Saturday, November 1, 2008

Lighting up the Little Man

He was walking anthology of all things Chicago
November 1, 2008
BY NEIL STEINBERG Sun-Times Columnist
Studs Terkel turned the voice of average Americans into a font of history.
Studs Terkel, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, television pioneer, theatrical actor and radio host for nearly half a century, passed away at his Chicago home. (Roger Ebert/Sun-Times)
The Pulitzer-Prize winning author, television pioneer, theatrical actor, long-time radio host, unrepentant leftie and friend of the little man, died peacefully at his home on the North Side of Chicago this afternoon. He was 96.
"He had a very full, eventful and sometimes tempestuous life ," said his son Dan. "It was very satisfactory" Studs — calling him "Mr. Terkel" always seemed overly formal — was a character. He liked to wear a red-checked shirt, a rumpled suit and had a stogie jammed in the side of his thick-lipped mouth. He enjoyed a martini well into his 90s.
Though his dozen books were national best-sellers — Division Street America, and Working and The Good War — Studs was best known to many Chicagoans as an interviewer who hosted a talk show on radio station WFMT from 1952 to 1997.
He was born in New York City, ironically enough, on May 16, 1912 and christened Louis Terkel. When he was eight, the family moved to Chicago, where his parents, Sam and Anna, ran the Wells-Grand Hotel.
He later said that while he was "legally born" in New York, he came alive when he moved to Chicago.
Studs spent his youth among the odd collection of hotel guests, some seeking work, others avoiding it. He credited his unusual residence with sparking within him an interest in the personal stories of regular people.
He graduated from the University of Chicago School of Law, though he never practiced. Studs instead turned his energies toward the theater, appearing in 1934 in the groundbreaking Clifford Odet's play "Waiting For Lefty.''
During the Depression he worked on the Federal Writers' Project and performed in radio soap operas, usually portraying a gangster.
It was around this time that he adopted the nickname "Studs" after James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy.
While still a struggling actor in Chicago in 1939, Studs met and married a social worker and activist named Ida Goldberg. The couple had one son, Dan Terkell, who later added an extra "l'' to his last name. Ida Terkel died in 1999.
After he served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, entertaining troops, Studs began a pioneering broadcasting career in television and a 45-year long association with WFMT.
"Studs Place,'" an NBC program airing from 1950 to 1953 helped establish Studs as a nationally-known personality. "Studs Place" was a loosely-plotted comedy set in a fictional Chicago barbecue joint. But Studs' past came back to cut short his future in television — his socialist activities of the 1930s were seized upon by witch-hunting anti-communists who pressured NBC to drop his TV show, despite solid ratings, and Studs was blacklisted and unable to find steady work for the next several years.
"To give you an idea of the fear," Studs told the Sun-Times in 1976, "an important soap opera producer once asked me to do some test scripts. I did them, but the sponsor said, 'No, we can't use him' The producer berated me, as if it were my fault, 'How come you didn't tell me?' That's how deep the fear was."
Unable to find work in television, Studs eked out a living making speeches.
But even there, Studs was often hounded by Edward Clamage of the Illinois American Legion, who would tell sponsors of Studs' talks that they were hiring a "dangerous subversive."
"Sometimes I would get cancelled and other times they would let me speak," Studs recalled. "Then I'd write a letter to Clamage: 'Clamage, it comes to my attention that you are at it once again. Thanks to you, my fee was raised from $100 to $200. I owe you an agent's fee. Signed Terkel.' It wasn't true of course, but it made him furious. It was a way of getting back."
Studs credited his blacklisting experience for his future prominence as a writer.
"In a strange way, it helped me," Studs recalled. "I probably would never have gotten into writing books otherwise, or into WFMT. I was never publically pilloried; I was able to continue to make a living."
He developed an interviewing style often referred to as "oral history," becoming a virtuoso of the tape recorder.
Studs' first major work was Division Street America, in 1966. Later books included Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), Talking to Myself (1977), American Dreams: Lost and Found (1980) and The Good War: An Oral History of World War II, the volume that won him his Pulitzer in 1985.
His last book, P.S. — Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening, is being published Monday.
Studs also was a recipient of the Peabody Award, the Prix Italia, the UNESCO Award for best program on East-West values and the University of Chicago Communicator of the Year Award.
Studs once said of his writing technique:
"A tape recorder is a revolutionary instrument. It's no good for a talk with a movie actress or a politician, because they're so plastic. But a tape recorder on the steps of a housing project is something else again. There a person who a moment ago was just a statistic starts talking to you and becomes human, becomes a person. Then it gets exciting."
Studs said in 1980: "If there's something I want to do, it's create a sense of continuity — that there is a past and a present and that there may be a future. And that there isn't any present unless you know the past."
As far as social justice goes.
"I'm on a quest," he said. "I'm Don Quixote. Of course I want to tilt at windmills. I want to tilt at other things. It's the Don Quixotes of the world — call them the seekers of the ideal — who keep the juices going, give them pepper, the salt, change it for the good."
His son said a celebration of his life will be scheduled in a few months.

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