[Chicago author interviews: Studs Terkel]

An interview with Studs Terkel for a documentary on Chicago authors. Terkel discusses his work in early Chicago television and radio, specifically his work on Studs' Place, his work as a writer with the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, his thoughts on important Chicago authors and writers of the last century, and his own interviewing style.

00:00Copy video clip URL Tape begins with Studs Terkel in the middle of talking about the actors on Studs’ Place. He felt that the four characters on Studs’ Place represented a microcosm of society, and because of that a broad segment of the television audience could relate to the cast. Terkel goes on to talk about the show in greater detail, specifically how many people thought that Studs’ Place and its characters were actually real. “They thought it was real stuff. They accepted us as real people. The place itself was so real, that twenty, thirty years after, you get off of a bus, you know a couple of old women look at me, and I know they remember the show, and they’re looking like this [Terkel gives a wide eyed, stupefied look]. And even through the windows, bars, they’re mouthing, ‘What happened to Studs’ Place?’ They thought it was a real place. So that was the point, you see, it was a dream, but we made it that way. That was Chicago-style TV.” Terkel then pauses briefly, and says in a very soft, tender tone of voice, as if he truly misses the show, “That was one chapter of my life.”

01:48Copy video clip URL Terkel then moves on to talk about his work in early radio soap operas as the “dumb gangster” who was always getting killed off, which also left Terkel without a job. He then expresses his belief that the work he has ended up with throughout his entire life came to him in a purely fortuitous manner. “One thing or another my whole life has been an accretion of accidents. Writing too, accidental.” Terkel then says in an extremely sincere tone of voice, “And so, that’s the story of my life.”

03:42Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks Terkel to talk about his experiences with the Works Progress Administration. Terkel gives a little history on how the WPA came to be and emphasizes the fact that “big government” stepped in to aid the American people in dealing with the effects of the Great Depression. Terkel gets a little fired up about the fact that many who complain about big government today have no idea how much the government helped their fathers and grandfathers during that time. In the middle of his jab, Terkel stops for a second and says to the interviewer, “I hope you keep this in. You’re going to cut it out I know, but I hope you keep it in, because that’s what it about, we forget.” Terkel then continues to talk about the WPA, how it was set up and what programs were included in the project. Terkel admits that the WPA is more or less how he became a writer.

05:26Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks Terkel to talk about the “Midwestern Voice.” Terkel begins to talk about Mike Royko, a famous newspaper columnist from Chicago, and Nelson Algren, a legendary Chicago author. “Nelson Algren to me is the Bard Chicago. … Nelson was the poet of like all, the world, the Chicago behind the billboards, the Chicago west of the lakefront, and those voices. And of course Mike [Royko], daily, captured those voices.” Terkel then talks a little bit about the strong Slavic influence in Chicago and how it has affected the language. He also tells a story about a New York cab driver with an odd accent.

08:03Copy video clip URL The interviewer then asks about Terkel’s hospitality within his interviewing style. Terkel responds in a boisterous manner, “Oh, well you hit a very tender point. This is important I think. This is the rotten side of me. You have to get that, it is the rotten side of me. See in getting interviews, you’re so taken with the interview, that sometimes you forget, what is that person doing at that moment afterwards, you see. You want to capture the person’s life, and that person gives you his life, which is priceless. There is no money you can pay that would be worth that life he gives.” Terkel then goes on to talk about an interview with a man named Tommy Yates that he did for the book Working. Terkel learned a valuable lesson from this man about integrating a strong sense of hospitality in his interviewing. Terkel also tells a story about his wife and a similar instance in which he did not show enough concern for the sensitivity of the subject matter because of his mind being focused on getting a good interview. In the middle of the story, Terkel gets a phone call and asks for a timeout.

13:18Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks Terkel to talk about what inspirational advice he would give young writers. Terkel responds by saying that he has no advice because there really isn’t any to give. “Everbody works his or her own way.”

14:41Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks Terkel how he would characterize Midwestern literature. Terkel explains that he doesn’t believe it can be truly characterized, but emphasizes Chicago’s importance in Midwestern writing. He then talks a little bit about his opinion that America is ignorant of its own history. “There’s no memory of past. I say we’re suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease. There’s no yesterday.” The interviewer asks whether Terkel has seen any disturbing trends in society recently. Terkel talks about the fact that many younger people are anti-union. He then tells a colorful story about waiting for the morning bus with an extremely unreceptive couple. “I know this couple because I wait on the same bus as them every day. I can’t make conversation with them, and you know I like to talk. I like to talk and there’s no response.” Terkel slowly leans in to the camera and says, “Sometimes I talk to myself, and I find the audience very appreciative.” The couple expresses anti-union sentiment. Terkel argues with them and emphasizes the fact that people are ignorant of the past. He then ends with a strong point,”That’s the disturbing trend. The break between past and present. The erasure of past, and that’s to me what a writer should talk about, anybody should, and that’s what it’s about. That’s my sermon for today.”

21:07Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks Terkel if any of his interview subjects really stood out to him over the years. Terkel begins to describe an interview that took place between himself and C.P. Ellis, former Grand Cyclops of the Klu Klux Klan. It’s a beautiful story about Ellis and his journey from being a racist Klan member to becoming a tolerant business manager in a predominantly African-American work environment. Terkel fondly recounts the story, capturing what this man and those affected by his actions went through.

28:08Copy video clip URL Tape ends.



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