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Our Hero Studs Terkel Lives On in Upcoming Video Screenings

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 8, 2012 6:20PM

If the sidearm of choice for the late great Studs Terkel was the tape recorder, he also knew when to call in the artillery of the camera. Through television shows, video documentaries, broadcast discussions and copious interviews, the image of the man became as indelible as his voice.

Chicago's consummate oral historian left a substantial legacy in video form, the largest collection of which his held by the Media Burn Independent Video Archive. Half of the more than 300 hours worth of video in the archive was donated by Studs himself, the other by documentarian and Terkel collaborator Tom Weinberg. Since we are not done observing the 100th anniversary of Terkel's birth, we are happy that Media Burn isn't either, with two upcoming events showcasing their video record of Terkel's legacy.

Studs' insistence on the dignity of every person, especially insofar as they work to survive and provide, shone through in everything he did, but most famously in his book Working. His gift for talking to anyone, and his truly rare talent for listening, was perfectly crystallized in that collection of oral histories. It's a Living, the "video version" of Working made in collaboration with a Chicago documentary collective and screening for free tonight at The Nightingale, is almost as enjoyable for the chance to see and hear the mid 1970s Chicago milieu of the project as for the stories themselves. It's different, but recognizably the same. In fact, the sequence that takes place in an unemployment line couldn't be more relevant to today.

Another of Studs' great legacies was a dedication to the preservation of historical memory and its use in improving the future. As important as it is to remember Studs as a force of nature when he was around, we think he would just as soon ask us to continue his project of doing so towards the end of making our current situation better. On Sunday June 17, a treasure trove of Studs video on tap at the Cultural Center should prove instructive to anyone wanting not just to remember Studs, but to see how he himself used his reminiscences to make the world around him better.

Of course we loved a moment in the first feature on the program, Cities: Studs Terkel’s Chicago when Studs ambles around the Loop talking about the movie palaces of yesteryear which had, by the 70s, "sunk" to showing exploitation films. He fondly recollects the day he graduated from McLaren Public School in 1925, wearing his "first pair of long pants" to go see The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille's spectacular and lurid take on the scriptures. "Talk about exploitation," says Studs. "The more things change, baby, the more they're the same."

Also on the bill are a 25 minute video of Terkel's journey to Pennsylvania to confront a group of parents and students attempting to get Working banned from their school curriculum, two BBC documentaries, a "Best of Studs" compendium and a segment from his 1971 television program, Talkin’ With Terkel. The latter is a real treat, showing Terkel at his very best, facilitating a roundtable with Chicagoans from all walks of life in an actual bar, filled with as much smoke as opinions. A discussion with members of the Terkel Centenary Committee and his close friends and colleagues will also take place.

Whoever you were, Studs wanted to hear your story. We could use more of that spirit today. Every moment spent trying to be more like Studs Terkel is a moment well spent. Every effort to keep alive not just his memory, but his ideals, is an effort worth making. Even if you can't make it to one of these events, spend some of your friday diving into the Studs Terkel video archive online.

It's a Living screens tonight at 7 p.m. at The Nightingale, 1084 N. Milwaukee Ave. The Studs Terkel Film & Video Festival concludes on Sunday, June 17 from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center's Claudia Cassidy Theater, 77 E. Randolph St. Admission to all events is free.