:: Article

A real life character

By Robert O’Connor.


[This is part of a series on the complete works of Studs Terkel. The last book was Coming of Age.]

Before he was a broadcaster, Studs was an actor, first on the stage and then on the radio. He joined the Chicago Repertory Theater out of law school and later got work in radio soap operas. During the CRT’s production of Waiting for Lefty when there was another Louis in the cast that he first got the name “Studs.” He had been enamored by James T. Farrell’s trilogy on Studs Lonigan, and the director called him “Studs” to differentiate him from the other Louis.

Studs kept up his interest in the theater, and he had a life-long love of movies. Chaplin’s tramp was one of his heroes. Regrettably, Studs never interviewed Chaplin, or he would have included it in his book on the stage, The Spectator. Like Chaplin, Studs had his own unique costume, and he was often compared in life and death to a real life character. His rumpled suit, red shirt, red sweater and top hat helped him become a great American character while he sought other ones out.


Studs notes that the book is different from the others in that most of the people in The Spectator are “celebrated people” as opposed to the people he wanted to celebrate – who he called “the uncelebrated people.” Indeed, most of the people in this one are recognizable and well known.

Working, the book where he focused the most on the “uncelebrated people,” has a poem at the beginning by Bertolt Brecht which sums up why Studs was doing the book:

Who built the seven towers of Thebes?
The books are filled with the names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
In the evenings when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go?

Brecht wrote the words of The Threepenny Opera, while Kurt Weill wrote the music. Weil’s wife, Lotte Lenya is interviewed in the book.

The Spectator was supposed to be a trilogy of books on the arts. According to a 2000 article in the LA Times, the future books were to be named The Listener about musicians and The Reader about authors. The Listener was eventually retitled And They All Sang while The Reader has met an unknown fate. The Spectator differs from previous books in that most of the interviews in her are taken from radio interviews rather than from original ones made especially for the book.

The Studs Terkel Program came to an end in 1997, and Studs donated its entire archive, and the museum is thanked at the beginning, much like And They All Sang does later.

And like And They All Sang, The Spectator has an introduction by someone else, in this one by Gary Willis, a fellow Pulitzer Prize winner and a writer on American history. He’s also a fellow Chicagoan, and lauds Studs’ work as well as the book in the introductory essay.

Some of the interviews have appeared in previous books – Arnold Schwarzenegger’s interview from American Dreams, Pauline Kael’s from The Good War and Yip Harburg’s from Hard Times are a few examples.

Pauline Kael’s interview appears just after a reprint of Studs’ review of The Deer Hunter he wrote for Chicago magazine. He absolutely lambasted the film for its depiction of the Vietnamese, saying “not since The Birth of a Nation has a non-Caucasian people been portrayed in so barbaric a fashion…The difference between The Birth of a Nation and the Deer Hunter is the difference between D. W. Griffith and Michael Cimino. One was a genius who was also a racist. The other is simply a cheap-shot artist.”

Willis singles this review out in the intro, saying Cimino’s next film, Heaven’s Gate revealed Cimino as the cheap-shot artist he was, but Studs saw it before everyone in The Deer Hunter.

Lillian Gish, the star of The Birth of a Nation is also interviewed. She defends her former boss as an innovator who showed the power of storytelling on film. She also praises Griffith’s next film, Intolerance as the greatest film ever made. When Studs mentioned the casual racism of Birth of a Nation, she replied, “He was from the south, you know.”

The last interview in the book is with the most unknown person in the book, Burr Tillstrom. Burr was the creator of Kulka, Fran and Ollie, a TV show made in Chicago which, along with Studs’ show Studs’ Place is considered one of the high points of Chicago-style television. Around the time the book came out, Studs sat down for a life history interview with the Archive of American Television (part 1, part 2, part 3) where he talked about Tillstrom and Studs’ Place.

Tillstrom talks about his creations, Kukla and Ollie as if they were real people. He says that the right hand is the responsible one, and the left hand is the dreamer. Kukla, who he played with his right hand was the responsible one, and Ollie, his left, was the dreamer. At points in the interviews he speaks as Ollie or one of his other puppets Ophelia Oglepuss. Fran was played by Fran Allison.

Studs’ Place was cancelled in 1953 due to the red scare. Studs tells a story at the very end that got a job on a late-night show, and one night Tillstrom called him and said “Madame Oglepuss has confided to me that she’d love to appear on your program.” She did, and when Studs asked Tillstrom how he liked the show. He didn’t respond. But when he asked Mme. Oglepuss how she felt about it, Tillstrom exclaimed “She loved it!”

[Note: In 2008, a new edition of “The Spectator” changed the title to “The Studs Terkel Interviews: Film and Theater.” Next: Studs looks at death, dying and what it means for the living in Will the Circle Be Unbroken?]


profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 26th, 2012.