Beyond the Beanstalk

As Blockbuster becomes the Starbucks of video ("a store on every corner"), and an entire television channel is dedicated to game-show reruns, perhaps the most radical art form these days is storytelling. It's almost punk in its lack of laugh track, sound bites, commercials, product placement and hairdo of the moment.

St. Louis is home to one of the oldest and most comprehensive storytelling festivals in the country, the St. Louis Storytelling Festival, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week thanks to Lynn Rubright, who is known as the godmother of St. Louis storytelling. She and her husband were returning from a national storytellers' festival more than 20 years ago, and as the Gateway Arch came into sight, she had a vision of a storytelling festival in St. Louis. Funny thing is, so did festival co-founder Ron Turner. And what better place to have it than under the Arch, near the Mississippi River that spawned the stories of Missouri's native son Mark Twain?

Rubright has been telling stories for 35 years now, but it wasn't always that way. Once upon a time, Rubright lived in a little two-family flat in north Chicago with her mom and dad. Her grandmother lived upstairs. Lynn was 4 years old when her mother gave birth to her sister, and her mother was very, very ill. Her other grandmother came over on the trolley with a shopping bag and took care of her mother and baby sister. But Lynn was like a lost waif, fending for herself because everyone was busy making her mother well. She got her own breakfast -- an egg from the icebox on the back porch -- and dressed herself as best she could. And then she knocked on the door upstairs.

Her grandmother opened the door and took care of her all day long. After lunch, they cuddled in the big featherbed in the back bedroom. She told Lynn stories every single afternoon as the little girl drifted off to sleep. "The Three Pigs," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Hansel and Gretel" and "Jack and the Beanstalk" took her to lands far away.

Lynn grew up and had two children of her own. They lived two-and-a-half blocks from the Kirkwood library. When Danny and Teddy were toddlers, she would put them in the buggy, and they'd all go to the library. She brought home a big batch of books every week.

She kept small rituals during the day to survive. The word "parenting" hadn't been invented, so she was just doing the best she could to be a mother -- like having cookies for the boys after their nap. They would dunk their cookies in milk, and Lynn would read to them.

One day, the book was about Jack and the Beanstalk, and Lynn thought, "Gosh, my grandmother used to tell me that. I could tell it." So she read it over during her sons' nap, and when they came down, she told them "Jack and the Beanstalk" without the book. Danny was holding his cookie in the milk and never took his eyes off her, even when the cookie melted into mush. When she finished, he said, "Tell it again, Mommy." "That's it!" Lynn thought. "I have found something to survive babyhood."

Then she became a folksinger, and then a storyteller at schools, until Rubright combined her love of story with her current career as an associate professor of education at Webster University.

Now she specializes in stories about Mike Fink, who became a legend on the river that flows by the Arch, where she'll tell his stories. A renegade who lived 1770-1823, Fink was the last of the great Mississippi riverboat men. Although Fink was sexist and racist as a real person, Rubright cleans up his image with fun stories that glitter like poetry.

One story starts like this: "Folks had gathered by the bank of the mighty, mighty Mississippi for the start of the Turkey Shoot Parade. Suddenly there was a shot from a gun -- boom! An angry voice rose from the crowd -- 'No fair, turkey shoot ain't started yet!' 'Wanna bet?' Folks gasped as they looked on the riverbank and saw the keelboat Lightfoot, and Mike Fink standing on the deck with his gun still smoking in his hand."

"The power of story, to me," Rubright says, "is that it takes the listener to another place -- out of their mind, out of their bodies, into a place of imagination."

You can hear Rubright tell this story and others, along with 70 other tellers' tales, at the 20th Annual St. Louis Storytelling Festival. It takes place Wednesday-Saturday, May 5-8, at the Gateway Arch, on riverfront stages and at other locations around St. Louis. See "Calendar" for details.

-- Susan Kelley

 
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