Nestled in the heart of Sellwood and surrounded by tall trees and flowers, stands a small house inhabited by hundreds of puppets. This is the Portland Puppet Museum, dedicated towards preserving the ancient history and art of puppetry.
The museum opened in 2012 and has featured over 50 different exhibits made up of 200-400 different puppets. Each exhibit has its own uniquely new theme such as “women of the ancient world” or “fairytale creatures.” The exhibits change every year in a three week-long process of moving out the old puppets to make room for new ones, which are selected from a collection of over 2,000 puppets. Currently, the theme is “fairytale creatures” and includes hundreds of fairytale characters who inhabit the museum alongside other puppets from around the world. All of these puppets work together to create a magical environment.
However, the displayed puppets are not the only ones that spread the magic of puppetry, as it is humans that bring puppets to life. The museum hosts puppet-making workshops, live performances and educational outreach opportunities all aimed at bringing joy to communities through puppets. The museum is frequented by all ages of visitors. Adults marvel at the detailed handmade clothing while children point at the characters they know from stories. Perhaps the most magical being in the museum, however, is its owner, Steve Overton.
Overton’s love for puppets has been cultivated over 55 years and was initially inspired by his mother. Overton’s family traveled around Germany for three years in his youth, performing puppet shows at elementary schools. However, he didn’t like the stories they performed, so he began writing his own. He now produces his original stories at the museum. He opened the museum with his partner, Martin Richmond. Richmond has since passed away, but the museum still prospers in his honor. Over the years, Overton has made over 3,000 puppets which are owned by many different companies, including Disney.
A unique feature of the Portland Puppet Museum is the fact that it is exceptionally interactive. After all, what is the point of going to a puppet museum if you are not able to actually experience what it is like to be a puppeteer? This is why, in addition to displaying puppets, visitors may also play with them. In the store, there is a set of puppets that anyone is welcome to use. Overton is extremely dedicated to the performative aspects of puppetry and makes an effort to teach visitors how to use them.
For instance, after witnessing a few visitors’ curiosity about how to maneuver a mermaid puppet, Overton immediately made his way over and offered a demonstration. Shortly thereafter, he grabbed his own puppet, turned on some music and proceeded to perform an entire dance. He let visitors try to perform a dance with this puppet, and smiled as they struggled to make the hips move in the same way he just did with ease.
Overton said that he views puppetry as an escape from the simultaneously boring yet busy nature of our modern lives. He aims to use puppetry in order to make people feel something.
“Puppetry creates the illusion of life,” Overton said in an interview with the Oregonian.
He explained that everything in life is so serious now and we often don’t make time to play. That’s why, in addition to its dedication to preserving puppetry as an art form, the museum is also dedicated to spreading joy.
“It’s different than watching TV. You get to touch them, you get to talk to them, you get, sometimes, to work with them, and you can’t do that with a television show. It is a very tactile experience.” Overton said to the Oregonian.
Throughout the years, Overton and his team have utilized many different methods in order to achieve this goal, from puppet making workshops with specific themes to live shows throughout the year to an entire film titled, “Witch Key: from the tales of Belvuria,” which was written and directed by Overton himself.
Overton and his team visited Lewis & Clark for a puppet convention in the ’90s, which hosted puppet-making and performing workshops. The convention also included a puppet performance about a barmaid falling in love with a prince, which was hosted on the estate gardens and featured 600 different puppets. In fact, this very show was performed at the museum earlier this October.
Overton’s passionate about the power and magic of puppetry. Although Overton emphasized the joys that puppets have brought to him, his main goal in sharing his love of puppetry is using that joy to make a difference in the lives of others—which is its own form of magic.
The museum is open from 2 p.m.-8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday and entry is free.