Saturday, August 6, 2011

Memories of Playland

When I was a kid there was an amusement park in San Francisco, right down by the beach. It was called Playland.

I remember it as huge and magical and fascinating. I'm sure if it was still there (it was torn down in 1972) it would seem smaller and cheesier. The magic would just be papier-mâché. The grease in the air would probably make me sick. But oh, it was fun to go there as a kid.

I remember a scary monster ride through the dark. A kid in my school told me solemnly that it was called The Dummies Moving. Somehow that name sounded scarier and more horrible than what it was really called. (I think it was called “Limbo.”) It seemed huge inside. You rode through the pitch dark in a little car. There was a smell of oil and metal. Suddenly a light in front of you would flash on -- there was a monster!  A roar echoed, then the lights flashed off again. Just when I had all the monsters memorized and wasn’t scared by them any more, they added a new one: lights flashed on, there was a flat picture of a monster with arms raised – suddenly, with a grinding of machinery, the arms came down, reaching for you!

I remember a roller coaster called the Mad Mouse, though I can’t find mention of it in the Wikipedia entry on Playland. They do mention the “Alpine Racer” which is described as a “wild mouse” ride. The Roller Coaster Database, at, defines a Wild Mouse rollercoaster as one “using single-car trains on a track with very tight turns. The cars' wheels are positioned closer to the rear of the car than a traditional coaster. The front of the car travels past the turn before changing directions, giving the sensation that the car will fall off the track.” That must have been the one that we called the Mad Mouse. I was always either too little or too afraid to try it out.

I remember the Kooky Kube, which I only went in once. It wasn't really a ride, it was a house you walked through with a guide and each room was distorted and weird. In one room you sat down on a board on rollers and seemed to roll uphill.

And I remember the Fun House. I didn’t know then what a historic treasure that Fun House was. All I knew was that I hated the laughing lady doll in the window. Great big mouth, bulging cheeks, fat hands, and sounding like she was choking with crazy laughter that haunted me. (She was called “Laughing Sal” and you can watch a video of her at

To get in to the Fun House, you went through the mirror maze. After a few times, I memorized the route and could get through quickly while my little brother was still lost. The trick was this: if you walked directly towards the lights and noise Fun House interior, you’d bump into mirrors and glass walls. You had to take a passage away from your goal. Then you’d go around a wall of mirrors and find yourself walking out of the maze in just seconds. (That mirror maze entered my dreams a few months ago: a couple of the mirrors slid aside and formed a doorway to another world.)

Inside the Fun House, they had holes in the floor which blasted air up at you. I later learned they were for blowing up ladies skirts. Me, I hated those blasts of air, they made my heart jump. But I figured out that they were controlled by a guy at an elevated bank of levers. If I wanted until he wasn’t looking, I could cross the holes in safety.  I remember one time he saw me hesitating at a line of those holes, and he motioned me forward.  And blasted me as I came.

I liked best the tilting walkways because there were no holes in the floor there. You walked this pathway and the walkway moved up and down under you. There was also a turning tube you could walk through but I never tried: I would have been flipped sideways.

And then the giant slides, three stories tall, made of waxed wood. One slide went straight down, the other had a hump halfway down which made me feel I was going to fly off. I always took the straight one. You climbed a stairway up and up and up to a cramped little room at the top of the slides and they gave you a piece of canvas to sit on. You sat at the top of that huge fall and looked down and thought, am I really going to slide down that? The teenager handing out the canvas nagged you: “Go or get off and or give somebody else a chance.” And so you pushed off, feeling like needles were going through your crotch. Your behind heated up even through the canvas as you plunged down. And then you coasted to a stop, out of breath, triumphant.

They had these great old arcade games, some of which are now at the MuséeMécanique at Fisherman's Wharf.   My favorite was the baseball game. You stood behind home plate of a miniature ball field with metal players at the bases and short stop. Put in a nickel and a steel ball came up from a hole at the pitcher’s mound. It rolled toward a metal bat, which you pressed a button to swing. Swing at the wrong time and the ball rolled right past into another hole. Connect with the ball and it usually was snagged by a slot in front of a player. But if you were really good, you could roll it into the slot which said “Home run.”

