Studs Terkel’s death was met with an extraordinary outpouring of praise and affection–not only full-page articles in this country’s and England’s leading newspapers but in spontaneous comments called in to his old Chicago FM station, WFMT.
It took the obituaries to remind most people how incredibly popular Studs was in the early days of TV. Having started in the 1930s as a small-time radio actor, a time remembered affectionately and very funnily in his last book, P.S., just published, he went on in 1949 to star in an early TV show, Studs’ Place, one of the great hits of what was known as the Chicago school of TV. Spontaneous and largely unscripted, it should have led to a lifelong career in this new medium. But Joe McCarthy was on the prowl, and the networks were petrified. Studs–who, as he joked, never met a petition he didn’t like–was a clear target. Forsaking the many opportunities offered him to knuckle under, Studs deliberately entered years of bare survival in the wilderness. It was still such a painful memory that when I suggested he try an oral history of those years, Studs refused. Only late in his life, with his memoir Touch and Go, was he willing to revisit that difficult time, doing so with humor and no bitterness, praising the few who, like Mahalia Jackson, had stood up for him. But the anger never left him, understandably enough.
Studs overcame the McCarthy period with his remarkable daily WFMT radio show, interviewing authors, actors and famous visitors to his city. He was so hardworking and perceptive that guests, like New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury, would say that they sounded better talking to him than in anything they’d written.
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