The Studs Terkel Centenary: Chicago Celebrates Legendary Studs Terkel

The Studs Terkel Centenary: Chicago Celebrates Legendary Studs Terkel

May 16th marks the 100th anniversary of Studs Terkel’s birth and an occasion to memorialize one of the most prolific writers and cultural critics in the history of Chicago letters. As an author, broadcaster and oral historian, legendary Chicagoan Studs Terkel celebrated the lives of ordinary Americans. Some of Terkel’s many friends and fans are hoping to return the favor with a series of events marking the 100th birthday of a man whose work is a chronicle of the 20th century.

The Studs Terkel Centenary, a group headed up by Terkel’s friends, including Chicago Tribune reporter Rick Kogan, on Saturday will rededicate the Division Street Bridge, which was named after Terkel 20 years ago. On Wednesday, The Newberry Library will host a birthday party featuring guest speakers who will share stories about Studs. Terkel’s friends will ensure that his memory lives on with a day of Studs-only programming on WFMT-FM on his birthday, with performances of passages from Terkel’s 2001 book Will the Circle Be Unbroken? at Steppenwolf Theatre next week and by phoning in personal anecdotes about Terkel to a hotline set up by Chicago’s Hull House Museum.

A Tribute: Remembering Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel: The Human Voice (StoryCorps)

Remembering Studs Terkel: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

The New York Times reported that Chicago’s legendary Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose searching interviews with ordinary Americans helped establish oral history as a serious genre, and who for decades was the enthusiastic host of a popular nationally syndicated radio show on WFMT-FM in Chicago, died at his home at the age of 96.

In his oral histories, which he called guerrilla journalism, Mr. Terkel relied on his effusive but gentle interviewing style to bring forth in rich detail the experiences and thoughts of his fellow citizens. For more than the four decades, Studs produced a continuous narrative of great historic moments sounded by an American chorus in the native vernacular.

Division Street: America (1966), his first best seller, explored the urban conflicts of the 1960s. Its success led to Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970) and Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974).

Mr. Terkel’s book The Good War: An Oral History of World War II won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. In Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times (1977), Terkel turned the microphone on himself to produce an engaging memoir. In Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (1992) and Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It (1995), he reached for his ever-present tape recorder for interviews on race relations in the United States and the experience of growing old.

In 1985, a reviewer for The Financial Times of London characterized his books as “completely free of sociological claptrap, armchair revisionism and academic moralizing.” The amiable Mr. Terkel was a gifted and seemingly tireless interviewer who elicited provocative insights and colorful, detailed personal histories from a broad mix of people. “The thing I’m able to do, I guess, is break down walls,” he once told an interviewer. “If they think you’re listening, they’ll talk. It’s more of a conversation than an interview.”

Readers of his books could only guess at Mr. Terkel’s interview style. Listeners to his daily radio show, which was first broadcast on WFMT-FM in 1958, got the full flavor as Studs, with both breathy eagerness and a tough-guy Chicago accent, went after the straight dope from guests like Sir Georg Solti, Muhammed Ali, Mahalia Jackson, the young Dob Dylan, Toni Morrison and Gloria Steinem.

The entire New York Times article can be read here.

Rick Kogan has written a detailed article in The Chicago Tribune, which can be read here.

Studs Terkel’s website at The Chicago Historical Society can be accessed here.

Studs Terkel’s (1970) WFMT-FM radio interview with me (Patrick Zimmerman) can be heard here. Parts of this radio interview later become a selection (pp. 489-493) in Terkel’s acclaimed book, Working:

Audio: Part I of The Radio Interview

Audio: Part II of The Radio Interview

Studs Terkel: Remembering His Life and Times

Conversations about Studs Terkel (2004)

Studs Terkel: About the Human Spirit (2002)

Studs Terkel: The Pioneering Broadcaster

Music Audio: Mavis Staples/Hard Times

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In the Shadows of the Bowery: The Old Bow’ry Fades Away

In the Shadows of the Bowery: The Old Bow’ry Fades Away

When you open the door to a small hotel at 104-106 on the Bowery, you’ll be entering what used to be called the Stevenson Hotel.  A tiny cubicle in the Stevenson was for decades the home to a Greek immigrant named George Skoularikos, perhaps best known for staunchly taking a years-long stand against moving, by eviction or otherwise.  It’s a building that’s been renovated, reconfigured and turned upside down over the generations, always to meet the financial ambitions of the owner of the moment.  Planted like a mature oak tree along an old Indian footpath that became the Bowery, it provides somber testimony to the essential truth of Manhattan: that change is the only constant.

The building dates back at least to the early 1850s, when the Bowery was a swaggering commercial strip of butchers, clothiers and entertainment venues, with territorial gangs that frequently fought one another.  The area used to be home to sometimes rowdy music halls, as well as a series of ethnic theaters.  But the theaters, music halls and small museums built to lure the tourist trade all gradually faded away from the Bowery.

In their place, the Bowery increasingly became the place for men with nowhere else to go, thousands and thousands of them, from war veterans to failed grandiose would-be architects of a new universe.  Large numbers of  the lost souls sought comfort from their dismal feelings of personal defeat in the deadening effects of alcohol and, later, drugs. These abject cast-offs from society found cheap beds, chicken-wire cubicles and brotherhood in the flophouses that masqueraded as hotels.

And the flophouses remained a mainstay of the Bowery for decades, even as wholesale restaurant suppliers and lighting-fixture stores moved onto the street.  However, beginning in the late 1970’s many of the flophouses began to disappear, as the ever-encroaching spread of gentrification claimed loft space and constructed a number of sparkling residential buildings for wealthier residents.

Now, the raucous sounds of a boulevard shadowed by a cinder-showering elevated train track and peopled by swaggering sailors, working-class laborers, fresh immigrants and predatory con men have grown increasingly faint.  In the new urban morning light, the boisterous old sounds have become ghosts receding into the walls.  A new day has dawned on the Bowery.

In the Shadows of the Bowery: The Old Bow’ry Fades Away

Music by Casey Neil/Stevenson Hotel:

Interested readers can learn more about the history of the Bowery, as viewed through a wonderful, colorful narrative about the old Stevenson Hotel in The New York Times here.

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