The Great Spectator

"IS IT ON? Are you sure it's running?"

Studs Terkel points down at a black Panasonic microcassette recorder sitting between a juice glass and a cup of black coffee on a small breakfast table at the St. Paul Hotel. He bends his head a bit to see if the capstans are spinning. "When there's sound in the background, I always like to test it," Terkel continues, "because I goof up so often."

To neglect Terkel's interviewing advice would be a goof-up indeed: The Chicago radio host, live television pioneer, stage performer, and august oral historian has spent prodigious amounts of time in front of a live microphone. As of January 1, 1998, however, after 45 years on Chicago's WFMT, Terkel has gone into retirement--sort of. "I left WFMT, maybe prematurely," Terkel sighs, then smiles and shrugs. "I'm 85, and I'm saying I left prematurely."

Yet Terkel's idea of retirement sounds like what anyone else would call a full-time job: He'll be reviewing and cataloguing some eight or nine thousand hours of interviews for the Chicago Historical Society while producing specials on Chicago's public radio station, WBEZ, and working on two books (The Spectator, a work about his relationship to the movies and the stage, and Talking to Myself, an oral memoir).

And this Saturday morning, the last weekend of St. Paul's Winter Carnival, Terkel is preparing for a repeat appearance on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. True to the show's name, the performance represents a homecoming of sorts; in the 1930s, Terkel began his radio career acting in Chicago serials like Ma Perkins and Road of Life.

He is prepared for the afternoon show already, dressed in the red checked shirt that is something of a trademark, a script bulging from the outside pocket of his sport coat. He'll be reading poems by William Butler Yeats and Robert Frost, and the selection from the latter, that melancholic and misunderstood chestnut "The Road Not Taken," has an odd resonance for Terkel. "My whole life is an accretion of accidents," he explains.

After graduating the University of Chicago during the Depression, Terkel enrolled at the law school with dreams of becoming the next Clarence Darrow. Instead, he failed his first bar exam--"which 90 percent of people passed," he points out, self-deprecatingly--and after graduation was refused a job as a fingerprint classifying clerk at the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington. A profile in Double Take magazine recounts how a law professor had informed the F.B.I. that Terkel was not "the best type of boy"; Terkel thus "missed [his] big chance to go to work for that American idol, J. Edgar Hoover."

Breakfast arrives--lavishly garnished and yolkless eggs (two years ago, Terkel underwent quintuple bypass surgery)--and he marvels at the needless bounty of the thing. "This is big-time stuff," the chronicler of the Depression announces cheerfully. "Big time. Look at that! That's breakfast?"

In brief eating intermissions--the plate is enormous--Terkel worries a pair of worn rubber bands on his right wrist. "It's just a fetish," he explains. "Me and Harold Washington, the mayor of Chicago--he had them too. I was close to him. He was wonderful: a mayor of Chicago who read books. That alone made him unique."

And Terkel, by collecting the stories of the country's anonymous and famous alike, cuts a singular national figure himself. Though he speaks with the poetic repetitions and rhythmic certainty of a veteran "disc jockey" (as he prefers to identify himself), the experience of conversing with Terkel is not unlike that of talking to any other garrulous acquaintance about arts and letters. Except, of course, that every name which comes to the floor--Leadbelly, Gwendolyn Brooks, Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Saul Bellow, John Kenneth Galbraith, Marlon Brando, Gordon Parks--proves a friend of Terkel's, or has shared a stage, or sat for an interview on the radio show.

"We're suffering right now from a national Alzheimer's disease," Terkel says of these figures from his past. But before he can wax nostalgic--"every old gaffer says what I say!"--the concerns of the moment interrupt him, and he gestures at the tape recorder, the long-time tool of his trade.

"Are you sure that thing is going?"

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