Studs in Chicago’s RhinoFest

This weekend marks the opening of Chicago’s 26th Annual RhinoFest, the “longest-running multi-arts fringe festival in Chicago.”  “Terkelogues,” a show featuring content from Studs’s interviews with comedian/actor Zero Mostel and painter Gertrude Abercrombie, can be seen Sunday, January 25 at 7pm and Sunday, February 8 at 3pm.  As is fitting for a festival that takes place each year in January and February, “Terkelogues” considers blizzards, power failures, being ill and stuck in bed – and the inefficiency and liberation that accompany a snow day.  The play is co-directed by our own Tony Macaluso, the Director of the Studs Terkel Radio Archive.

Gertrude Abercrombie was a Chicago native.  She got her start painting with the Federal Arts Project, and continued to work in a surrealistic style until her death in 1977.  She was great friends with many jazz artists, including Dizzy Gillespie and Milt Jackson; Richie Powell’s “Gertrude’s Bounce” was written about her.  Zero Mostel, perhaps best known for his Tony Award-winning portrayal of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” was interviewed by Studs Terkel in 1961 when he was in Chicago as part of the Broadway cast of Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinocerous,” (in another Tony-Award winning role).  The production took a four-week break from Broadway and came to Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Playhouse.  How fitting that the interview will now be a part of Chicago’s own RhinoFest.

For additional information about the production, you can read Thomas Willis’s article in the Chicago Tribune from August 6, 1961.  And of course you can listen to the Mostel interview below.  Hope to see you at RhinoFest!

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Three Questions about Studs Terkel

This post introduces a new series in which members of the Studs Terkel Radio Archive staff reflect on their experiences listening to and reading Studs Terkel.  We hope that this series helps our readers get to know those of us “behind the scenes,” but we also hope that it continues the curious and conversational spirit of Studs’ work.

This first post features responses from Tony Macaluso, Director of the Studs Terkel Radio Archive.

When did you first hear/read Studs Terkel?

I remember clearly being 16 or 17 years old, first being able to drive and going on expeditions from the suburbs to go see plays at all the great little experimental theaters in Chicago back in the late 1980s when the area around Clark and Belmont was a hub of inventive arts (long gone, those days).

We’d often be driving back around 10 pm and I that was when Studs program had recently start being rebroadcast (in addition to his 10 am slot). While I can’t recall the very first time I heard Studs, I quickly realized that there was this guy who seemed to know all the writers, musicians, scholars, political activists and historic epochs that I was just discovering and then a hundred times more.

To find someone on the radio who could go from talking about experimental theater (Samuel Beckett or Brecht on the radio), who could put Louis Armstrong or John Cage… it was easy to be enchanted and then the next week to go the library and go searching for books by Nelson Algren or Simone de Beauvoir or music by Verdi or Woody Guthrie.

Those first solo trips to Chicago as a teenager were definitely a moment of discovering that learning about the world was something that happened almost entirely outside of school, that people were actually allowed to talk seriously about important ideas in the media (they just rarely did it) and that there was more than one way of telling history. It was a happy accident that Studs’s show was a part of that process.

What is your favorite interview, or alternatively, which one has made the greatest impression on you, and why?

There are many that I love but perhaps my favorite is the conversation with actor / larger-than-life person Zero Mostel. Partly because it’s an interview that completely gets outs of Studs’s control.

It’s actually not a great performance, initially, for Studs. His questions are kind of dull and generic. In fact at one point Studs says to Zero, “I want to ask you a general question…” and Zero (playfully) blusters back, “Then do you want me to give you a general answer?!” to which Studs says that he wants a specific answer and Zero bellows, “You are crazy, my boy! I refuse to answer the question until you rephrase it. Studsy!!” More or less. I’m recalling from memory.

The point is, the interview could have been a disaster. But Studs let’s it unfold, gives Mostel space (and he certainly takes it), and the interview spirals into a realm of pure absurdity and joy.  (Among other very non-NPR happenings, cigarettes and matches inexplicably fly out of peoples’ mouths across the studio.)  And in the midst of all the mayhem, marvelous, unforgettable things are said about what makes theater different from all other arts, and why James Joyce is the source of so many creative and delightful things, and why abstract impressionist painting was the perfect way of capturing the mood of that time.

That sort of conversation requires space, trust (in the audience above all), and a lot of guts. But I could name 50 other interviews that I’d put on the same shelf as my favorite novels or albums.

If Studs were alive today, who would you like to hear him speak with, and why?

While there are writers or musicians living today I would have loved for Studs to interview and topics like the Arab Spring that I’d love to get his perspective on, I’ll say my 6 year old son Giulio and his classmates at Goethe Elementary School in Logan Square Chicago. He was born the same autumn (2008) that Studs died, and hearing how Studs talked to a bunch of kids whose lives were just starting as his ended would be fitting bit of historic overlap for someone who always kept his eye on the big picture and the broad sweep of history. I’d love to hear how he’d react to their views of global warming, all the technology kids have to navigate, life in a public school and how certain types of stories and wit endure despite all of the changes.

Tony Macaluso