Steven G. Kellman on Studs Terkel

The Spectator reviewed

THE SPECTATOR:Talk About Movies And Plays

A volume of interviews with show business people might be an invitation to fluff and puffery. Contemporary colloquies with celebrities tend to be as ritualistic as ancient invocations of the oracle, but without much enlightenment. A session arranged with Barbara Walters is often promotion disguised as revelation. Is there any question that Demi Moore has not yet heard, any lasting truth she is prepared to bare?

At eighty-seven, Studs Terkel has still not quenched the curiosity that drives thousands of extraordinary conversations on the one-hour radio show he has been broadcasting five days a week for forty-five years from WFMT in Chicago. Syndication has made its exuberant host, as much a local landmark as Wrigley Field, a national treasure. When Terkel talks, people listen. But so does he; every question is a follow-up, an informed response to what his guest has just been saying. Before speaking with authors, Terkel even makes a point of reading their books, and he knows the oeuvre when he chats with an actor. When he casually recalls that Bruno Ricci is the little boy whose father’s bike is snatched in The Bicycle Thief, director Vittorio De Sica exults: “I am so enthusiastic over you because you remember the name of my characters.” Though born Louis Terkel in New York, De Sica’s interlocutor is universally identified with Chicago and as “Studs,” the nickname he inherited from James T. Farrell’s fictional Studs Lonigan. The affection felt by those who chat with him is infectious, and, though I have met him, briefly, only once — at a fundraiser in Austin for the Observer — it seems priggish to call this fellow anything else but Studs. No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest, he is the Walt Whitman of the radio waves.

Through eight books of oral history, Studs has coaxed out collective memories of the Depression, World War II, race relations, and work, among other weighty subjects. But The Spectator, which collects interviews with more than three dozen movie and theater people that Studs has conducted throughout his career and throughout the world, is cast in a lighter key than Working, Race, Hard Times, “The Good War,” and Division Street: America. The volume has some of the feel of filler, of recycled miscellany that could not find a home in My American Century, the 1997 anthology of what Studs considered his best interviews.

An “Overture,” in which he rambles through his own early memories of theatre and movies in Chicago, is a bit too self-indulgent. And the book itself meanders — sometimes brilliantly, as when Alan Schneider’s memories of directing the American debut of Waiting for Godot at a dinner theatre in Miami are immediately followed by Gilbert Moses’ recollections of performing the same play for black audiences in rural Mississippi and Rick Cluchey’s of performing it in San Quentin. The text jumps around in space and time, and it is sometimes difficult to determine who is speaking, when. Yet for all that, it is a fascinating fugue performed by men and women whom Studs respects. A former actor, he is well aware that performing, directing, and writing, too, are work, and The Spectator constitutes compelling oral history of a field that has shaped the culture more than have most others. This is a more specialized sequel to the 1974 collection Working, in which now, instead of an unsung skycap, welder, and gravedigger, it is James Cagney, Moms Mabley, and Zero Mostel who explain how they earn their living. A marriage of form and content, this book about entertainment itself entertains.

It entertains the notion that the performing arts are not an escape from social responsibility so much as an affirmation of it. “The theater is an expression of the deepest feelings of men and the community that you can have and share together,” contends director and critic Harold Clurman. “What’s more entertaining, more exhilarating and engaging, than the love of the community?” In his 1978 interview, Clurman appears to be speaking not only to but for the interviewer. Transcription into print erases the distinctive timbres in the voices of Carol Channing, Lila Kedrova, Satyajit Ray, and Jacques Tati. Many of the sessions preserved in The Spectator are less interviews than conversations between equals, and many of the show business people end up sounding so much like Studs himself that it is sometimes difficult to determine which head in the tête-à-tête is doing the talking — in part because Studs has chosen to speak with people who are already simpatico and in part because after a few minutes of chatting with this unpretentious guy almost everyone ends up echoing his passions and convictions.

