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.
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
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as having been a very, very shy, withdrawn child.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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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.