Studs Terkel's On-Air Salon

CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard reviews Studs Terkels new book, The Spectator, a broadloom weave of trade craft secrets and passionate commitment.
Charles Kuralt once told us on CBS News Sunday Morning that when Studs Terkel listens, everybody talks. With a cranky tape recorder and a magic hearing aid, Terkel has been listening his whole life to what people say about old age and the Great Depression, about working and race, about war and dreams.

Mostly the citizens he talks to are those who have never had their say on the morning blurt or the evening blab, the freak shows and chat channels - whove been drowned out by Unabombers and techno-blabbers. They are miners, nurses, loggers and cabbies; pilots, teamsters, ministers and dentists; firefighters, social workers, carpenters and domestics; ex-Communists, ex-priests, black separatists and Ku Klux Klanners; cops and cons.

John Leonard
But in addition Terkel had a radio program, an hour a day, five days a week on WFMT in Chicago, for almost 50 years.

And when he wasnt producing books, or causing trouble, or showing up as a sportswriter in the John Sayles' Black Sox movie Eight Men Out, he went out at night to movies and plays, and then invited back to his studio people whose names we do recognize. From thousands of hours of archival tape, he has fashioned his wonderful new book, The Spectator, a broadloom weave of trade craft secrets and passionate commitment.

These film and theater people love to talk to Terkel because he has memorized every image he saw and note he heard. Arthur Miller confides that he really wanted to be a radio crooner, like Russ Columbo. James Cagney wanted to be a farmer. Carol Channing not only went to Bennington, but while there, she starred as Mrs. Alving in Ibsens Ghosts.

Tennessee Williams shows up straight from a mental asylum to talk about "the San Andreas Fault" inside him. Sam Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Sean OCasey and Eugene ONeill are talked about by Lorraine Hansberry, Edward Albee and August Wilson. Marlon Brando and Arnold Schwarzenegger make fools of themselves. Who else would interview a mime? Marcel Marceau positively babbles.

Although theres lot of Buster Keaton and Zero Mostel, Terkels favorite actor is Spencer Tracy. And surely there's something Bad Day at Black Rock about the roll of his own shoulders and some thirties Chicago gangster, too. Who else would start smoking cigars because he loved their look in the insolent mouths of the Cossacks in a Soviet silent movie?

Reviews by CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard
Oddly enough, what a lifelong radical like Terkel gets from these famous people is the same community and faith he found in the ordinary citizens of his previous books.

If the citizens spoke of resistance and renewal - of organizers of union locals, doctors committed to low-cost health care, teachers who wont quit the inner city, cops acquainted with the social pathology of crime - well Vittorio De Sica wants to make films about poor people. Joan Littlewood wants "a republic of clowns." Uta Hagen, at her free theater, will cry out: "They say, 'I want to be a household name.' I say, "What is that? Lysol? Toilet paper? Bounty? These are household names.' Listen to me, Im shouting."

Whereas, just in time for Thanksgiving, what we get is music and courage, Spencer Tracy, maybe. But Terkel seems to me, at age 87, more like Walt Whitman and his Democratic vistas. Once these strangers start to talk, what he hears is America singing.
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

Comments

Follow Us

On Twitter