While storytelling had almost always been a part of Levine's life, it wasn't until she bought some finger puppets at a farmer's market in Bethesda that her interest in making and performing with puppets began.

Levine bought some felt, plastic googly eyes and fabric glue, and she made her own — everything from lions, tigers and frogs to wolves and even a Little Red Riding Hood.

She began doing puppet shows for friends' children and selling the hand-made puppets at various Columbia craft fairs. As demand grew, Levine said she realized she could expand her products to include hand puppets. She also needed to invest in proper sewing equipment.

"I didn't even have a sewing machine before I started making the hand puppets," said Levine, who is also a former assistant professor of early childhood education at Towson University.

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She quickly realized she could combine her love of storytelling with her new passion for puppetry. In 1973, just a few years after she began making puppets, she started Puppet Dance Productions in her home.

Lighting up smiles

Today, Levine's home is filled with hundreds of colorful puppets. Some, including a few marionettes, are either gifts or puppets Levine bought. But most are her creations, made with everything from felt and rug padding to foam rubber and cardboard.

Some have moveable mouths with heart-shaped tongues, similar to Jim Henson's Muppets. Others have rods, which Levine uses to move their arms. And her often-used wizard puppet is a marionette.

"The thing about puppets is they never come out exactly alike," Levine said.

Levine performs a series of interactive shows at area schools and senior centers, but her favorite show is "Colorful Characters Come Alive with Puppets and Poems," where Levine recites and creates stories around poems using her puppets as the mouthpiece.

Levine modifies the poems based on the audience's age. For example, during a middle or high school show, she will perform "Annabel Lee," a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, using a puppet stored in a coffin and black arm bands. For younger children, she brings out "Big Dog" for nursery rhymes and mice finger puppets for "Mice" by Rose Fyleman.

At her Ellicott City Senior Center performance last week, Levine gave audience members grey and white mouse puppets to wear on their fingers. As music played in the background, she instructed seniors to move their puppets up their arms, over their heads and then onto their noses.

Louise Appleby, a 93-year-old from Ellicott City, happily donned her grey mouse and even made it dance to the music.

"It's beautiful," she said.

Appleby said she couldn't remember the last time she played with puppets and was thankful to have the chance through Levine.

"I think she's wonderful," Appleby said. "She kept us on the edge. What's she going to do next?"

"I think seniors are a bit like preschoolers," Levine said. "The music, and making your hands into puppets... it gives them something to do if they follow me. And it gets them to think about the things they've seen in the past."

Levine said her interactive programs seem to resonate with many seniors, especially the ones with Alzheimer's disease. 

"Some seniors look like they are not there," Levine said. "But I can pull them into a circle of friendship."

By giving seniors puppets of their own to explore, or bringing puppets over for a hug or hand shake, many seniors suddenly smile, laugh and even talk to the puppets, Levine said. 

"They enjoy it," she said. "Their eyes light up like a child's eyes light up. I hope that much of what I'm doing brings memories, good memories for them," Levine said. "I think they enjoy me, and I enjoy them."

Felicia Stein, director of Ellicott City Senior Center Plus, said Levine's show is just the kind of interaction Senior Center Plus seniors need.

"Shirley's great," Stein said. "[Her show] makes them smile, and it brings memories back from when they were kids or when they raised their kids. … You see them light up."