Greasy fried food, kitchen-sponge-sized bars of pink popcorn, the Fun House, the scary monsters in the dark. The smell of the ocean nearby. Playland is one of those places like the old Nut Tree: a part of my childhood gone forever.

Here’s a few links if you want to read more about Playland:

Monday, August 1, 2011

Coming Up with Just the Right Voice for your Puppet

People ask me how I come up with the different voices for my puppets. Here are some thoughts:

Let the face of the puppet remind you of someone and talk like they do:  Just today,  I was playing with this little raccoon, thinking of how it should talk. It had a frizz of hair below its chin which looked like a goatee, a mouth with a wry twist and black “burglar” patches that looked like dark sunglasses. Suddenly I had an image of a beatnik. I opened my mouth and this hip, with-it kind of voice came out (but pitched a little higher, since this is a cute little furry thing).

Try different voices until you find one which clicks:  Willy the Wolf is the star of most of my puppet stories (have a look at some of the stories on  I have a warm furry, gently silly voice for him.  But when I started using that puppet, gosh, 25 years ago (!), I gave him a stately, intimidating British voice and made him the wizard hidden at the end of the underground maze.  But that just never worked for me, so I kept trying.

Shape your face and mouth like the puppet's:  Purse your lips in just that way, arch your eyes, put on that silly or wise or snarky expression.  What emotions do you feel?  What do you want to say?  Open your mouth and let it come out.

Feel your hand as the soul of the puppet and let it talk to you:  So if there was a little person there at the end of your arm, how would it talk to you?

Still stuck?  Just play.  Talk in a high pitch, then a rumbly low one.  Talk bubbly fast, then syrupy slow.  Stick your tongue out and make a silly face!  Maybe have the puppet start to tell you about itself.

Have fun.  Share with me any ideas you have and let me know if this was useful!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mysterious Canyons are Scary; Babies are Not

When I was a kid, I used to get scared a lot. Once, my father tried to make me feel less scared by telling me a little story – but it backfired.

He told me, “Mikie, once I woke up in the middle of the night and I thought I saw a man standing by the bathroom door. I was scared for a minute, but then I realized it was only my clothes piled a certain way on a chair and I wasn’t scared anymore. So you don’t need to be scared of things in the night either.”

The trouble was, I then had a new fear: waking up and thinking I saw a strange man in the room. I’d never thought of that before. I couldn’t take in the fact that Daddy had been trying to reassure me. All I could think of were those few seconds of terror when I’d think I saw a strange man in the room.

It’s amazing the way our minds work when we’re kids.

A while ago, I made up a new story for kids at the day care centers where I’m the weekly storyteller. I didn’t think it was scary at all. Willy the Wolf doesn’t want to grow up and go to kindergarten, so he goes to Babyland, the place where you turn into a baby and never grow up. (And in the end, of course, he realizes he does want to grow up, and gets out after many adventures).

The first time I told it, I made it a mystery where Willy was going. There was a mysterious canyon and nobody knew what was down there, just that if you went down, you’d never get out and you’d never grow up. I expected the kids to enjoy the mystery of what was down there, to be intrigued by the clues I planted (such as: the ground is covered with mattresses, there are pink and blue plastic rattling things growing from the trees, etc.).

But they were terrified of the unknown horror down there. When Willy made the choice to go there, they were practically screaming at him not to. Even when they found out it was just babies, some were still scared.

Now I love telling scary stories, although for little kids I make it not too scary and give it a funny ending. But I hadn’t intended that story to be scary at all.

Twice I told the story this way and was surprise by the depth of the fear the kids felt. So for the next group that I told it to, I changed it in a way that empowered the kids.

Instead of making a mystery out of what was in the canyon, I announced that I was going to tell the story of Babyland. The kids laughed.

In my revised version, Willy knows it’s Babyland he wants to go to, the only mystery is where it is. When I got to the part where Willy found the mysterious canyon and saw the mattresses on the ground and the rattles on the trees, the kids started saying, “I’ll bet that’s Babyland!” They even guessed the reason Willy sees no babies at 2:00 PM: they’re all taking their naps.

