Terkel records winners, losers on stage of life

History: The champion of the stories of little people now rolls his tape recorder for stars in the performing arts.

February 22, 2000|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

The man who has spent his life helping America remember believes that the country has succumbed to "national Alzheimer's" disease.

All information, little knowledge.

And scant wisdom.

"We don't remember anything. There's no yesterday in this country, and I want to re-create those yesterdays," says Studs Terkel, the dean of oral historians whose adventures with a tape recorder have secured the life lessons of hobos, soldiers and losers for all time. "The free market is God now, but we forgot what happened in the 1930s -- that people were crying for the government to save their asses and that the people who condemn government [regulation] always cry the loudest you see, we forget."

To stem our forgetting, the 87-year-old Chicagoan, in Baltimore today for a pair of appearances, has interviewed thousands of people and written a dozen books. Among them is "The Good War," a 1985 volume that won the Pulitzer Prize for its first-person accounts of World War II; "Hard Times," about the Great Depression; "Working" and "Race."

In these books shimmer the great and silent trick of journalism that Terkel has perfected: the interviewer who makes himself invisible.

We talk, Studs listens.

"Sometimes when I'm talking to the so-called ordinary people, those who are capable of extraordinary things, every once in a while there's a great moment," says Terkel. "Once, I interviewed a woman at a public housing project. I can't remember if she was white or black, but she was pretty and had bad teeth.

"She's talking and her little kids are jumping around -- they want to hear Mama's voice. When I play it back, the woman puts her hand to her mouth and says: `Oh, my God, I never knew I felt that way before ."

That, says Terkel, is the jackpot.

Not gossip or titillation -- which sicken him -- but the simple things that move people through an accumulation of days called life.

Terkel's latest book is "The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays With Those Who Made Them" (New Press, 1999), 364 pages of memories from the stage and screen.

Culled from more than 9,000 hours of interviews he has donated to the Chicago Historical Society, "Spectator" covers everyone from Moms Mabley to Marcel Marceau.

"I got on my knees and prayed to God to open a way," says Mabley, the late comedian, in an interview from 1960. "And something said to me: `Go on the stage.' "

And Terkel was waiting backstage with a reel-to-reel.

The author will discuss "Spectator" between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. today on the Marc Steiner Show on WJHU-FM (88.1 FM). Later today, he'll lead a discussion of the book at 7 p.m. at Bibelot in Pikesville (1819 Reisterstown Road).

Reading Terkel is like thumbing through a set of World Book encyclopedias in which every volume is an index of interesting people.

In "Spectator," you will find Buster Keaton, Eubie Blake, Yip "Over the Rainbow" Harburg, Zero Mostel and Tennessee Williams.

A typical chapter concerns the writer William Saroyan and Bill Veeck, legendary baseball executive and friend of the little man. In it, the author of "The Time of Your Life," and the former owner of the St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox both address the dignity of life's losers.

Said Saroyan: "[The play implies] that the only winner is the loser who knows that he's a loser. Who the hell else could possibly win unless he was self-deceived? We're all losers."

From "The Time of Your Life," Veeck told Terkel, he got the idea to erect an exploding scoreboard at Chicago's old Comiskey Park, an electronic gadget that launched fireworks every time one of the Sox hit a home run, which, when Veeck owned the team, wasn't often.

Said Veeck: "We're losers in a country where winning means you're great, you're beautiful, you're moral. Saroyan was saying something. You keep trying and trying and you finally do hit a winner. You hope, you dream suddenly the rockets go off, the bombs burst in air. The loser has his day."

"I interview the incomplete people," is how Terkel describes his work. "What's it like to be a certain person in a certain circumstance? I connect with Geraldine Page in Tennessee Williams' `Sweet Bird of Youth,' and discover her fear of growing old, a beautiful woman, long in the tooth. It's through the art that we know these people, and here I am -- 87, with a new book out and another on the way.

"The difference in this book from all my others is that instead of celebrating the non-celebrated, I'm celebrating the celebrated," he says. "But I talked to Jimmy Cagney the same way I talked to the parking lot attendant. We're losing the passion of these people without even realizing it."

So tune in to Steiner today at 1 p.m. Or show up at Bibelot in Pikesville about six hours later. Tell Studs who you are -- housewife, school teacher, the singer in a band.

And wait for the scoreboard to explode.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.