By John Grossmann
Reprinted from USAir Magazine
How do you like our house? Thirty-two rooms on the top of Pill Hill. They call it Pill Hill cause there are doctors all over the place. This house was built for a millionaire, Storrow, of Storrow Drive in Boston. We moved into the house eight years ago, when I was 7. My parents, they don't have a lot of money, but they found out nobody wanted to heat a big house like this, and they got it for next to nothing. It's like a castle. And not just the house. The grounds. You can't see in the dark, but behind me we have this perfect circle called the grass plot. The grounds were designed by the magic man, Frederick Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York and the Capitol grounds in Washington! He built the cave behind the house. There's a secret in the cave and I guessed the secret.
So unfolds "The Dance," one of the newest and most mesmerizing stories created by master storyteller Jay O'Callahan, whose rise to prominence in one of mankind's most ancient art forms has mirrored as well as helped foster a nationwide revival of storytelling. O'Callahan was the official storyteller of the 1980 Winter Olympics - the first to hold that post since the time of Nero. He commanded the stage at Lincoln Center, appearing with another celebrated storyteller, Jackie Torrance. He attracts glowing reviews as a lush tree of apple blossoms draws bees.
"Jay has been a real pioneer," says Jimmy Neil Smith, executive director of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (NAPPS). "He's brought storytelling into a new dimension. Whereas others have brought theater into storytelling, Jay has brought storytelling into legitimate theater, helping more and more people realize that storytelling is an experience that can be enjoyed by adults as much as children."
Fellow storyteller and friend Doug Lipman marvels at the density of O'Callahan's tales and at the Shakespearean parade of minor characters he evokes with a deft turn of a phrase or tilt of his head or rumble of his voice.
This month (October 2 through 4) NAPPS will host the 20th annual National Storytelling Festival, as always, in the picturesque town of Jonesborough, Tennessee. A crowd of more than 8,000 is expected for the weekend festival. That would mark an increase of about 7,940 over 1972's inaugural audience, which gathered around a farm wagon parked on a downtown street. In those days, a list of the nation's professional storytellers might have numbered one dozen. Today, Smith estimates several hundred in America probably earn their living telling stories.
The 54 year old O'Callahan, who will again appear in Jonesborough this year, is unquestionably among the best paid. With single performances earning as much as $3,000 and sales of cassettes annually bringing in $50,000, his annual revenues easily top $100,000. After 16 years of writing and telling, O'Callahan now has upward of 100 original stories in his repertoire, many twice the length of a TV sitcom. One classic, "The Gouda," uncoils for two hours. There are children's fantasies and tales he calls "Mostly Scary" - captivating stories spring from his imagination. There are stories about real people. Several years ago, moved by the nobility of a young woman lawyer dying of cancer, he crafted an hour long story called "Susan." "Village Heroes," a four-story ensemble that enjoyed lengthy theater runs in Boston and Washington, D.C., mushroomed from "Edna Robinson," a story commissioned by the town of Harvard, Massachusetts, in celebration of its 250th anniversary.
Lately, however, in courageously plumbing his own past, O'Callahan has produced an upwelling of stories about family and friendship, poverty and wealth, bigotry, and alcoholism, adolescent rites of passage and tales teeming with life set in the remarkable Brookline, Massachusetts, neighborhood of his youth called Pill Hill. This growing mosaic of Pill Hill stories - "Christmas Candles," "Glasses," "Chickie," "Politics," and the spellbinding tale called "The Dance" - is not merely the most exceptional of O'Callahan's fine body of work, but an oeuvre that rises above the sum of its parts. As William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County creatively captures the fading days of the Old South, O'Callahan's Pill Hill stories resonate with a richly hued and sharply defined portrait of a post-WWII New England community as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Imagine a public television version of "The Wonder Years," more highly charged, more tightly wound around moments likely to burn forever in your mind's eye.
In the liner notes to his Pill Hill cassettes, O'Callahan quotes Wallace Stevens:
"They said, 'You have a blue guitar, you do not play things as they are.' The man replied, 'Things as they are are changed upon the blue guitar.' "
"The Pill Hill stories," he informs his listeners, "are played upon my blue guitar. I did not want a documentary. I wanted to be free to invent and alter and change. I wanted to be as free as Dickens was in David Copperfield. I wanted to capture the currents I felt as a boy growing up on Pill Hill. The currents between me and the tree, the currents in the family and neighborhood."