Same story, same action. But I let them in on the secret. I gave them more power. It made all the difference.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

I Also Teach Math with Stories

I've just posted a video where I explain a math concept.  (It's the formula for summing up an arithmetic series, if you're interested to know.)  I mention it here because there's a story to go with it.  The mathematician Gauss figured out that formula when he was ten years old and used it to dumbfound his brute of a teacher.

It's a great story. And it goes well with teaching math.  In addition to being a storyteller I'm also a math and science tutor.  I always use story when I'm teaching.  Here are some possibilities:
  •  A Story Goes with the Concept: Sometimes I'm lucky and there's a ready made story, like the Gauss at Ten story, that just goes with a concept.
  • Something Funny About the Inventor: I may have to dig a bit but there's often something funny or interesting about the people who thought up the math (let's face it, some of them were weird).  Any time I'm telling about something thought up by Leohard Euler, I tell about how he used to write mathematical proofs with one hand while cradling the baby with the other.  Or Archimedes, when he figured out how to get the volume of an irregular shape, jumped out of his bath and ran naked down the streets of Syracuse shouting "Eureka!"
  • How Math Saved My Ass: I have some stories of my own.  Once I was teaching traffic school and forgot to note down who had paid.  Some had used a discount coupon and some hadn't.  It was like a word problem in a book.  And I wrote an equation, solved it, and knew how many people I needed to collect from.
  • The Student's Eyes Are Glazing: Sometimes the student just needs a break from the left brain.  I'll insert a funny story for 3-4 minutes, then we can get back to the subject at hand.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

How Spiderman Helped Me Be a Storyteller

When I was in junior high school, I started secretly collecting superhero comic books. I was too embarrassed to do it openly since my parents were down on superheroes and I was a good kid. So I'd make my weekly pilgrimage to the comic book store, a dark musty place piled high with comics old and new, and come home with the latest issue of Spiderman or Dr. Strange or Howard the Duck rolled up inside a newspaper or tucked inside my jacket. I kept them all in drawers in my desk, in neat stacks by title, each stack in issue number order. (Collectors might be interested to know that just by chance, the first issue of Spiderman that I bought was #129, which just happened to introduce The Punisher and is now worth a lot of money. Total chance.)

Reading Spiderman and the other titles, I was enchanted by the fact that these were continuing stories. The authors would plant a clue in one issue and not develop it until several months later. There were mysteries which ran for a year or more. Sometimes they'd draw out multiple plotlines at once. I loved it! And I wanted to do it.

At the time, I was telling stories to my brother Andrew who was about seven and my sister Laura who was about four. Laura had originally asked for a story about Aquaman. I thought she said Appleman, so I created a costumed superhero with an apple helmet and started telling stories about him. Then I wove in members of our family and The Adventures of the Litzkys was born.

As I read more Marvel comics (including some really thoughtful ones by Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber, which I still have), I started making my Adventures of the Litzkys continuing. When I found that I couldn't remember where I'd left off last time, I started keeping notes. Once I started keeping notes, it was a short step to plotting future stories. I worked out plotlines and mysteries that lasted for months and years, just like the comics I loved. I brought the story to a grand finale on the day my family drove me down to college.

I still have the notes I kept. In fact, I recently transcribed them into the computer (and I couldn't help embellishing them and fixing errors and inconsistencies). I'll probably pick out some story ideas from those notes: there's some good stuff in there. But I miss telling a continued story. I'm going to try to get a continuing saga going online.

That's how Spiderman and friends helped me be a storyteller. And yes, I eventually "came out" about reading comics. It was kind of an open secret and one day Mom just said, "You like to go to the comic book store, don't you Michael?" Relieved, I answered as though I'd never been hiding it at all, "YES!"

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Is It Authentic if it Aint on Google?

How far do you go to make sure stories from other lands are authentic?

I tell stories every week at Lakeview Preschool here in Oakland. Each week they "visit" a different country. I try to have a story from that country when I go in on Wednesday.

A few weeks ago, they were visiting the southern part of Africa (yes, I know, Africa is a continent, not a country. To their credit, they spend a week in each of the four quarters of the continent, not just one week on "Africa").

