April 5, 2000    Los Gatos, California  Since 1881

Los Gatos Weekly-Times

    Ludwig Van Birdoven V, Carol Green
    Photograph by Kathy De La Torre

    That Ludwig Van Birdoven V is such a card!

    Sealed Lips

    Carol Greene would never call Sammy, Reginald Rabbit and the rest of the gang dummies

    By Mary Ann Cook

    Some of those in Carol Greene's family say outrageous things--sling disparaging remarks at others on an elevator, crack wise to people they don't even know, wink and flirt unmercifully with women of all ages. Such behavior would elicit a proper scolding, or worse, for human offspring.

    But these family members are impervious to punishment. That's because they're puppets or vent figures, as in a Charlie McCarthy-type vent. Greene, a singing ventriloquist who lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains, never uses the word "dummy."

    And no wonder. These characters assume human characteristics very quickly and seem to have a life of their own after a few minutes spent with them. They sing better than Greene does and they wise off with remarks Greene would never dream of making.

    Reginald Rabbit is liable to say, "Oh, you gorgeous girls. I just want to kiss you all!" when pressed inside a crowded elevator. And then proceed to do just that--as much as Greene will let him.

    And it isn't just Greene who gets carried away with these creatures' humanness. After entertaining at an event at Skyland Community Church, Greene placed a covering over Valerie's head and one of the organizers carefully removed it. "She won't be able to breathe," said the concerned citizen.

    (Even this reporter protested when Greene began to stuff Sammy back into the trunk in which he had arrived. Greene made it clear, however, he liked it in there and even had a miniature TV tucked inside with him.)

    Sammy is named after Greene's uncle. His full name is Samuel Andrew Johnston III and he's a sassy character about 11 years old. In looks he's somewhat reminiscent of Charlie McCarthy and is definitely a wise guy. But the member of her vent family who's really embarrassing is Reginald Rabbit.

    He behaved so outrageously at the annual ventriloquist convention that Greene attends--and where she's part of the entertainment--that she decided not to take him out that night. Her niece, Sarah Jackson, an aspiring ventriloquist who was with her and was part of her act that year, agreed.

    "Good idea. He hasn't been behaving very well." Palming off too many embarrassing comments in the elevator, evidently. He was left in the hotel room, probably muttering to himself.

    Greene describes herself as having been a very, very shy, withdrawn child. Her mother, a violinist, thought performing would help bring her out of her shell. The fact that she was the older sister--11 years older--and would entertain her sibling and friends helped, too.

    Greene started imitating Elvis when she was 16, in an act she called Pelvis Ghastley. She also started puppetry about that time. Later she took clown lessons but decided being a clown wasn't for her. However, she did continue performing with puppets Ronald and Philbert.

    Performing at fairs and school functions brought other rewards: she was able to put herself through college giving shows on weekends, a mix of magic and puppets.

    Photograph by Kathy De La Torre

    Carol Greene spends a little quality time with her buddy Ludwig Van Birdoven V.

    Greene attended the University of Denver, but married before completing the degree. Later she received an education degree from San Jose State University with a minor in speech, drama and art, all of which she makes use of in her act.

    Her husband is Paul, an engineer in rocket-engine propulsion before his retirement, and they have two flesh-and-blood offspring. Kevin works in computer science in the Bay Area and Joy is an aeronautics flight instructor at the University of North Dakota.

    For years Greene taught both elementary and middle-school students throughout the Moreland School district in San Jose. For the last 11 years of that stint she was the creative arts specialist for the district, and moved from school to school and room to room.

    "I had to invent the entire curriculum. I never worked so hard in my life," she says. The creative arts assignment was the idea of then Moreland District superintendent Robert Reasoner.

    Greene's teaching methods were always innovative. "You've got to make it fun to learn," she insists. "Music and movement open kids up to learning." Though she covered the material, she presented it in an entertaining, creative way.

    Since, as a child, she had often invented her own toys this came second nature to her. "I made my own doctor kit [as a child] using Cheerios for medicine and pine needles for giving shots," she says. She also made her own marimba. "It's much less expensive that way. And when you make something yourself you invest much more emotion into it. It becomes much more meaningful."

    Another assignment she gave her classes was to learn a magic trick so thoroughly they could perform it and then teach the rest of the class how it worked. The class would then evaluate the performance. Or she'd ask her charges to interview their grandfathers for a class assignment, with appropriate questions to nudge the interview along.

    "Anything so they weren't just copying something out of an encyclopedia," she says.

    She also used hand puppets as aides in classroom teaching. Payne school principal Dick Groshong, a former Los Gatan, and a self-esteem guru was very supportive of her methods. He also urged her to entertain at district fundraisers.

    Nowadays she teaches teachers. "I really love teaching adults," she says. She recently taught a workshop at Asilomar for teachers in the Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties. "Now it's my turn to teach others how to do it," she says.

