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Oral History, Film, and Video

Studs TerkelChicago figured prominently in the early history of American film and television and is the home of Studs Terkel, a pioneer in oral history. As a result, the Museum's collection includes documentary, moving image, and sound recordings from the early years of the twentieth century through the present.

The Museum's major collections in these media include:

  • The Studs Terkel / WFMT Oral History Archives
  • Oral History Archives of the Chicago Polonia Project
  • The Burr Tillstrom Collection and Archives
  • WGN Newsfilm Collection
  • Several hundred films and kinescopes of the early television programs
  • Films and videotapes of later KFO specials, productions, and performances
  • Photographs, correspondence, news clippings, and related papers
  • Realia, including puppets, puppet stages, and props

The Studs Terkel / WFMT Oral History Archives

Audio-recordings of interviews, readings, and musical programs aired during Studs Terkel’s tenure at WFMT Radio from the early 1950s through 1999 are part of the Museum’s collection. Over five decades, Terkel interviewed individuals from every walk of life. These interviews narrate the cultural, literary, and political history of Chicago and the United States.

Discussion topics reflect the interests, passions, and political leanings of the interviewer. The archives are especially rich in interviews with and performances by musicians, singers, lyricists, and composers of jazz, opera, and folk. Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Judy Collins, and many other artists performed.

The list of authors and poets represented in the collection reads like a Who's Who of twentieth-century literature. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Dorothy Parker, Carl Sandburg, Nelson Algren, and Mike Royko, are just a few of the authors who read from their works and discussed their craft with Terkel.

Terkel and his guests discussed such diverse topics as nuclear disarmament, the American peace movement, psychology, race relations, ecology and environmental pollution, violence against women, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and labor activism.

Oral History Archives of the Chicago Polonia Project

The Polonia Project recorded life histories of 140 Chicago-area Polish-Americans, many of whom emigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1930. The interviews were taken in the mid-1970s and provide firsthand accounts of adjustment to American culture. The project was directed by Mary Cygan and was underwritten by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Excerpts from the Polonia archives are included in Island of Hope, Island of Tears: an oral history of the great migration and the passage through Ellis Island by David M. Brownstone, Irene M. Franck, and Douglass L. Brownstone.

The Burr Tillstrom Collection and Archives

The Tillstrom collection and archives constitute the primary extant holdings of papers, films, artifacts, and memorabilia relating to the career of Burr Tillstrom, master puppeteer and creator of the Kuklapolitan Players as well as the long-running television program Kukla, Fran and Ollie. The materials include:

  • Several hundred films and kinescopes of the early television programs
  • Films and videotapes of later KFO specials, productions, and performances
  • Photographs, correspondence, news clippings, and related papers
  • Realia, including puppets, puppet stages, and props

WGN Newsfilm Collection

This collection includes aircuts, and outtakes from WGN television newscasts from approximately 1948 to 1977. Chicago news includes:

  • Public, cultural, and sports events
  • The Chicago Transit Authority, mass transit, and O'Hare International Airport
  • Accidents, disasters, and fires
  • Education; public housing, Mayor Richard J. Daley, politics, and government
  • The civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr.

National news includes NASA and the space program, primarily related to the Apollo missions.

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