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AF chaplain brings puppets to life

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Chaplain (Capt.) Randy Croft, 460th Space Wing chaplain, has practiced ventriloquism since the third grade and has since put on nearly 300 performances. He performed everywhere from Christmas parties and conventions to drug-free messages in schools. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Senior Airman Christopher Gross)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Chaplain (Capt.) Randy Croft, 460th Space Wing chaplain, has practiced ventriloquism since the third grade and has since put on nearly 300 performances. He performed everywhere from Christmas parties and conventions to drug-free messages in schools. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Senior Airman Christopher Gross)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- They don't like being called dummies; they prefer puppets, figures or Mannequin Americans -- anything but the term, dummy. They find it degrading and disrespectful, according to Dexter Smiley, a puppet at the everlasting age of 10 years old.

Dexter and his sidekick, Chaplain (Capt.) Randy Croft, 460th Space Wing chaplain, have performed as a team for almost 25 years. However, Croft has been making people laugh with his ventriloquism talents since the third grade.

Croft said his interest in ventriloquism started with The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show, a black-and-white production Croft watched when he was younger. Enamored by the show and the skill of ventriloquism, he asked for a Charlie McCarthy puppet for his birthday.

"I was in third grade and I begged my mother for one for my birthday. I got an electric blanket instead. So, I threw a fit and got grounded and spent my birthday in my room," said Croft.

Nonetheless, Croft got his puppet for Christmas that year and he immediately began teaching himself the art of ventriloquism. He began going to the library and reading books on how to make the substitute sounds. For example, instead of saying "peanut butter" with a "p," the letter "d" would be substituted so the lips wouldn't be seen moving.

"I just got into it because I thought it was creative; I was curious. I liked seeing the puppet talk on TV," Croft said.

Soon, after spending countless hours practicing, Croft performed at his school for younger children.

"It just got out of hand. I started doing little shows in grade school, then saved up for a better model of puppet," said Croft, a Walla Walla, Wash., native. "I loved hearing people laugh at the puppet's jokes."

That laughter led to Croft's ambition to get even better, and he eventually saved up for his second puppet, Eddie, which had moving eyebrows and eyes, and he could spit. Croft said he had all the "bells and whistles."

Croft and his various puppets performed nearly 300 shows throughout high school and his early college years at Walla Walla University. He performed everywhere from Christmas parties and conventions to drug-free messages in schools.

After doing more shows, Croft invested in a more professional puppet, Dexter, whom he still has today.

The most nerve-racking part of performing, according to Croft, is forgetting his lines.

"I'm up there and thinking, 'Don't mess up your lines,' but you practice enough and hope for the best," Croft said.

He recalled one show where Dexter's mouth button broke during the middle of his performance. All his reading and training paid off as he was quick on his feet and made Dexter go into ventriloquism mode. They performed a while longer and took a quick water break -- enough time for Croft to fix Dexter -- and the two went back out to finish the performance.

Croft and Dexter have performed throughout the U.S. They also went to Russia and Jamaica twice on short-term mission trips working with local children. He bought a "soft-puppet," similar to Jim Henson's Muppet characters, for a trip to the Republic of Zambia and left it with the locals after teaching them how to use the puppets in their own children's programs.

Dexter said he's enjoyed being on the road with Croft, and the two have made a great team; Dexter said he feels the world needs more puppet handlers like Croft.

"I let him think he (runs the show), but we all know he has no routine without me," Dexter said.

As Croft was going through seminary school at Andrews University, Mich., he decided it was time to put Dexter away for a while and focus on his studies. Croft said it took him until seminary to realize ministry was his calling and Dexter would help supplement.

"Even though I'm a pastor -- that's my profession, my calling. That's what I love to do and I feel that's what God wired me up to do," Croft said. He still loves making kids laugh with his ventriloquism.
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