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HERD THE ONE ABOUT . . .? : Storytellers Rustle Up Interest in Summer Reading Project With Tall Tales and Songs

July 14, 1994|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for the Times Orange County

It was an ornery crowd that Thomas Hurner and Ken Frawley faced down that steamy afternoon in Villa Park.

Jammed inside the library community room were wet-headed kids with expressions that read "my mom just pulled me out of the pool for this," and young mothers more absorbed with reining in their offspring than listening to a pair of cowpokes yak about the Old West.

But, with more than 25 years in the family entertainment/education biz between them, storytellers Hurner and Frawley knew how to handle this bunch. They cut straight to the cow poop.

Right on the heels of their audience-participation cattle drive, the pair galloped headlong into a humorous discussion of "prairie coal"--dried cattle droppings that cowboys used as campfire fuel on the trail. Within seconds, the same kids who had been muttering puny "moos" and "yee-haws" were gleefully tossing invisible poop into a roaring "fire" as their guides recoiled in mock dismay (Frawley: "Oh, no! Not the wet ones!").

Frawley, 42, and Hurner, 57, have been taking their show, "The American Cowboy," into public libraries since late June and will continue through Aug. 18. Funded by Wells Fargo Bank and library support groups, the shows are designed to boost the Orange County Public Library System's summer reading program, "Reading Rodeo," by promoting children's interest in books about the Old West. If funding can be found, the pair hope to tour local schools with cowboy-themed programs in the fall.

"The American Cowboy" will be presented today at 11 a.m. on the Centennial Stage at the Orange County Fair. That show, which is free with fair admission, will include an appearance by a professional trick roper who goes by the name of Kowboy Kal. (By the way, if you're in the cowboyin' mood, you may want to plan a return trip to the fair on Friday, when 125 riders will drive a herd of 250 Brahma crossbreeds down Fairview Road into the fairgrounds arena (see story on page 9).)

With their rumpled blue jeans, Western-style shirts and battered cowboy hats, not to mention Hurner's weathered face and chest-length gray beard, the pair certainly looked like cowboys at last week's Villa Park show. Neither one is, although years ago Hurner did put in a stint as a rodeo concession-stand worker. And his current day job does bring him mighty close to livestock. Knott's Berry Farm visitors will recognize him as the theme park's Old Prospector, who wanders the Ghost Town area with his donkey, Clementine (first and middle names: Ohmy Darlin'), spinning tall tales for park guests.

Hurner figures he's learned some 500 "windies" or tall tales and 150 stories and historical facts about the Old West since taking that job in 1990. (Example: "You know where they got the word 'cowpoke'? It was the guy who stood on the side of the rail car when the stock was being loaded and poked the cattle with sharp sticks.")

Like Frawley, he says he's a "real library hound" who takes every chance he gets to promote reading.

"When I get attitudes from kids about reading, I tell 'em, 'Write down everything you watch on TV for a month, and then write down all the books you read. Then, go back to those lists a few months later and see which stuff you remember best. The things you learn in books will always come back to you.' "

It was Hurner and Frawley's mutual love of stories that brought them together two years ago through the South County-based South Coast Storytellers Guild. Hurner has created storytelling shows for children and adults and helped develop scripts and characters for some of Knott's Passport to Education school shows. Frawley, an entrepreneur with a string of small businesses that includes a children's video production company, has performed as a musician and storyteller for more than 20 years. The past several years he has focused on family audiences, especially with his children's pop band, K.C. and Company.

In "American Cowboy," the pair re-create a day in the life of a working cowboy, circa 1860 through 1890, when the invention of barbed wire made cross-country cattle drives impossible. Using minimal props, they cover topics from the origin and meaning of cattle brands to the path of the Chisholm Trail to the way cowboys told time by the stars, all punctuated by a doozy or three from Hurner. The team varies the show a little at each location and may throw in historical information about real cowboy heroes such as black American rodeo star Bill Pickett. In Villa Park, Frawley's wife, Georgia, chimed in with a true tale of a prairie woman interrupted in her soap-making by hungry Indians.

Frawley is the act's singing cowboy. Packing a 12-string guitar and a bouncy if not particularly polished singing voice, he leads the audience in period tunes such as "The Old Chisholm Trail," "Home on the Range" and even a lullaby for the herd titled "Slow Up, Little Dogies."

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