Howard County Times
Howard County

Columbia puppeteer brings stories, imagination to her audiences

Shirley Johannesen Levine sways back and forth at the Ellicott City Senior Center, her arms moving to the left and then the right as she recites the classic nursery rhyme, "Old Mother Hubbard."

"Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to give her poor dog a bone," she said with a voice deeper than her normal tone. "That's me."


Then, she pants.

Child-like giggles spread erupt from the audience – members of the Senior Center Plus social day program and the Athelas Institute, a community center that provides vocational, educational, residential and recreational programs for adults with disabilities.


Yet it's not Levine, a 74-year-old mother of two and grandmother of five, they are watching. It's her puppets.

For this rhyme, it's Big Dog, a wide-eyed, lovable brown dog puppet who pants and howls when he learns Old Mother Hubbard's cupboard is bare and there is not a bone in site.

For other poems, there's Ernestine Eloise, a mischievous yet shy girl puppet who dances, hops and even burps as she recites the lines. And there's Plumduff, a green, 7-foot Chinese Imperial dragon

"Puppets are like actors, looking for words to say and words that can play," said Levine, as she transitioned from one poem to another. "I enjoy bringing my puppets to audiences that wouldn't normally see them."

For more than 30 years, Levine, a Columbia resident, has entertained audiences across the country and around the world with her puppetry skills and her company, Puppet Dance Productions.

Using mime, music and her own hand-made puppets, Levine encourages everyone from young children to senior citizens to "stretch their imagination" as she brings poems and stories to life.

Levine's interaction with her audience does more than provide entertainment; it supports wellness, according to Judah Ronch, University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Erickson School of aging studies

"At any age, interaction is key to a sense of engagement and meaning of life," Ronch said.


But interactive performances like puppet shows can be especially beneficial for seniors, he said. Doing activities with seniors rather than for them promotes autonomy and self-esteem, he said. Research also shows older people with dementia will positively respond to an enriched environment that's not too overwhelming, Ronch said.

"The more you can do for engagement, the better," he said.

Getting started

Looking back on her childhood in Nebraska, Levine said she was a "bright, ambitious" child with a great imagination. She never played with puppets but remembers cutting paper dolls from the pages of the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog. She even created scenes and stories where the dolls would talk and move, she said.

Her interest in storytelling grew when she met a neighborhood woman who performed monologues.

"She intrigued me," Levine said. "So, I worked with her."


The woman taught Levine how to use her voice to convey her speech, as well as how to stand so her voice would project.

After college, while working at the Harvard Business School and writing her own short stories, she met her husband, William. They married in 1963 and moved to Columbia in 1971 while Levine was pregnant with their first child.

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.


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."