Storyteller Grabbed Success by the Tale


Since she was a little girl, Jackie Torrence knew she was destined for special work. But until she was 28, she had no idea what that work was. That tormented her even more than finding herself divorced and penniless, with a young daughter to support.

"My grandmother used to pound it into my head when I was little that God gives everybody a job and that's why we're on earth. When he puts you on the earth, he gives you something to do and that's your lifelong work and you must spend your early years preparing for it, your middle years doing it and in your old age he gives you rest as you help someone else to find their way."

One day in 1972, when she was working as an assistant at her hometown High Point, N.C., library, the library's storyteller got sick. Torrence filled in, and the children were enthralled. Torrence found her calling, and the library found its new storyteller--for $99 every two weeks.

Twenty years, ten records and dozens of television appearances later, Torrence, 48, will tell her stories at UC San Diego's Mandeville Auditorium tonight at 8.

Not that it's been a smooth ride from there to here, she said with a laugh in a recent interview from her home in Granite Quarry, S.C.

While the library was pleased with her, she could not live solely on what they paid her. She moonlighted as a storyteller and then the library fired her for moonlighting. The jobs came slowly at first, and for years it seemed everyone was trying to talk her out of her chosen profession. Just as for years the aunt who raised her told her, bluntly, that she was too fat to succeed in her childhood dreams of becoming an actress or a dancer.

"Everybody in the family thought I was nuts. They wanted me to teach, but this was it. My second husband left me because of it. He thought I had lost my mind. I still have people who say, 'How do you get paid? How do you get money? How do you afford a car?' My own mother would ask me. I would show her my checks. I would tell her I had just been to Purdue and this is what they paid me. And she would say, 'Yes, but what did you do for the money?'

"Finally I said to her, 'If I was in prostitution, I wouldn't be in Salisbury (a little community just outside Granite Quarry). Nobody has any money here!"

But though she will tell her mother about her salary, she will not tell anyone else. She dismisses any questions about her income as "nosy."

Torrence had a rough start in life. Born out of wedlock in Chicago, she was brought up by her grandparents in North Carolina until the age of 6. That actually was the good part. Her grandparents taught her some of the stories she still tells today. The Br'er Rabbit and Uncle Remus stories and stories about her own past that she now supplements with tales from Appalachia, stories from England, the Deep South and Hawaii, in addition to the blues legends and the ghost stories and the stories she writes herself. All of these add up to a repertoire of about 300 stories.

"Because they had no idea under God's sun what to do with a magpie like me who talked constantly, my grandparents told me stories to keep my mouth shut."

The stories about her heritage also made her hold her head up.

"My grandfather used to tell me that my grandmother's mother was pure Cherokee and my grandfather's father was a wonderful slave who had taught himself to read against the law. That developed a great self-esteem and caused me to be a very proud child."

It was after she turned 6, when her aunt took charge of her, that things got rough. Her aunt taunted her for being heavy--a lifelong condition--and for having a lisp, which developed because of impacted teeth.

When Torrence told her aunt she wanted to act someday, she remembers her aunt replying, "Do you think anyone would hire a big old black 'un like you?"

But she found a mentor at school who helped her confidence. Her ninth-grade teacher, Abna Lancaster, made her practice her enunciation after the impacted teeth were removed and replaced with dentures. She insisted Torrence recite before the school assembly, and when Torrence, embarrassed about her weight, resisted, Lancaster would tell her:

"Oh, child, don't worry about that. Just use your assets to your advantage."

"I had real long, black hair and she used to tell me that my hair was so gorgeous that people didn't notice I was fat. It was a lie, of course, but I didn't know that, so I flaunted the hair business."

Looking back, Torrence, who sees her life in terms of the will of God, thinks that she was given her weight for a reason.

"After I tell a story, I have so many little fat girls come and hug me and say, 'Thank you.' I say, 'You're welcome,' because I understand."

Torrence traveled around the country storytelling for years before she had her big breakthrough, which happened through a fluke acquaintance.

While having lunch in a hotel restaurant in Chattanooga, Tenn., a man noticed that she had had a ringing telephone brought to her table six times. He came up to her and said, as she recalls, "You sure are popular. What do you do?"

"And I said, 'You sure are nosy. What do you do?' " Torrence said.

But she told him she was a storyteller and invited him to her show. He was so taken with it that he wrote an article about her for his paper--The Wall Street Journal.

After the front-page article came out on April 4, 1980, national prominence followed. She appeared on CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt, NBC Late Night with David Letterman and her own nationally syndicated Halloween special, "The Teller and The Tale." She has been featured at Lincoln Center in New York City, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and every state in the country except North Dakota and Alaska. On March 15 she's heading to Anchorage, Alaska, for two weeks.

Today, Torrence has a crippling arthritis that has confined her to a wheelchair, but that hasn't slowed her down--much. She keeps traveling, as many as 280 days a year. And she has recently adopted two children, one 8 and the other 13, from family members who couldn't care for them. She also raised a baby from age 6 months to 5 years, but returned her, not without some sadness, to the child's mother after the mother "got on the straight and narrow and got herself a house and a nice boyfriend."

The children, she said, "love the fact that I am a storyteller, but they just hate it that I'm away from them so much."

Still, she is proud of providing them with what she describes as a safe and nurturing home. Because her own mother couldn't take care of her when she was young, she said she is especially sensitive to those whose parents can't take care of them. For her, it fulfills the final directive of the message her grandmother taught her when she was just a child: "In your old age . . . you are to help someone else find their way," Torrence recalled.

Besides, said the woman who can mesmerize thousands at a time: "I had a whole lot of love to extend to someone and it wasn't being used."

Performance at 8 p.m. tonight at the Mandeville Auditorium at UC San Diego. Tickets are $9 for general admission, $8 for seniors and $7 for students. 534-6467.

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