By ALEXANDRA ROWE / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
Last summer in New York City, Dave and Juliet Pokorny stumbled upon a line of 300 people waiting outside a building on a Monday night. Intrigued, they got in line too for The Moth StorySLAM.
Founded by novelist George Dawes Green in 1997, The Moth holds events in four U.S. cities. They celebrate the art and craft of storytelling by inviting ordinary people to get up and tell their tales.
That night, Dave Pokorny dropped his name in a hat along with the other contestants, and waited to see if he would be one of five to tell a true, personal, 10-minute life story on stage. Although his name did not get chosen, it sparked an idea.
When he returned home, he launched his own version in Petaluma and called it West Side Stories. It was a natural transition for a man who knew as a teenager that he was passionate about entertaining people.
Until his first daughter was born in 1996, Pokorny spent 10 years touring as a comedian. He worked as a regular at the Rivera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, was the house emcee at Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco, and opened for acts such as Ellen DeGeneres, Bob Saget and Jim Carrey. Then he retired from touring to be with his family.
“As my kids get older, I can start to dip my toes back into the water,” he said. His first project was bringing The Moth vibe to his hometown.
“They have locations in Brooklyn, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. So what other big city? Well, Petaluma. That would be the place to be.”
He pitched the idea to his friend, Linda Postenrieder, who owns the Pelican Art Gallery, and they ran with it. West Side Stories are now held at the gallery on the second Wednesday of every month.
“The whole idea is that it creates community and provides live entertainment,” Postenrieder said. “It’s funny to hear the stories and see how the crowd reacts.”
The event usually draws between 30 and 60 people, most of whom hope to get their names drawn and to tell their stories on stage. Each night, 10 story-tellers are chosen to tell five-minute stories about something that really happened. Each night, a theme is chosen that is broad enough to elicit a wide range of stories, from “Water” to “Easy Money” or “The One That Got Away.”
Pokorny admits to plucking ideas from Google, typing in each letter of the alphabet to see what the common searches are.
He and his wife then coordinate specific themes with the appropriate months, such as “I’m Sooo Scared” for October and “A Snowball of a Chance” for December.
Entry is $5, and a random audience member chooses the winning story, whose teller walks away with $50. Next month will be the event’s one-year anniversary.
Pokorny believes the elements of telling a good story include a little bit of drama, bringing the story to a peak, using call-backs and ending the story with an unforeseen twist.
At West Side Stories, many of the contestants bring funny tales, Postenrieder said, like one of her favorites. It was told by a Russian immigrant who had to figure out what Halloween was when a gorilla knocked on her door.
Some stories were more touching, like the one about a man working in hospice who triggered the memory of an Alzheimer’s patient by playing her favorite songs.
Another crowd favorite was one of Pokorny’s. He was devastated by losing his high school letter jacket, but decades later a friend who had become a police officer found a woman wearing it in Oakland.
He and Postenrieder encourage people of all kinds — young and old, performers or not — to step up to the mic with their stories. The beauty of the Petaluma venue is that it attracts an appreciative audience.
“In a comedy club, if there is silence in the room, it’s death and you better speak up and get to your punch line,” Pokorny said. “But in a theater or gallery, silence means the audience is listening, engaged and hanging on to your words.”
His goal is to become a satellite for The Moth, and he is currently working with its organizers to get Petaluma designated as the group’s official fifth location.