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The many faces of Helen Rice

January 21, 1999

Helen RiceBy MEG H. PARTINGTON / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer




She can be almost saintly, childlike or downright silly. In fact, Helen Rice can be almost anyone.

[cont. from lifestyle]

With a veil draped over her head and donning a robe and sandals, she tells the story of Jesus' birth, life and crucifixion from his grandmother's point of view. In a red-checkered dress and hat with a price tag dangling from it, she reincarnates "Hee Haw's" Minnie Pearl. Give her a blonde wig and some, uh, enhancements, and she gives Dolly Parton a run for her money.

At 59 years old, Rice still knows how to see things from a child's point of view, as demonstrated during a performance earlier this month for Maugansville Friendship Club at Black Steer Family Steakhouse in Hagerstown, when Rice transformed into 6-year-old Sally Ann Jones.

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Wearing a blue dress decorated with a multicolored butterfly pattern, she sported the wig she uses for her Parton routine, this time tying it in pigtails with blue ribbons. She carried a pink purse with yellow handles and wore a bright pink hat folded up on the edges with a flower in the front.

The charming "little girl" told her attentive audience a little too much about her fictitious family in a manner similar to which Lily Tomlin entertained audiences with her Edith Ann character on "Laugh-In."

Sally Ann's mother brings home a lot of "uncles" to protect her while her husband is out trucking. The devious tot likes to get her 16-year-old sister in trouble for necking with her boyfriend when she's supposed to be baby-sitting and had fun treating her 14-year-old brother and the friends in his all-boy clubhouse to special cookies laced with laxatives. She says her 3-month-old brother reminds her of her grandmother because he has no teeth and sleeps a lot.

"I can be a kid again," says Rice after her show, now dressed in her "Helen clothes."

Rice says she gets some of her inspiration for Sally's wit from the two girls, ages 3 and 6, one who is her granddaughter, whom she baby-sits.

In fact, much of her stand-up material is based on real life.

Family plays a huge part in the life of Rice and it was at a Christmas gathering of relatives in 1977 that she did her first spoofs - of Pearl, Parton and Phyllis Diller.

"Then it snowballed," says Rice.

When she portrays Jesus' grandmother (Mary's mother), she says she mirrors aspects of her relationship with her grandsons. The serious role also reflects her lifelong faith, which she has practiced since childhood at Shiloh United Methodist Church in Hagerstown.

"A lot of my life is in the grandmother of Jesus," says Rice. "I like doing her. It's my way of ministering."

Rice talks about him as if he were the typical grandson, one she loves very much but who can also make her angry.

"Sometimes I almost feel like he's my grandson," she says.

Another act Rice has developed over the years is "Christmas with My Two Grandmothers," a concept she borrowed from an article she read in Good Housekeeping magazine. She shares memories of the two women, characters based on her mother and mother-in-law.

Grandmother Roberts is like her mother-in-law, a working woman who dared to wear slacks. She smelled of lavender and honeysuckle and enjoyed listening to the radio.

Tar soap-scented Grandmother Miller is more like her mother, a traditional, stay-at-home parent. She always wore dresses and entertained herself by reading the Bible and knitting.

While this grandmother routine is more lighthearted, she emphasizes that the two women were integral in forming the strong values she cherishes.

Probably her most famous impersonation is of Pearl, the spunky older woman originated by Sarah Cannon, who died in 1996 at the age of 83, a fixture on "Hee Haw" and at the Grand Ole Opry. When groups request her Pearl act, she asks who will be in the audience ahead of time so she can drop their names during the performance to add to the fun.

"Everybody likes Minnie Pearl," she says.

She recently added a Monica Lewinsky monologue to her host of characters, but she saves that for private parties.

As if dealing with all these different identities isn't enough of a juggling act, Rice also has been mistaken for a famous woman whose talent she shares. As the writer of poems, four of which have been published, she has been confused with greeting card great Helen Steiner Rice.

One particular work by the Hagerstown Rice, "Life Goes On," has been read at many funerals in the area. Plenty of people think it was penned by the Rice whose fame is more widespread.

Rice was a hairdresser for more than 30 years before her husband Sidney, whom she calls "Johnny," became ill and needed her care.

"He was proud of me," she said of the man who used to tote her all over for performances. He died at the age of 61 in July 1998.

Rice still styles hair at Green Hills Group Home and for Andrew K. Coffman and Minnich funeral homes.

When asked why she is able to keep her spirits high most of the time, she says, "I think it's because so many people depend on me." Rice thinks she is best known for her compassion, patience and common sense.

She also likes to make people happy.

"I don't think people laugh enough," says Rice.

But when she's around, they sure do.

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