel for the 20th Century Project series. Terkel and the interviewer discuss his career progression, from his early days in radio and television up to his work as a writer with the Works Progress Administration. The two also talk about the importance of radio in the 1930s and how it affected both the social and political worlds.

00:00Copy video clip URL Color bars.

00:23Copy video clip URL Cut to a shot of Studs Terkel as he begins the interview.

00:45Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks Terkel to talk about how he became involved with media, specifically acting and radio. Terkel responds by looking directly into the camera and saying, “My life is an accretion of accidents. I had no intention of ever becoming an actor, or disc jockey, or write books. My ambition was to have a civil service job, nine to five. I’m a Depression baby, and nine to five civil service job was my ideal, my grail.” He goes on to talk about his wasted time in law school and how he began his acting career by accident. He also talks a little bit about Chicago and being introduced to radio soap operas. “Chicago was the center of radio soap operas.” “I played the Chicago gangster in all of them. I’m the one who terrified these people, middle America.” “There were generally three crooks: the wise guy, the guy in the middle, and the dumb one. I was the dumb one.” Terkel goes on to explain, “That made a kind of living but haphazard because it wasn’t good. I had many jobs but terrible tenure, always getting killed; get re-run off the cliff, sent to Sing Sing, and every time I get killed I’m out of a job.”

04:10Copy video clip URL Terkel talks about radio and its importance in the 1930s. “Radio, like ‘all Gaul,’ is divided into three parts. Most of radio is escape radio, just as we have today. Radio that is banal and dull. And for the Depression people, movies and radio were a great escape. So many of the movies, and many of the radio things were lightheaded. ‘Life was just a bowl of cherries’ was one of the pop songs, gives you an idea of the time. Then there was the radio of a top writer like Norman Corwin, and the discovery of words, the value and beauty of words.” “They were programs that peaked the imagination of the listeners more than TV does with the viewers because you imagine what it’s like, you hear the words and you imagine the set in your head. And the third aspect of radio of course was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was the master of talk. His fireside chats that he offered on occasion, was a study of an artist at work with a medium that was new. He knew that radio was intimate. He knew that though millions are listening to him, it’s one person: It’s the old farm couple, it’s a couple in the city lost, it’s an old woman, it’s a young housewife wondering about the Depression and worried. He talked to that one person. And even though his voice was the voice of an aristocrat, he reached the common man, so-called, and the ordinary people. And he was a master of the technique of radio, the intimacy of it. So those are the three parts of radio to me.”

06:00Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks Terkel whether radio blossomed very suddenly in the 1930s. Terkel answers the question by talking about his earliest memories of radio, including popular songs at the time and certain documentaries and events that helped in the creation of new programming.

07:27Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks Terkel how he thinks radio changed everyday life. Terkel responds by talking a little bit about radio as an informational medium during WWII. He also speaks a little bit about the commercial aspect of radio and advertising’s eventual control over content. Terkel eventually begins to talk about the dawn of television and his involvement in Chicago TV.

13:07Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks Terkel to describe what being on the show Studs’ Place was like. Terkel goes into great detail about those involved with the show, the subject matter within the improvised dialogue, and what kind of audience the show gained. Terkel emphasizes the fact that he and the cast had high expectations of their audience. “People would recognize we never played down to the audience. It was rather sophisticated in a strange kind of way, at the same time blue collar. So we’d get letters from truck drivers as well as college professors.” Terkel goes on to talk a little bit about the show and the improvised dialogue. He recalls a specific show and highlights the fact that he and the cast would keep intelligent dialogue in the mix and presume that the audience would understand it. “In other words, never play down. Assume the audience is intelligent. Assume it’s curious.”

16:26Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks Terkel about how he became involved with the WPA Writers Project. Terkel speaks about his time with the WPA, what the group did in the 1930s, and different writers who were involved with the project, including Chicagoans Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, and Richard Wright.

19:03Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks about the main objective of the WPA and what kind of subject matter they were documenting. Terkel explains in great detail. He talks about the creation of radio programming through the WPA, the documenting of history, specifically the gathering of oral history, and the government’s involvement with the group. Terkel also talks about the social and political climate at the time and how it was reflected in their work.

25:45Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks whether there was a reason why America began to start looking at itself and documenting what was happening at that point in time. Terkel answers by describing the stock market crash of 1929 and how the government hired all kinds of artists to capture and document what was actually going on. Terkel states, “This is very exciting stuff. There was a thrill to it, and even though there was a depression, you knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel because there was enlightenment up there, in Washington and elsewhere. And for the first time people were involved in governmental work who had never been.” Terkel talks about the general lack of a sense of history among young people today. “We have no sense of past, the young especially, through no fault of theirs. They’ve been deprived of their own history. We get a twenty second sound bite, and that’s wisdom. And as a result, there’s no past. Now ask young kids about the Depression, or about World War II, through no fault of theirs, they don’t know.” Terkel then talks about his main goal in his work of describing what daily life was like for a person or persons living during a certain time.

29:32Copy video clip URL Screen goes to color bars, but the audio continues to come through. Terkel begins to ask the crew a question, but gets cut off by the tape ending.

29:29Copy video clip URL Tape ends.

 

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