Thus, the claim that, “Genuine heroism must naturally emerge when you tell the truth about people” could serve as a gloss on Studs’ entire career, but it is what Lorraine Hansberry tells him in 1959, shortly after the opening of A Raisin in the Sun. In 1964, English director Joan Littlewood expresses a credo that validates Studs’ own passionate, lifelong commitment to drawing out the authentic stories of steelworkers, hookers, and janitors as well as movie stars: “Before I die, I’d like to push open the door, so that people can see the absurdities of the calcified turds and recognize the genius in themselves.” A proud and quirky English leftist, actor Robert Morley celebrates the spirit of independence that makes Studs stand out amid the numbing buzz of American radio: “As long as my children haven’t liked school, I’ve always smiled, because the child that conforms to school conforms to life, and there’s nothing more gloomy than somebody who conforms to life.”

The arbitariness of life compels William Saroyan toward compassion: “You don’t have much choice in the accident of identity. That’s why it’s so important for all of us to find it in our hearts to be patient and to try to understand and to love people that are exactly the opposite of ourselves.” In that vein, though Studs’ encounter with Arnold Schwarzenegger must have tested his patience, he transcribes it without interruption or overt exasperation. After fondly recalling his boyhood dream of becoming the most muscular man in the world, the Austrian immigrant explains, without pumping irony, his infatuation with the United States: “You have the best tax advantages here and the best prices here and the best products here.” Like the philistine businessman in The Graduate who insists that “plastics” is all that Dustin Hoffman needs to know, Schwarzenegger repeats the phrase “real estate” in a kind of incantation: “That’s my love, real estate.” When the brawny actor tries to wax philosophical, the tradition of Plato, Descartes, Hume, and Kant begins to wane: “I am a strong believer in Western philosophy, the philosophy of success, of progress, of getting rich.”

Studs refutes this naive pitch for avarice merely by following it immediately with the feisty words of actress Uta Hagen, railing against a culture in which “money is the only thing that gives you a merit badge.” Songwriter E. P. (Yip) Harburg, too, sees commerce as inimical to art: “With the Crash, I realized that the greatest fantasy of all was business…. When I lost my possessions, I found my creativity.” Hagen urges young artists to rebel against commercialization, and, far from embracing Schwarzenegger’s faith in real estate, she seizes on the business as synecdoche for all exploitation: “Don’t be slaves to realtors, producers who treat you like a piece of caca.” At seventy-five (seven years younger than Studs was in 1994, when this interview took place), Hagen declares: “One of the reasons I’m still full of beans is because I’m passionate about my beliefs. I’m happier in the pursuit of these goals than people who are pursuing their own belly buttons, their own success, without having a cause. They’re chasing their tails.”

Studs rhapsodizes over remembered performances — like John Barrymore’s in My Dear Children and Barbara Stanwyck’s in Burlesque — that seem distractions from his ardent interests in social justice. When Arthur Miller tells him, “I don’t care for a theatre that is absolutely personal and has no resonance beyond that,” he is giving voice to an aesthetic of commitment that Studs (reminded by Miller that the Greeks reserved the word “idiot” for those who were nonpolitical) obviously shares. But Studs also seems able to reconcile that with a contrary impulse, one drawn toward performance space not as, in Edward Albee’s words, “an arena of engagement,” but an oasis of exquisite pleasure. In Federico Fellini’s formulation: “I am not only concerned with social implications: I care for the poetry in us.” Mime Marcel Marceau summons up eloquent words to find, in fantasy and truth, the contrasting appeals of movies and theatre: “In the movies, people want illusions through reality. In the theatre, they find reality through illusions.”

The Spectator revels in retailing splendid details, vivid anecdotes: how Carlotta O’Neill chose José Quintero to direct Long Day’s Journey into Night because his narrow wrists resembled her late husband’s; how young William Saroyan was never the same after a stranger handed him a silver dollar. The book’s language — as when Tennessee Williams observes, “I’m a man who has the San Andreas Fault built into him” — can sometimes make you quake. The cumulative effect is to reaffirm that performance is the way we heighten life by disturbing the peace.

Steven G. Kellman is Ashbel Smith Professor of Comparative Literature at U.T.-San Antonio and co-editor of Leslie Fiedler and American Culture.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth.

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Published at 12:00 am CST