Mind, Body & Spirit

When Sierra Vista psychologist’s puppets talk, patients listen — and heal

Sam Caron with Elwood

The benefits of being a ventriloquist have come full circle for Sam Caron. “At age 6 I was a very sick child” with rheumatic fever, says the Sierra Vista therapist, who has a Ph.D. in guidance and counseling from the University of New Mexico. “When I came home from the hospital as a child my aunt gave me a Jerry Mahoney-type puppet that went with me everywhere.” Caron, now 64, named the puppet Elwood, and he recently told the AJP, “It’s the only childhood toy I still have.”

When Caron was around 12 the family moved from Detroit to Albuquerque, N.M. Elwood went with them, although Caron didn’t perform with the puppet until he got his master’s degree in the early 1970s and started working in a hospital for developmentally impaired patients. “We would bring in people to entertain, but they would often get upset and leave,” says Caron. “I really got into it, not like the other entertainers.”

Caron later became a counselor in an Albuquerque elementary school. “I would use [Elwood] as an ice breaker” visiting classes, he recalls. “My use of puppets was growing, but I needed more girl puppets.” This was before the Internet, but through a magic and kite store in Albuquerque, Caron found someone who could help, commissioning a local puppet-maker to construct professional puppets that would be appropriate for developmental counseling in schools. Using the puppets to write scripts with students became one of Caron’s frequent therapy techniques. “I’m a believer that you educate and entertain simultaneously,” he says.

By the early 1980s, Caron had moved with his wife, Mary, and sons, Ben and Jeremy, to Sierra Vista, where he started a private counseling practice. “I bought more puppets, specifically for problems that children had,” he says, citing an abused teenager who used puppets to role play herself and the perpetrator in therapy. “It made her feel much better,” adds Caron.

The reception to Caron’s puppet therapy in schools and in his private practice was so gratifying that he produced 30-second radio spots with the puppets. Although Caron wasn’t nonprofit, “I wanted to give them to radio stations. I wanted to do a mitzvah,” he explains. Parents shopping with children in supermarkets was one of his topics, suggesting ways to prevent children from putting unwanted items in a shopping cart or from running around in the store. In the late ’80s, Caron wanted to produce a 30-minute TV program, but instead, spent a year airing improvisation pieces with Harvey Job Matusow, a clown and storytelling personality, on Tucson Community Cable Corporation, which is now Access Tucson public television.

Caron has also been part of the international puppet therapy scene, and has presented workshops at the Japanese Ventriloquists Association three times. “My goal is to write a series of books on the adventures of Dr. C and Elwood,” says Caron, who currently writes an online newsletter for parents of children with ADHD (adhd1.net), where he advises parents to share with their overly active 7-year-olds the three main symptoms of the disorder: “being hyperactive, acting fast without thinking first about the consequences or alternatives, and getting bored and distracted easily.”

In his private practice in Sierra Vista, Caron deals with a range of issues through puppet therapy. “A parent called me one day about her 4-year-old refusing to go to school,” he says. “Bring the child to my office with the understanding that she’ll be going to school,” Caron told the parent.

When they arrived at his office, he pulled out his dragon puppet, got in the car and started singing “we hate school,” with the puppet sitting on the girl’s shoulder. “She was thrilled with the puppet,” says Caron, adding that they had switched to “school is cool” by the time they got there. The previously school-hating little girl introduced the dragon puppet to her class, he notes, “giving her a new status.”

Caron, who is the major lay leader at Temple Kol Hamidbar in Sierra Vista, says that Elwood is Jewish. Caron has led Seders with his longtime puppet companion, performs a Chanukah song with Elwood on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=LtMjDZJCtqM&noredirect=1), and, he says, “Elwood comes to services with me.”

Caron’s sons, who also live in Sierra Vista, have inherited their father’s passion for puppets, and are both ventriloquists.

Having Elwood in his life has been therapeutic for Caron. “Six years ago I had triple bypass surgery. I took Elwood to University Medical Center with me. I was back to work in three weeks,” says Caron. And, he says, “Inputting my own creativity into my work makes it so much more fun for me.”