Nestled in the Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood, on a quiet street a few blocks from the river, is a gateway to an ancient form of storytelling. Easily overlooked, the beige shop with red and brown trim is home to scores of puppets — and a man with a gift.
Steven Overton opened the Portland Puppet Museum at the shop on Southeast Umatilla Street in 2011. The building itself has been a Portland fixture since its construction in the 1880s, originally home to Campbell’s Grocery where local ferry commuters purchased supplies.
Today, an array of puppets peer out of the museum’s windows — an imaginative amuse-bouche of what awaits visitors inside. Stepping through the front door immediately broadens your understanding of just how vast and old the art of puppetry is (fun fact: it dates back at least 4,000 years to the Egyptians).
A beautifully crafted, roughly 2-ft-tall likeness of Queen Elizabeth wearing an intricate, bejeweled ball gown stands near the entrance. Steven, the puppet’s creator, said a photo of this particular puppet was rumored to have graced the late Elizabeth II’s desk.
Every inch of space is carefully curated to display rotating collections of puppets of every size, shape, and origin. Some 2,700 puppets are housed at the museum, though most are in storage, awaiting their turn in the spotlight. Many are rare, one-of-a-kind items made generations ago; others are TV famous. The space also hosts performances and workshops.
But arguably the most interesting draw to the Portland Puppet Museum is Steven himself. An art school graduate and certified master puppeteer, he’s personally built upwards of 3,000 puppets and has performed live and broadcasted shows for countless audiences. Despite the death of his life and business partner, Martin Richmond, in November, Steven continues to fulfill his mission: to educate, amaze, and bring joy to the community.
Stop by sometime. You’ll learn a lot about puppets and meet a local treasure. The museum is open Thursday-Sunday, 2-8 p.m. Admission is by donation.