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Beacon blog: Of a kinkajou, show biz and the Beacon Festival

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 26, 2011 - I was a lonesome kid. I grew up in Little Rock, Ark., in a neighborhood in transition, and there weren't many kids around to play with by the time I came along. My closest friends lived a mile away, and for a 10-year-old, even a 10-year-old with a three-speed English bicycle, a mile was a "fer piece," as Faulkner wrote in "Light in August."

My father had vamoosed, and my mother worked, and when I was very young I was left in the care of Ida Brown, who more or less reared me. In Ida's company, and in my rather solitary childhood, I came to love animals. We had the usual cats and dogs, but as I grew older I moved on to more unusual creatures.

I hatched silkworm eggs in the spring, for example, and fed the worms leaves from mulberry trees that grow like weeds in the south, and watched the worms grow, then spin their cocoons. I rejoiced when the metamorphosis was accomplished, and the silkworms emerged as moths and mated, and then the females deposited tiny eggs that look like poppy seeds. These were harvested and put away in a cool place, then brought out to hatch as the cycle of life went around so predictably, so scientifically -- yet so wondrously magically too.

As I got older, my boundaries became elastic. With this greater flexibility, I could enjoy the natural benefits of growing up in a town where, within striking distance, wetlands and woods rich in wildlife beckoned. In my particular favorite woods, Bayou Fourche, I captured tadpoles and frogs and snakes. On one occasion I found an injured owl, who I tended until it was well enough to fly. I also was allowed to have more exotic creatures.

I kept a vicious pet skunk that hissed and stamped at me, and I bought, on time, 10 bucks a month for four months, with my earnings from my Arkansas Gazette paper route, a kinkajou, who escaped, and brought unwanted notoriety to our always-hanging-by-a-thread household.

These fascinations deposited me on the doorstep of Lucille Babcock, who was my ticket to this exotic animal world. She lived across the street and a half a block away in a quite wonderful, rambling 19th century house owned by her mother, a formidable woman named Frances Thornburgh Cutting. Mrs. Cutting was the widow of a physician whose family owned the house, but she had come on hard times and sold real estate to keep her particular ship afloat. Miss Babcock -- Lucy -- was her daughter. Lucy was artistic, and had theatrical aspirations, and had lived in New York for a while, but didn't make it there, and came back to Little Rock where her mother provided room and board.

Lucy managed to fashion a show business career in central Arkansas. She had a weekly 15-minute television show on KARK-TV called "Animal Fair." Because I was a such a weird kid, and thought it totally reasonable to hang out with a 30-something-year-old single lady, I insinuated myself into Lucy's life and I became a regular on her show, and hung around her house, where there were lots of dogs and cats and maybe an occasional goat or pony.

Cats and dogs were staples of the television show, but that was not terribly exciting. The excitement came with occasional visits from the wild-animal dealer, Charles Wisener, who sold me the kinkajou, as well as a fascinating couple of retired carnival people, Lucy and Tommy Ahrens. I can't remember Tommy's occupation, although I recognized him when he appeared as Santa Claus for the Christmas party at our church, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

Lucy Ahrens, however, was the stuff of legend in my little world. She kept snakes - big snakes, pythons and a very cranky diamond-back rattlesnake called Thekla. She had Gila monsters, too, and less remarkable wildlife, such as ring-necked doves. Often, Lucy Ahrens came into town and appeared on the show, which needed the Wiseners and the Ahrenses to survive. Even on Saturday morning TV in Little Rock, Ark.

"Animal Fair" was not only fuel for my animal fascinations, but it was also the beginning of my half-century plus attraction to show biz of one sort of another. In addition to "Animal Fair," Lucy tried to promote opera and theater in Little Rock, and she managed to bring "Aida" and "Carmen" and "Rigoletto" to the stage of the Joe T. Robinson Auditorium. I was a supernumerary in the first of those operas, and a member of the raggedy children's chorus of "Carmen"; and a maker of thunder with piece of sheet metal in "Rigoletto." Lucy also produced "Laura" and "Bell, Book and Candle," in which starred my Siamese cat, Impy.

Lucy died a few years ago after steadfastly pushing the artistic envelope in Little Rock and being a force for progressive thinking. She was one of the people who taught me to love all creatures great and small -- and also spotlights, greasepaint, curtain calls, Gilbert and Sullivan and so forth. So here am I, in St. Louis, 50 years or so later, established as a journalist and a member of the team that produces not only the Beacon you read online but also the Beacon Festival, which begins an eight-day run on Monday. Needless to say, stage struck still, this Festival makes me very happy indeed.

Part of the Beacon's reason for being is to exert a presence not only on the computer screen but also in our region. We go on the road with our "Beacon and Eggs" program each month, meeting readers and friends where they live; and every other week we get together during the school year with folks at the Six Row Brewery to discuss problems that tend to be avoided in conversation in St. Louis, problems issuing out of race and class distinctions.

Early in the history of the publication, we began talking about various ways to connect with readers and to offer programs that were entertaining but also were of cultural substance. Nicole Hudson Hollway, our general manager, who is even more stage stuck than I, spoke of her admiration for The New Yorker Festival, produced by New Yorker magazine. This sounded perfect as a model, so off we went. Lo and behold, last summer we mounted the first Beacon Festival. Our philosophy is culture adventuring, taking participants places they probably haven't been before.

On Monday, taking you where you've probably not been before begins again. We're sponsoring the University City Library Memorial Day Race, along with a group of generous co-sponsors, just to kick of the week in a healthy mind in a healthy body way. After the race, there's to be a fundraiser where a brilliant menu, created by Winslow's Home and Farm's chef, Cary McDowell, features local meat and produce as much as possible.

Our region is so rich, and our attitudes toward it are too often condescending. By going together to places we may have never been before, we may find ourselves, by seeing and hearing sights and sounds around us with newly focused attention, in the mood to celebrate, and to say for all to hear, "Good For Us." Come along. See what you think.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.