OCEANSIDE — Charles Johnson was a child prodigy who sold his first software program to an online company at the age of 15.
In 2015 he plans to quit his job as a software engineer to pursue his dream as a full-time storyteller and family entertainer.
Also known as The Paperbag Cowboy, Johnson will be offering spooky stories and ukulele playing at a free, family-friendly event at 2 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Oceanside Public Library.
Johnson got interested in storytelling as a child playing Dungeons and Dragons. During the summer, he fed his imagination by acting out imaginary characters such as Robin Hood or those he’d see in classic movies such as “King Kong” and “Sinbad.”
His performing career was ignited in October 2004 when he read that you lose the ability to learn how to play an instrument if you haven’t done so by the age of 40.
“I was 35, and always wanted to play an instrument so I got a ukulele, and a harmonica and I started working away at it,” he said. “My goal was to be able to play sing-along songs to share at parties.”
By August 2006 he taught himself 12 cowboy songs, and set out to fulfill a lifelong dream of working as a street performer at Balboa Park.
To do that, he participated in a lottery where he was fortunate to draw a low number.
“I knew there were people there who did this for a living, so I took a mediocre spot, near the Morton Bay Fig,” he said.
“I pushed my back up against the fence, made myself as small as possible, stared at the ground and sang quietly, trying not to look at people or attract attention. I played for seven hours — the same 12 songs, over and over again. I made $6.”
In 2008, Johnson set out to learn the craft of storytelling by taking an evening and weekend job as a haunted walking tour guide in Old Town.
“One night I was the host to 50 Girl Scouts, and we walked through Old Town telling spooky stories about the Whaley House and the Old Adobe Church,” he said. “It was about that time that I decided this was the life for me. Professional storytelling is not as lucrative as you might think, but it’s certainly good for the soul, mine and my listeners.’”
Johnson’s act evolved to the extent that he became a storyteller who played songs in support of his stories.
Then he added jokes and started playing the harmonica, concertina, kazoo, fife, paperbag and a banjo. He also began sewing his costumes.
Marilyn McPhie is president of the nonprofit Storytellers of San Diego.
“Charles is one of the most energetic and engaging storytellers I’ve seen,” she said.
“You are tapping your toe and repeating phrases or a refrain. You’re excited about what’s going to come next. He takes possession of the whole space, jumping up and shooting imaginary arrows.”
Today, Johnson is recruited to perform at a variety of venues including house concerts and outdoor events such as the Sam Hinton Folk Festival at Old Poway Park.
“Charles reminds me of the type of performer you used see at Disneyland in the old days,” park supervisor Dave Richards said.
“It’s a very captivating art form, not something you see of anymore and he does it well. Charles has some sort of Disney magic about him.”
Johnson is looking forward to the day when he becomes a full-time performer.
“Storytelling makes me feel the way that I did when I was a boy, when I would pretend that life is a grand adventure,” he said. “I don’t just sing songs, I sing cowboy songs that Gene Autry and Roy Rogers would’ve sung, or I pick up a concertina to play sea chanteys wearing pirate garb.
When I tell stories I throw myself into it, I pretend that I’m the hero rescuing the damsel in distress, or the stalwart adventurer discovering lost worlds. And I hope my audience does the same.”
The Oceanside Public Library is located at 330 North Coast Highway. For more information call (760) 435-5600 or visit oceansidepubliclibrary.org or paperbagcowboy.com.