    And she continues to perform on a limited basis. "I was entranced," says Fran Alfson, president of the Los Gatos History Club, where the puppeteer performed last year. Greene's next gig is at the Teddy Bear Tea on May 7, at the Los Gatos Presbyterian Church. Thomas J. Bear, who isn't too bright and loves chocolate, will appear.

    As a pianist and percussionist, as well as a former dancer with the Maryjo Lo Bue Dance Troupe of Los Gatos, Greene's act usually incorporates music, dance, ventriloquism and magic. The puppet she dances with, since he's the best dancer in her stable, is Ludwig Van Birdoven V.

    He looks a bit like Big Bird and can waltz divinely. Other members of her floppy figure family are Alexander Alligator and King Hisss, a snake with an affinity for gambling. And then there's Katie Lynn, a kindergartner who is usually in trouble.

    Katie was to replace Valerie, who was beginning to look a bit down at the mouth, but Valerie is so beloved by those who have met her that Greene hasn't the heart to retire her just yet. Greene made Valerie and King Hisss herself.

    As for Sammy, she found him at Patterson's Antiques in Los Gatos, and had him refurbished by a professional named Ray Guyll who lives near Seattle. Sammy was originally made by Frank Marshall, the famous vent maker responsible for Edgar Bergen's characters.

    Marshall's name can be seen on the back of Sammy's throat when a flashlight is shone therein. Sammy's actual age in human years is 70.

    Ventriloquism is not only a choice learning tool, but can also help those in emotional or physical distress. Some time ago Greene entertained at a Livermore hospital and one patient, who hadn't talked or responded to any stimuli since he got there, reacted to Reginald Rabbit.

    Photograph by Kathy De La Torre

    Ventriloquist Carol Greene enjoys dancing with Ludwig Van Birdoven V.

    After Reg talked to him for a while, the man hugged the puppet and even responded verbally. The nurses couldn't believe it. Greene heard later that the man's initial breakthrough continued after she left, too.

    Orthopedic patients can be helped by practicing ventriloquism or puppetry themselves, since it takes coordination and muscle strengthening.

    Today, besides teaching teachers, Greene is focusing on music. She composed a children's musical, Noah's Ark, which was performed at Skyland Community Church. She plays the hand bells for that church and helps with the youth choir, which is under the direction of Margretta Dollard.

    Dollard, who also directs the adult choir, says of Greene: "She's such a talented, genuinely creative person. For example, the adult choir was singing a song celebrating spring recently, and she had children's choir members carry butterflies on sticks she had made.

    "They paraded through the congregation while the choir sang. Nobody else would have done that. She can do anything she sets her mind to do."

    Not everyone in the vent family would be that flattering in appraising her. Reginald, for instance, thinks Greene is too straight, a party-pooper. He always claims he had big parties while she is out of town because she won't throw any when she is in town.

    The vent figures she uses in teaching always say that they are the ones doing the teaching, not her, so she's taking undue credit.

    The vents don't go in for the written word, though, so she can take credit for the column she writes. It's called U-Can-Do-It-2 and she writes it for Laugh Makers Journal, a quarterly publication. Both in this publication and on the Internet she is able to instruct others with her innovative devices. The subjects she covers may be how to make rain sticks, ribbon sticks, marimbas or boom pipes. "I love sharing," she says.

    She's the one who maintains the email listings of ventriloquists through Puppeteers of America. Her favorite ventriloquist is Señor Wences, with Paul Winchell a close second. She studied Winchell's book, Vent for Fun and Profit , closely before launching her own version.

    And she met Winchell at the International Ventriloquist Convention where he told her he enjoyed her act and gave her a hug and kiss. The song parody she and niece Sarah did with several vent figures received a standing ovation.

    "I bought one of his books for him to autograph even though it cost $100. I thought it was the least I could do for someone so influential in getting me started."

    Another handy prop Greene uses impromptu is ring puppets. Ring puppets look like two marble-sized eyes fastened together with a loop . They are held between the fingers and appear to be two eyes peering out, the tiniest puppet imaginable.

    With Greene's knack for mimicry, these two marble eyes become another being after a few minutes of conversation. She delighted Mexican children with this device on a recent Elderhostel trip.

    Ever the teacher, she explains how to get started in ventriloquism. "Just put your teeth together and look relaxed," she advises. Though her own lips never seem to move, for a beginner it's a different story. She neglects to add that it takes many, many years of practice to project skillfully.

    Photograph by Kathy De La Torre

    Carol Greene, who enjoys a wooded view from the deck of her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains, says her pal Reginald Rabbit can sometimes be a handful.

    Some six consonants have to be avoided when venting. Bs and Ps for two. Any sound that is pronounced using the front of the lips has to be substituted with a sound in the back of the throat. So the word "beautiful" becomes "deutiful;" the word "favorite" becomes "thathorite," etc.

    The vent figures are good singers, she's been told, but she doesn't consider herself an accomplished singer.

    "I have no idea what they're going to say," she comments about her capricious charges. For instance, Valerie was recently asked, "What's your favorite food?" and the response was, "How do I know? You never feed me."

    But fortunately Greene does feed the rest of us--with laughter and learning.

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