Street Miami

Posted on Fri, May. 31, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
ODD JOBS / Jim Gregory: Professional Storyteller

All gather 'round for a true story about a mountain man by the name of Jim Gregory.

This story isn't about Gregory's daytime job as a history teacher at North Miami Beach Senior High, or his coronation as Miami-Dade County's Debate Coach of the Year a few years back. Rather, this story is about the stories he tells professionally, as a yarn-spinner for hire, narrating and improvising at parties, workshops, churches ... wherever ears and imaginations are found.

Gregory, now 62, has been fascinated by storytelling since he was a young un' in Monteagle, Tenn. listening to ''drummers'' (salesmen drumming up business) and mountainfolk swap lies around the cracker barrel at the general store. He now has about 40 stories in his regular repertoire, and knows a couple hundred in all. ''You collect 'em and make 'em your own,'' he says.

Like any stage performer, Gregory has learned how to work a crowd. ''You see what the audience is reacting to,'' he says. Though Gregory creates an outline -- main points and punchlines -- he allows for improvisation. ''Every time I tell a story, it refines itself,'' he says.

Most of Gregory's stories run seven to 10 minutes, but he'll mix in some shorties to keep audiences -- mostly adults -- engaged. ''The misconception is that all storytelling is for kids, and it's not,'' says Gregory, past president and current VP of the Florida Storytellers Guild. ``You can tell more complicated stories to adults.''

As a storyteller, the history teacher isn't bound by a text. He's constantly tweaking history, or simply inventing it. Some of his tales are embellishments of old jokes spun some fresh way. Some are mountain fables loosely based on his upbringing, with characters imagined or exaggerated. Some are biker stories sparked by his road adventures. Some are sentimental: a friend once sent him the fake word ''SHMILY'' and Gregory turned it into an acronym for ''See How Much I Love You'' and a sweet story about his grandparents. Some are first-person, with Gregory the observer (or the ''butt of the joke,'' he notes). None are too off-color, especially those he tells at church gigs.

He advises aspiring storytellers to tell what they know, and he knows the South. ''When I want to talk Southern, I talk S-u-t-h-h-h-e-r-n,'' he says with a drawl. ``I'm not making fun of them, they're my people. In most of my stories they turn out to be heroes.''

In nine years of storytelling as a professional sidelight, Gregory has used his earnings -- between $60 and $200 plus accommodations for the average performance -- to defray the costs of wife Patricia's missionary trips to South and Central America. (''I'm just a storyteller,'' he notes. ``What she does is really important. I tell a few stories about her missionary work, but those are under the heading of miracles.'')

Sometimes the storytelling experience itself is priceless. For instance, a recent appearance at a camp for cancer patients in Lantana. ''They were so full of life, so receptive,'' Gregory says. He was on stage two hours, which is three times longer than his customary set, and then he stayed late to share scary stories by the bonfire.

Though he's got a self-released CD (Life at the Palace: The Fast Bull Stories, available through www.jimgregory, Gregory is still getting his name out, and figures to be better known and compensated after making storytelling his life. In a few years, he and Patricia (a math teacher at Miami Beach High) will set down their chalk, buy a Suburban, and tour the country's national parks. The National Storytellers Association has a promotional deal with the National Parks Service, so ''if I tell stories, I can park,'' he says.

Soon, Gregory might not fly solo on stage anymore. Buttons, his African Gray parrot, has begun repeating what he says, and Gregory is training the bird to join the act, perching on his shoulder and performing lines on cue ... hopefully without nipping his ear.

''The idea is to teach you something or entertain you,'' says of storytelling. ``The best is to do both at the same time.''

Got a tip for an Odd Job? Message Ethan J. Skolnick at [email protected]