A fading art brought to life for children

August 23, 1994|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,Sun Staff Writer

Shirley Johannesen Levine says puppeteers are a dying breed.

That's why she's taken the summer off to develop the latest version of her puppet act, "Magic and Make Believe: Puppets and Poems," in time to present it at area schools this fall.

"There's so much television," she says. "Why go into puppeteering if you haven't seen a good puppet show?"

The self-employed puppeteer founded the Columbia-based Puppet-Dance Productions, a company she created to promote her performances to schools, churches and senior centers in 1978.

She says "Magic and Make Believe" will include music, mime, audience participation and the magic of seeing puppets come alive.

"I need to have some teaching in my performances," Ms. Levine said. "I've worked real hard with audiences to let them catch the magic."

The Long Reach Village resident wears white and black clothing when she performs to make sure her audiences pay attention to the puppets and not the puppeteer. Unlike most puppeteers, she stands in full view of her audiences instead of hiding behind stage.

"I want children to see what I'm doing and learn something about puppetry as an art form," Ms. Levine says. "The things I noticed with children is that they don't know stories and they don't read." Ms. Levine moved to Columbia 21 years ago with her husband, William, and two small children. Her son Bruce is now 25 and daughter Eleanore is 22.

"Columbia is also ideal for performers," Ms. Levine says. "I can get to all the counties very easily."

After making finger puppets for Christmas ornaments, Ms. Levine gradually moved to making larger puppets, including marionettes. In 1975, she began performing.

Virtually every nook and cranny of her home is filled with the 1,000 puppets she has made and collected over the years.

She has wizards, clowns, belly dancers, a Harriet Tubman look-a-like, a fairy godmother and countless animals. Some are puppets made out of household items such as paint brushes and clothespins, rod puppets made from Chinese chop sticks and tennis balls, and elaborate marionettes operated with strings.

"Today, children don't see that they can create," Ms. Levine says.

"Movement, voice, imagination bring a puppet to life," she adds.

Her home-made puppets, she says, do not have mouths "because they are stuck like that. I want to make them happy or sad. Puppets are like actors looking for roles to play and words to say."

She sometimes refers to them as the "little people."

"It's the same thing God must have felt with Adam," Ms. Levine says. "You can create them and give them movement, but you can't make them do what you want them to do."

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