Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times: An Evening With Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel in conversation with Harry Kreisler, producer of "Conversations with History."  Introduced by Dave Eggers and the students of 826 Valencia. Kreisler interviews Studs Terkel—or rather Terkel unfurls a multitude of inspiring and humorous anecdotes, with Kreisler occasionally managing to interject—before a captive crowd at the University of California at Berkeley.

00:00Copy video clip URL Bob Baldok, from KPFA Free Speech Radio, welcomes the audience to the event and introduces author Dave Eggers, the next to speak. On-screen text lists the sponsors, including the university, KPFA and Mother Jones Magazine.

02:10Copy video clip URL Dave Eggers introduces Terkel, calling his philosophy “listen and ye shall know.” He tells the story of Terkel’s career as a broadcaster, author, and activist, during which time he was accused of being a communist sympathizer and blacklisted. Even so, his daily radio show became a hit, and Terkel interviewed over 9,000 people on-air during its run. “He’s perhaps the most important conduit in the passing from generation to generation of a particularly feisty and essential kind of compassion,” Eggers says.

08:41Copy video clip URL Eggers explains Terkel’s influence on his own life and career as a writer and teacher. Eggers introduces three of his students from 826 Valencia, an after-school creative writing program. The students read aloud from interviews about various people’s impressions of Studs Terkel.

15:42Copy video clip URL Eggers introduces Harry Kreisler, executive director of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and producer of “Conversations with History.”

17:08Copy video clip URL Kreisler and Terkel take the stage. Terkel thanks Eggers for his moving introduction and tells an anecdote about famous violinist Fritz Kreisler. Roger Cohen, editor-in-chief of Mother Jones magazine, presents Terkel with a special award. “Studs embodies the best of American activism,” he says, presenting him with the “Lifetime Hellraiser Award.”

24:32Copy video clip URL Kreisler’s interview begins, asking Terkel about his background. “I was born in 1912. The year the Titanic came down, I went up,” he says. He also talks about his hearing impediment and jokes that it can “do away with euphemisms and get to a higher truth.” He also compares Attorney General John Ashcroft with a witch-hunting character from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”

28:12Copy video clip URL After Terkel’s “soliloquy,” as Kreisler jokes, he asks about the influences on Terkel’s education, including his childhood years spent in a diverse and lively men’s boardinghouse that his mother ran. Terkel shares colorful anecdotes about the union workers who lived in the building and how they inspired his books.

34:01Copy video clip URL Often typecast as a dimwitted gangster for his gravely voice, Terkel talks about his career in radio soap operas and as an “eclectic DJ.” He recounts a brilliant anecdote about his friendship with gospel legend Mahalia Jackson and how he hosted her national radio program on CBS. During a dress rehearsal, in the midst the Cold War-era McCarthyism, a network executive tried to force Terkel to sign a loyalty oath. As a progressive activist, Terkel refused. Jackson told the executive that “If they fire Studs, you tell them to find another Mahalia,” Terkel recalls her saying. “The moral is she said no to the official word, and she had more Americanism in her, more guts … than Daley and all the aldermen put together.”

41:58Copy video clip URL Reading from Terkel’s biography, Kreisler quotes him as saying of the Communist witch hunt, “I was being asked to play the fool … If I am to be the clown I’d rather play it to King Lear than Karl Mundt [congressman who blacklisted performers for Communist leanings].” Terkel asks who said that and, realizing that he did, exclaims, “My God, I forgot that!”

43:04Copy video clip URL Kreisler continues reading from Terkel’s biography, about a thrilling experience acting in a politically-charged play involving a fictional fascist movement. “I’ll never forget the feeling of power, the power that I, a nobody, felt as a somebody,” he says about how he felt in the role, before commenting on modern fascist movements.

47:09Copy video clip URL Kreisler zeros in on a key theme in Terkel’s work: listening to the common man. “By listening, you bestow upon them a kind of respect, a kind of dignity.” Terkel tells a story about interviewing a poor mother living in a housing project whose children wanted to her her voice on his tape recorder. “So she hears her voice for the first time in her life. … She puts her hand to her mouth … and she said, ‘Oh my God, I never knew I felt that way before.’ To me, that’s bingo,” Terkel says.

50:16Copy video clip URL “There’s only one other person [as] addicted to the tape recorder as me, and that was Richard Nixon,” Terkel quips. “Me and Dick are neo-Cartesians. ‘I tape, therefore I am,’ ” he says, before telling about how he convened a panel of burglars to give their expert opinion on the Watergate Break-in. Praising Terkel for understanding “what makes people tick,” Kreisler reads more of his biography. “I’m convinced of the innate intelligence and innate decency of the American people,” Terkel says, explaining why he interviews such a variety of people for his work. He also comments on politics, the “liberal media,” and his latest book about activism called Hope Dies Last.

58:56Copy video clip URL “When you talk to these people, how do you get the quote out of them?” Kreisler asks, citing Terkel’s biography which says “I’m constantly play-acting here with you, talking to the writer.” He also talks about his Chicago influences, calling the city a “seedbed of creativity.” “The two sides of Chicago, one is Jane Addams, the other of [Al] Capone,” he elaborates.

01:02:40Copy video clip URL “We are suffering what I call a ‘national Alzheimer’s disease,’ ” Terkel says, criticizing President Bush. “No memory of yesterday, as if there were no depression.” Terkel also tells an anecdote in which he upbraided a young yuppie couple who, ignorant of history, despise labor unions.

01:07:14Copy video clip URL Calling Terkel “a character in search of characters,” Kreisler praises him for listening to people that most interviewers would ignore. Terkel attributes this to his “transient” lifestyle. He then tells an anecdote about Civil Rights activists. Activists from all eras, in his opinion, constitute “the prophetic minority” of society. “They have that thing called hope. And because they have that thing called hope, others are imbued with it too.”

01:11:35Copy video clip URL Kreisler asks Terkel to read from his latest book, Hope Dies Last, a tribute to activists. He reads a passage about Kathy Kelly, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who protested war at nuclear missile silos in the Middle East.

01:16:54Copy video clip URL As the interview wraps up, Terkel offers to sign books. Before he leaves, the 91-year-old quips, “I guess you want to know how I feel about death. I have my epitaph all set, and my epitaph is this: ‘Curiosity did not kill this cat.’ ” Roll credits.



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