'Working' Then And Now: A Hotel Piano Player Frustrated By His Future Hots Michels was interviewed by Studs Terkel while entertaining guests at the Hotel Sherman, where he worked for decades. This is part of our series Working Then and Now from Radio Diaries.
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'Working' Then And Now: A Hotel Piano Player Frustrated By His Future

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'Working' Then And Now: A Hotel Piano Player Frustrated By His Future

'Working' Then And Now: A Hotel Piano Player Frustrated By His Future

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Has a stranger ever asked you what you do for work or how you feel about your job? Well, in the 1970s, writer and radio show host Studs Terkel did just that. He traveled the country asking ordinary Americans what they do all day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STUDS TERKEL: How do you feel about your work?

Do your arms get tired?

What do you do?

Tell me something.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I started working when I was about 12 years old.

TERKEL: Now describe it step by step...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK.

TERKEL: ...As though you were telling a little child what it is.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Their candid and intimate responses were collected in a book called "Working." While that book became a best-seller and cultural touchstone, few people have heard the recordings that Terkel made of those interviews. For years, they were packed away in his home office. Now our partners at Radio Diaries are combing through those tapes for our series Working Then and Now. Today, Terkel's 1972 interview with a hotel piano player in downtown Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERKEL: We're sitting with Hots Michaels. If you want to noodle at the piano you can, fine. At the piano bar, people sit around the piano and they're drinking. It's now cocktail hour, about 6 or so. Hots, how long have you been playing here?

HOTS MICHAELS: I started here in 1952, Studs. When I started here we had six piano players per night, the strolling violins and we had a full orchestra. I am the last live entertainment of the Sherman Hotel.

TERKEL: Tell me about your work. Describe your work.

MICHAELS: Well, piano playing is secondary. (Laughter) It's kind of background music for talking, people getting together. Out of town visitors, businessmen talking over whatever deals of the day they have to talk over, lawyers. It's a great gathering spot for lawyers. Give us a drink over here.

TERKEL: What generally are the subjects that people around the piano bring up? Do they talk about personal things with you?

MICHAELS: Very.

TERKEL: Like what?

MICHAELS: Well, marriage.

TERKEL: Domestic problems.

MICHAELS: Domestic problems. Saloons are kind of full of lonely people trying to fill an empty hour or two, a void in their life somewhere, you know. Studs, can you excuse me...

TERKEL: Yeah, sure.

MICHAELS: ...One moment here? Hello, Juney.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, hi, Hots.

MICHAELS: Hi, honey. Nice to see you girls.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hurry up, they're downstairs.

MICHAELS: Oh, we're just kind of having fun here taping a show. This is Mr. Studs Terkel, girls.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi.

TERKEL: (Laughter). So you are the only live musician right now...

MICHAELS: In the Sherman Hotel.

TERKEL: What is it has happened?

MICHAELS: Well, number one, when television came in and came in strong, it put a terrible dent in live entertainment. No question about it. Number two, I think a little bit of fear.

TERKEL: Fear.

MICHAELS: Fear.

TERKEL: Inner city is what you mean.

MICHAELS: Sure. People that I know, people that I know well haven't been downtown in two, three years.

TERKEL: This then is connected with the move to the suburbs.

MICHAELS: Absolutely. With the amplified music, as you can hear, on the jukebox that's...

TERKEL: Right now. There never was a jukebox before.

MICHAELS: There never was a jukebox in the Hotel Sherman until recently.

TERKEL: Do you have fears of work coming to an end?

MICHAELS: Absolutely. The first many years in this business I drank, and I think I drank because I was afraid (laughter). And I haven't drank in eight years and I'm still afraid.

TERKEL: Really?

MICHAELS: Sure. Not afraid of growing of growing old, afraid what lies ahead, what happens. I've watched a lot of other piano players that I know that are 60, 63 years old, and I don't like what I see.

TERKEL: As we finish our conversation, you mentioned this business. You said this business.

MICHAELS: It is a business, a definite business. I'm here to create the selling of liquor, and that's how I derive my salary. It is a business.

TERKEL: You weren't thinking of it as an art form.

MICHAELS: I don't really think of it as an art form because I never thought much of myself as an artist. I know my limitations. It was very frustrating years ago, but I learned my limitations. And I'm glad I learned them. I was a lot happier for it.

Do you have any favorites, hon? Goodnight, counsel. Here's an old one coming down today, Studs.

SIEGEL: Studs Terkel interviewing Norman Hots Michaels at Chicago's Sherman hotel in 1972. A year later, the hotel was demolished. Michaels eventually found a new home at the Chicago Chop House, where he played for another 20 years. Michaels died in 2006 at age 82.

SHAPIRO: Our series Working Then and Now is produced by Joe Richman, Nellie Gilles and Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries, with Jane Saks of the organization Project&. The editors are Deborah George and Ben Shapiro.

SIEGEL: Special thanks to the Studs Terkel Archive. You can hear more stories from the series this weekend on NPR and on the Radio Diaries podcast.**

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERKEL: I'm just testing you...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC, CROSSTALK)

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