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Curtain Call With Terkel | The Nation

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Curtain Call With Terkel

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Charles Kuralt, who got around a lot himself but wore out faster, once remarked: "When Studs Terkel listens, everybody talks." Not so many years ago, in fact, we asked Kuralt to review a Studs book for these pages. Kuralt said he would, and then he died. This was shortly after we had asked Murray Kempton to review an earlier Studs book. Kempton also said he would; then he died, too. Maybe I'd better finish this before the moving finger sticks it to me.

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John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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In The Spectator, a compendium of forty-five years of wonderful conversations with film and theater people--to be followed by a similar volume on writers--the everybodies who talk to Studs actually include a mime. Marcel Marceau positively babbles, not only about such antecedent white clowns as Harlequin, Pierrot and Punch, and not only about silent screen stars like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but also about Mozart, Shakespeare, Bach, Chekhov, Molière, Picasso, Einstein, Dickens and Don Quixote. In 1960, it was hard to shut Marcel up:

There is something of Pirandello in what I do: that we are not one man, but we are many. We have not one face, but many.... We change. It is inevitable. I am very happy to grow a little older. I was just thirty-seven this month. People say the more you grow in age, the more you lose possibilities. I would say it's the contrary. That is the great drama for human people. The more you grow in age, the more you grow in spirit and in your experiences, but the less you grow in your physical possibilities. This great divorce makes the tragedy of man. If you could combine wise people and the power of youth, the world could live in harmony. And you would not give to people who are older the complex that they are no more useful to society. It is the problem of Faust, of Goethe.

Of course, while Goethe and Mozart were unavailable, Studs had already talked to Buster Keaton, and follows up with Jacques Tati and Zero Mostel. And he interrupts himself in the middle of Zero to excerpt a later chat with Eugene Ionesco--"A writer can't give up food already digested. He gives the audience raw meat"--after which Zero hits him: "I just hit Studs on the arm...[Into the microphone]: Again I hit him!" And then, as though to spin the bottle on mimes and clowns, Terkel concludes with a puppeteer/ventriloquist, Burr Tillstrom, who will reminisce on everything from the WPA Federal Theatre to Jane Addams at Hull House to Thornton Wilder at the University of Chicago directing something called Identity or I Am Because My Little Dog Knows Me, a play for puppets by Gertrude Stein.

Did you know that Gertrude Stein wrote a play for puppets? That Thornton Wilder once advised Ruth Gordon to get up early in the morning so that "other people don't breathe up all the air"? That Arthur Miller wanted to be a radio crooner, like Russ Columbo? That James Cagney wanted to be a farmer and enrolled at an agricultural school? That Sybil Thorndike would rather have been a concert pianist? That Eubie Blake, whose 1921 all-black musical Shuffle Along had Josephine Baker in the chorus line and Paul Robeson in a quartet, first wrote "I'm Just Wild About Harry" as a waltz? That Carol Channing went to Bennington, where she played Mrs. Alving in Ibsen's Ghosts, as well as Joan of Arc? Or that Henry George was Agnes DeMille's grandfather?

There is something of Pirandello in what Studs does, too, as though in his books on old age and the Great Depression, on working and race, on war and dreams, he always seeks the authentic individual beneath the "naked mask," behind the imposition of a social role. (Except that, unlike Luigi, he's never despondent. To all this splendid shoptalk, he brings a radical bonhomie. And the shoptalkers tend to reciprocate, finding in their performance of whatever craft not fabrication, not delusion, but the contours and grain of citizenship.) And there is something of Proteus, the original Old Man of the Sea, who knew everything about the past, present and future. (Except that Studs shifts shapes--from witness to reporter to advocate to fan--not to duck our questions, but the better to spill the beans. So he is part Ancient Mariner as well, buttonholing strangers at the wedding, thumping them with a left-wing albatross.) But there is something even more of Walt Whitman and his Democratic Vistas, because once these strangers start to talk, what Studs hears is America singing. He is less an oral than an oratorio historian.

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