Call of the Valley: Jeff Hutchins brings Denton to Black Mountain
Due to the fact that Jeff Hutchins’ father worked for the Arabian-American Oil Company, his childhood in a square mile desert community close to the Persian Gulf was unique. When he finally went off to high school in New England in the early '60s, he had no way to relate to his classmates who were always talking about pop songs and other aspects of Americana. Looking back, however, he never felt deprived. He always had the ability to entertain himself.
“As a kid, I played by myself a lot,” he said. “But that never bothered me. I would stand in the front yard facing a masonry wall connected to a tilted roof with a peak and create imaginary teams with very distinct players. Then I would toss the ball toward the roof and narrate a whole major league game based on the ones I’d heard on the shortwave radio at night.”
Hutchins also had an interest in the ventures of fictional characters. His parents gave him a set of Steiff puppets that he would engage with one another. Soon afterwards, he started writing stories. One day he asked his fourth grade teacher if he could write one for the class. Eventually he built a puppet theater and put on shows for the kids who were also residing in this company community. As a result he thought of somehow bringing this interest to fruition.
Much later on, in Arlington, Massachusetts, he began telling standard children’s stories to Rachel, his 3-year-old daughter, who subsequently asked for a new tale. As it happens, one of her friends in child care was named Denton.
“So, I made up a story about Denton and little Rachel," Hutchins said. "She lives in a place called Bubble Land. One day she went up into the mountains and found a dragon whose name was Denton. Everyone in town was afraid of this dragon because they would hear him roar at night. But little Rachel went up to the mountain, found Denton living alone up in a cave and discovered the echo he made led him to pretend other dragons were coming to see him.”
The little girl invited Denton to live at her house so he could have a real friend. Based on his roar, everyone in town assumed he was fearsome, mean and ugly, but they’d never met him. Once they saw him playing in her front yard and began to play with him, they learned you should never judge a book by its cover.
Meanwhile, Hutchins was working for PBS in Boston on "Zoom," a show drawn from children’s writings. He moved on to a caption center enabling deaf people to have access to television, segued to Washington, D.C., to the National Capturing Institute, leading to a stint partnering and creating a “live event” capturing process in Pittsburgh.
Denton came back into the picture when he started writing sermons for a local Unitarian Church on universal themes like trust, illustrated, as a lead-in, by a story of Denton and his friends. By the time Hutchins and his wife Diane retired to Black Mountain 13 years ago, he had a trove of a dozen Denton tales.
“By then, we were on vacation, loved the vibe, the mountains and the people who are open minded and compassionate, and so we moved here,” Hutchins said. "Besides, I feel this is Denton’s home, where he was born and raised and it just kind of suits him.”
Once again, one thing led to another. He wrote children’s books in tandem with local illustrator Jerry Pope. He raised money from friends and family and commissioned professionals to create catchy songs for a story extolling those selfsame universal values he calls “Denton comes to Pingletown.”
The show is in rehearsal with five paid performers playing nine characters scheduled for production at the Black Mountain Center of the Arts opening the weekend of Jan. 7.
He envisions the project as “Simply a labor of love. Good old-fashioned fun for the whole family that just might go on out into the world to entertain other community audiences in the U.S.”