Storytellers paint word pictures

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Shirley Brenon

Lois Whitney tells a story to students at James Madison Elementary School as they celebrate the 100th Day of School Day. The Desert Storytellers also perform outreach activities at senior centers, libraries and churches.
Photo by Murray Ross

For thousands of years of human history, stories and the art of storytelling passed down information from generation to generation.

Today, our world is centered on electronics, and the town crier has been replaced with cell phones, television and the Internet. But the draw of oral storytelling survives, in part due to organized groups such as the Desert Storytellers.

 It was formed by Palm Springs resident Peggy Prentice in 1988 after she had taken a class in storytelling at UCLA and started a group in Santa Monica. Prentice died in 1995 and Kathy Klug took over as president and continues the position today.

 “Story lines are inside you, and they want to come out,” Klug said. “I love to tell stories. Storytelling is not only good for the audience but good for yourself. Some people sit through many of our meetings and say nothing, but then finally something happens, and they are never quiet again. The secret is to keep trying.”

Stories for all ages

Desert Storytellers perform many outreach activities at senior centers, libraries, nursing homes, churches and other organizations, plus they entertain at special events for museums and private parties. They also tell stories on Dr. Seuss Day and the 100th Day of School day, which celebrates the completion of half the school year.

Members have a variety of backgrounds but the word creative stands out. Klug is a teacher and counselor in a local school district and uses her storytelling skills as part of character education and goal setting.

 “The stories are great tools in helping a child to identify problems and find ways to overcome them,” Klug said.

She has mastered the art of voice inflection for her characters, offers great facial expressions and sound effects that add a special spice to her stories, such as “Grandma Came to Visit with False Teeth.”

A new member of the group and a former educator with a performing arts background, Julie Breslau also tells moral or self-esteem stories. “I want my stories to make people think and laugh, but also have a good point.”

Three-year-member and Toastmaster Rose King tells stories of animal characters with disabilities that get help from other animals. She uses these themes with a puppet when she tells weekly stories to school children.

 King is blind and published a book, Wosie the Blind Little Bunny, in 1995. “We all have stories and telling them helps the children and gives me strength,” she said.

Another long-time member is Lois Whitney. She enjoyed drama in school, was a Sweet Adeline director for 27 years and sang in a sought-after comedy quartet in addition to telling stories to children. She enhances her act by dressing in period costumes and tells stories about Martha Washington and other president’s wives.

Magic in the words

“Storytelling is such fun, but unfortunately, there are many people who don’t have time to listen to stories, as their lives are just too busy,” Whitney said. “When it comes to today’s children, many have never heard of ‘The Ugly Duckling,’ ‘The Troll under the Bridge’ or ‘Jack in the Beanstalk’ because they want something more sophisticated.

“Last year I told the story of the leprechaun that asked me to return him to Ireland, after I found him in my garden. At the end, a small boy came up and very seriously whispered, ‘Is that what really happened?’”

Charter member Elaine Burnett, 87, native of a small mining town in British Columbia, raised her four children with made-up stories and has used those stories in three books of children’s fantasies called Patchwork Patio

 “I hope my books will give childhood back to children instead of guns and violence,” said the author, who once owned a clown store and who has lived all over the world.

Pamela Farr-Collaro, a 10-year-member whose accent tells of her birth in England, reads stories based on her eventful life. She was trained as a BBC storyteller and was a singer in France, Spain and Italy. She has written 160 short stories, four books and tells animal stories to school children every Friday afternoon.

The group’s stories, which range from real life adventures to fairy tales, are done with voice inflections and hand gestures. Some members, like Farr-Collaro, read stories they have written, with a great deal of expression.

On the adventure end of the scale, storyteller Jake Ellison stands up in front of the audience of children and says, “I’m Jake the locksmith every day.” Then he grabs a tall staff and puts on a long, deep blue velvet robe with gold trim. “But when I tell stories I become Jake the Wizard.” Children scream as he adds sound effects to his dragon stories.