Stills from Studs’ Place.

Basement tapes

A look at two recently discovered episodes of Studs Terkel’s television show.

Before Hope Dies Last (2003) and Will the Circle Be Unbroken (2001), before The Good War (1984), Working (1974), and Hard Times (1970), even before Division Street: America (1967), there was Studs’ Place.

Studs Terkel, PhB’32, JD’34 (1912–2008), was famous primarily for his books of oral history and secondarily for his radio shows. But for two years, in 1950 and 1951, Terkel was famous for something history has not preserved very well: his own sitcom.

Studs’ Place, which served as a model for later shows like Alice and Cheers, featured Studs as the owner of a diner, with his employees as regulars. Incredibly, the show was not only live but unscripted; the cast improvised the dialogue based on a set storyline, wrapping it up in 27 minutes, more or less, even fitting in cliffhanger breaks for live commercials.

The show “made Studs a national name,” according to Bruce DuMont of the Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC), but most of the episodes are lost. Early television was not taped; the few programs that survive are kinescopes, created by pointing a 16 mm camera at the monitor. Eleven episodes were thought to have been preserved that way, until Terkel’s son Dan Terkell (who spells and pronounces his last name differently than his father) recently discovered two more in his parents’ basement.

Earlier this month these episodes, “Teen Job” (1951) and “Bowling” (1951), were screened at the MBC. Rick Kogan of the Chicago Tribune and Tom Weinberg of video archive Media Burn cohosted the event, part of an ongoing celebration of the centenary of Terkel’s birth. “The legend of this show is pretty substantial,” Kogan told the crowd of about 120 people; about two-thirds had never seen Studs’ Place before (Kogan, who clearly asks questions for a living, wanted to see a show of hands).

The black-and-white shows were tinted kinescope green. There was young Studs, with plenty of shiny black-green hair, bumbling around his diner, beset by various gentle dilemmas and misunderstandings.

In “Teen Job,” Johnny’s mother wants him to quit working at Studs’ Place because she thinks he wants to buy a “hot rod”: “All these teenagers looking for a thrill,” she worries to Studs, inspiring one of the loudest laughs of the screening. Of course, after Studs fires Johnny, it comes out that he was saving up to send his hard-working mother on the first vacation of her life.

“Well, what did you think?” Kogan asks the audience. “It ain’t Seinfeld, but it was pretty goddamned good.”

“It was sweet,” one audience member volunteers. “It was just really sweet.”