Searching through books for a story from southern Africa, I found "Mulha" in the collection, The Maid of the North, Feminist Folk Tales From Around the World, edited by Ethel Johnson Phelps. "A South African Tale" the book says. "Perfect," I thought. "I haven't been telling enough stories lately with strong women characters and this one seems just right for 3 and 4-year-olds."

Now, when I'm telling a folktale from another land, I try to:
  • Compare a couple of different versions.
  • Pick and choose from the different versions the parts which I like best.
  • Know something about my source. (More below.)
  • Look up and verify any words I don't know.
  • Try to get the right pronunciation of all words.
  • Learn a little extra about the country so that I'm not just telling the story straight out of the book I read.
Regarding sources:
  • Is the source a native of the country or an outside observer?
  • Is the observer just recording or are they judging, moralizing?
  • Did the observer change anything or make something up?
Now I change stories all the time in the process of making them "mine." Sometimes I connect dots or supply missing motivation. Sometimes I just find that a story works better for me a certain way. Although some tellers I respect disagree, I think such changes are fine as long as I don't claim that my way is the way the story "is told." But I like to know what's authentic and what's some other collector's interpolation or invention before I work with a story.

So I tried to find another version of "Mulha" online. Nothing. The only listings Google gave me for the word "Mulha" were links either to Phelps's book or to Fairy Tales of South Africa (1910, Sarah Bourhill and Beatrice Drake), the book she got the story from.

I Googled "Inzimu," and "Imbula" which the story calls "male and female ogres." No listings for Inzimu, only one listing for Imbula and it's obviously someone's name.

Well, I went ahead and told the story. It was a good story. For a little more background I read (to myself, not to the kids) an article on Wikipedia about Swaziland (mentioned in the story) and another one on southern Africa. I decided not to include the words which I couldn't verify. I just said "ogre" for the monster. I introduced it as a story from the southern part of Africa. The kids enjoyed it.

How far do you go? Probably if I was going to put this story on a DVD, I'd try to research it further. For telling to a small group of kids, I think the amount of research I did was okay. But what do you think? How authentic do you keep stories? How far do you go in verifying what you read?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I Love to Practice; I Hate to Practice

Why is it so hard to get myself to practice?

I love telling stories. I love creating them. When I'm involved in the magic of a story that's unfolding just right, I feel like I could go out and hike to the top of a mountain (and I could, but getting back down would be a problem -- more in another post on why it's harder for me to hike down hills than up them).

And yet. I'll do the dishes first. I'll check my email and read my daily dose of Doonesbury (I'm up to 1998 in my year-and-a-half-long trip through the entire Doonesbury archives -- did I mention that I'm a bit compulsive?) I'll give the cats their treats. I'll reread a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery or an old Heinlein novel. Here I am right now, writing my first blog post instead of working on that adult version of Sindbad the Sailor or that vulnerable true story of hiking the Lost Coast alone in 1982 when I was age 22, strong-legged, and sad too much of the time.

Practicing brings up emotions. The true story I just mentioned: to really talk about that long, lonely, wonderful, miserable time in my life means embracing who I was then. Deciding just how much I want to share. How much can I recreate that young man? How much distance should I keep from him? The Sindbad story I want to do: will it be original enough? I've been telling mostly to kids for the last couple of years: can I still engage audiences of adults? Am I doing a racist stereotype "Arab" voice for one of the villains?

Practicing doesn't always go well. Sometimes I just sit there. Sometimes the best I can do is to read a traditional story out loud from a book. Or tell a story in funny voices, doing everything "wrong." Sometimes I try every technique I know and a story just lies there.

But oh, when it goes well, I feel so good! It's like I'm touching some elemental magic, riding a sparkling river down a sensuous canyon. It's like I'm opening a door to another world. I once heard Greg Brown, the folk singer, say that he wrote songs every day not because he felt that the world needed more mediocre folk songs but so that when a great song was ready to come through, the gates would be open.

That's the way I want to live as a storyteller. So I'm posting this first blog entry -- and going to practice!