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As a special education teacher, Rosalyn Altman saw firsthand the power of puppets.

"When I put a puppet on my hand, I got a lot more language," she said of the students with moderate to severe autism she taught. "They would talk to the puppet when they wouldn't talk to me. The puppet is nonjudgmental and nonthreatening."

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Helen Wojtech, who was a preschool teacher for 40 years, used puppets in her classroom.

"The puppet is very real to them," she said. "They can see themselves in the puppets. It was a wonderful way to engage the children."

So, it was only natural for Altman and Wojtech, along with fellow Carroll Vista residents Pamela Maranto and Nancy Blose, to be drawn to the idea of creating a puppet troupe now that they were all retired. Maranto worked in the behavioral health field, teaching art. Blose was a math teacher and one-time head of the math department at Francis Scott Key High School.

"We have all taught, which is the connection," Altman said. "There are four facets of education represented here."

The Carroll Vista Grannies of Taneytown perform puppet shows for free in the area, including local schools and the library. Most recently, they performed for the kindergarten classes at Taneytown Elementary. For the four women it is a labor of love, and each brings to it her own talents and experiences.

The Grannies began when Wojtech performed with a puppet at a Carroll Vista children's tea, something Wojtech was eager to do.

"After I retired, I missed the children," she said.

Maranto, a member of the Carroll Vista activities committee along with Wojtech and Blose, saw the performance and had an idea.

"Helen simply had a puppet on her hand and was telling a story," recalled Maranto. "There was no theater or stage. I watched their little faces. They were all mesmerized. All their attention was focused on the puppet. Even with all the technology we have today that format still works. I thought to myself, 'we can do this.'"

Inspired by Wojtech, Maranto recruited neighbors Altman and Blose.

"We're like-minded people and they were all onboard," she said.

Maranto then recruited her husband's help in constructing a theater.

"I have the best husband in the world," she said. "He and I work very well together when it comes to building things. I come up with the creativity end of it, and he constructs it."

Maranto also makes many of the puppets and the Grannies certainly have a collection of characters. They range from Maranto's homemade witch, ghost, mummy and vampire for an upcoming Halloween production to those purchased at flea markets and others created from taking stuffed animals, removing the stuffing and bringing them to life. Wojtech and Altman both brought along puppets from their teaching days, as well.

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The first performance of the Grannies was held last Christmas at Carroll Vista. Maranto's sister, a writer, prepared an original story for them to perform with Maranto's son-in-law providing the voice of Santa Claus. "It was a family affair," she said.

The performance was a success.

"You could hear a pin drop," Altman said. "That's when I knew the children were really taking it in and that we had hit a home run with this."

However, the women learned early on the unique challenges of puppetry.

"It's much harder than I thought it would be," Maranto admitted.

"You put this thing on your hand and you have to bring it to life," Altman said. "Not everyone feels comfortable doing that."

Sometimes it is more than one life at a time. A story may require a person operating two puppets at the same time or quickly changing from one puppet to another. Then there are the accents — those on purpose and those not.

"I have to be conscious of not putting a Brooklyn accent into the puppet," said Altman, who is originally from New York, with a chuckle.

And for one character, named Giuseppe, "I couldn't decide if he was French, English or Italian during the show," said Maranto, laughing.

The other three will quickly admit though that Blose is the gifted one when it comes to voices.

"She can take different puppets and easily create different voices," Altman said.

"I do a really good crow," Blose noted.

Speaking of voices, there is the additional challenge of matching the movements of the puppet's mouth to the dialogue, simultaneously.

"That's a real art in itself," Wojtech said.

Arms in the air for long periods of time, different voices for different characters, frequently changing the scenery behind them — and all of it is done while crouched down in a tiny space, elbow to elbow.

"But it is all worth it," Wojtech said.

Altman, Maranto and Blose perform with the puppets, while Wojtech is the story narrator.

The latest production is "Home Sweet Home," adapted by the Grannies from the book "It's Not Easy Being a Bunny" by Marilyn Sadler. Characters range from Blose's crow to the main character Ricky the Rabbit, who runs away from home, to a turtle, a fawn, an alligator (with smelly breath according to Ricky and much to the delight of the young audience), a stingray and an octopus, just to name a few.

And it was certainly a hit when performed for the first time at Taneytown Elementary.

Kindergartner Maddox Bernard-Terrell summed it best when he said with a seriousness far beyond his years, "The bunny had a good journey but he needed to come back home. You don't want to run away from home. You might get lost."

Pausing and breaking into a grin, he added, "I liked it."

The youngsters were even encouraged to create their own stick puppets of a sun, decorating the sun's face any way they liked. At the end of the performance, they held their suns high in the air and joined the Grannies in singing "You Are My Sunshine" as the puppets came out to say hello to the audience.

"We're just simple grandmas doing what we enjoy," Maranto said.

More information

For more information on the Carroll Vista Grannies, contact Pamela Maranto at pmaranto@comcast.net.

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