An entertaining educator
Former host of ‘Gator Tales” looks back at a career of combining education, entertainment and storytelling in St. Louis
By Charlotte Beard
St. Louis is rich with talent, especially in the arts. Among this talent is St. Louis native and winner of three regional Emmy awards – Bobby Norfolk. Norfolk, who was once compared to “a skinny Bill Cosby or a clean Richard Pryor,” performs locally, nationally, and internationally.
In addition to performing in many projects with the Black Repertory Theatre, the story performer hosted CBS’ “Gator Tales” from 1988 to 1994 out of St. Louis, for which he won the Emmys. The show focused on literacy, storytelling and character education.
“This big group of people wanted to have a show on Channel 4 that would teach children about character traits without being preachy and didactic,” stated Norfolk. “So, they thought the storyteller could tell the story, and the kids would learn their lesson while they thought they were being entertained. It was not just teaching them education but also teaching them character traits, proper behavior, honesty, respect, teamwork and cooperation. We had 75 kids in the audience and we would pre-tape on Thursday morning. Then we would post-edit on Friday. It would air on Saturday morning. We were in a nice position with the Nielsen’s because we were before Pee-Wee Herman, and then Garfield the Cat was afterwards.”
“Children’s Theater at Bobby’s House,” another program he hosted for a year, also centered on the same values as “Gator Tales.”
Norfolk shared, “That was surreal, because that one year, [the show] was nominated for an Emmy along with ‘Gator Tales.’ So, I was competing against myself. The people who ran ‘Children’s Theater at Bobby’s House’ were with City Cable, in the old Sears building at Kingshighway.”
Norfolk spoke to the collaboration of the “big group” behind “Gator Tales” that contributed to the impact on children’s education.
“PREP [Personal Responsibility Education Program] started with the educators and committee of CEOs that [began] the project,” he said. “[The project] became a national movement. Everywhere I travel now, I see these schools, [that show] ‘National School of Character,’ or a ‘Character Plus School’ on the big banners when you walk into the school. On the marquee of a lot of schools [I have seen] ‘Character Word of the Week,’ [such as] honesty, respect, teamwork, and cooperation. So, it just mushroomed from that beginning. A lot of people nationally do not give St. Louis or ‘Gator Tales’ the credit for the ‘Character Plus movement’ becoming national but we know the truth.”
Norfolk, who spent his early childhood years living in north city, an area that most referred to as The Ville, didn’t appear likely to talk before crowds because he stuttered. However, in 1961 while performing in a fourth-grade poetry recital, his teachers witnessed the unlikely.
“I had these master teachers in the St. Louis public school system. They saw things in me I didn’t see in myself. I think that’s a mark of a master teacher—to see inside the student with low self-esteem, who hasn’t found their God-gift birthed or talents yet. So, these teachers put me in drama class, Glee club, choral, talent shows, and poetry recitals. Whenever I performed, I wouldn’t stutter,” he said.
After Norfolk graduated from Sumner High School he went on to study history on a Danforth Fellowship at UMSL, where he also minored in journalism.
“By the time I hit the St. Louis American, I was their feature writer and investigative reporter,” said Norfolk. “But I didn’t want to do journalism my whole life, because I was already doing work with the St. Louis comedy club. When the comedy clubs weren’t hiring me, I would work for the St. Louis Black Repertory Company. And when the theaters went dark, I would then go back to the comedy clubs. But in between all that, my real job was working at the Arch in the Old Courthouse.”
Norfolk’s history degree had gained him a position as a national park ranger, but his heart was in performing. Jan Dolan, his current booking agent, shared how the two of them met over 30 years ago when they were both rangers at the Arch.
“Bobby was always the popular park ranger when the school groups would come in. Bobby would always be the number one pick and the rest of us [rangers] would be like ‘sure go ahead’,” Dolan stated with a laugh. “He was very animated; used special effects to do his educational programs. And we used to follow him around—casual groupies—when he did his standup comedy. I just thought that Bobby was a really interesting and unique person way back then.”
Norfolk performed in the comedy clubs between 1975 and 1981. Norfolk decided to request Mondays and Tuesdays as his off days from the chief ranger where he worked to pursue his storytelling skills at the St. Louis schools. The chief ranger agreed to the request.
“The superintendent gave me a little father-son chat. He said, ‘Bobby, I predict that in about two years, you’ll be making more in a day than I make in a week.’ He was right,” Norfolk said.
Norfolk resigned from his park ranger role in 1987 to begin full time storytelling. Folktale Productions got its start with just a little bit more than Norfolk’s talent.
“I ended up quitting the park service thinking I was going to start a new job,” said Dolan. “That fell through. So, I approached Bobby and I said, ‘Look here…you need someone to organize you because you’re starting to get a lot of calls from schools. So, until I get a real job going why don’t I work with you a little bit?’ Of course, that was 30 years ago. I guess I never found that real job.”
Annually, Norfolk started performing approximately 350 times a year at schools and libraries combined. When he began to look at the state standards for schools he became an “edutainer.” Norfolk shared that edutainment became the keystone of his work—combining educational material and his entertainment skills.
In addition to the national Circle of Excellence Oracle Award recipient’s accomplishments as a story performer, he has authored, co-authored and contributed on a combination of 30 books, CDs and DVDs. His project for children, “Anansi Time,” won the Parent’s Choice Gold Award and can be found on www.bobbynorfolk.com. His latest memoir, “Eye to the Sky”, can be found at the Parkhurst Brother’s website: www.parkhurstbrothers.com.
Norfolk’s performances reach beyond the educational system to many other venues. On Feb. 24 at 2 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum, he will be staring in “I, Dred Scott, A Musical” which tells the story of Dred and Harriet Scott and their two daughters’ fight for freedom. More details can be found at www.mohistory.org/events. In addition to national storytelling festivals, Norfolk continues to perform for the St. Louis Storytelling Festival annually as well as serves as part of the festival’s advisory council. This year the festival will take place May 2-5 at various venues. Please visit the site for details including registration: www.extension.missouri.edu/storytelling.