Puppetry is one of the most ancient forms of entertainment still in practice, with a history that stretches back to the fifth century B.C. and touches nearly every corner of the globe. Even with the advent of theater, film, and TikTok, children and adults alike (barring those with pupaphobia) are often still hopelessly enchanted by the projection of life onto miniaturized beings. Nowhere is this enduring allure more extensively on display than in Portland’s Puppet Museum.
Fitting for its focus, the museum occupies a bite-sized room in a former corner grocer built in the 1870s in Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood. Its entire archive of over 2,000 puppets could of course never fit on display all at once, so exhibits rotate every four months. With figures from over 38 countries, both new and antique, spanning a range of different subcategories within the world of puppetry (dummies, shadow, rod-and-arm, marionettes, etc), there’s never a shortage of possible themes. Even curated, the room is stuffed chock-a-block with puppets of all shapes, sizes, and origins. Those of American television fame include an original Miss Piggy (1977), a reproduction of Lamb Chop, and Topo Gigio from The Ed Sullivan Show.
While there are several other puppet museums in the country, this exhaustive and free-admission museum is the only permanent one on the west coast. And while the puppets themselves are of course the big draw, the museum’s greatest asset may be its living proprietor—a real boy, indeed.
Steven Overton has been collecting, designing, and building puppets for over 50 years. A certified master puppeteer by age 22, he knows what to do with them, too. The museum is his personal collection, and also one that—as he continues building new figures—expands day by day. Overton has retained not only a plethora of puppet knowledge over his many dedicated years, able to explain the origin of every puppet and the history behind its provenance, but is also gregarious enough to share enthusiastically with anyone curious enough to enter.
Overton also offers puppet-building workshops for adults and children in an upstairs space while putting on shows in the building’s backyard. Be sure to scout tickets on their Facebook page in advance—shows tend to sell out if you don’t have a quick hand.