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More puppets than the muppets

Everybody’s seen the Muppets. Jim Henson’s famous puppet troupe is known throughout the world.

But there’s more to puppets than the Muppets.

Bremerton’s very own Evergreen Children’s Theatre and Puppet Museum has just relocated to a storefront at 246 Fourth St. The new site provides oodles more room for ECT’s collection of 1,400 to 1,600 puppets.

The non-profit entity had formerly been housed in the basement of the Admiral Theatre.

“We needed more space,” said Marcia Parker, museum docent. “And public access was too limited at our old location.”

ECT volunteers have been busy setting up at the new site, next door to Metropolis The Gallery, for weeks. Fifteen display cases have been crammed haphazardly into the center of the space until the new quarters can be cleaned up and painted.

Both the walls and the floor need painting. The lights and electrical wiring need to be upgraded and, ideally, before the puppets are moved in, UV film needs to be applied to the front windows to protect the fragile collection from sunlight.

Part of the collection is being temporarily housed at the home of Stan Hess, the museum’s curator. Hess has been cataloging the collection for several years.

“I haven’t gone through them all yet,” he said. “Some need repair and restoration.”

The collection is strongest in puppets of the Northwest, he said. There’s also a good selection of Asian puppets, especially of traditional Javanese “rod” puppets.

There are marionettes, hand puppets, shadow puppets (a variety of rod puppet), and Japanese “Bunraku” puppets. Bunraku puppets are operated by puppeteers dressed in black, who are actually on stage with their creations during a performance, explained Hess.

The ECT’s recent production of “Little Red Riding Hood” was done using the Bunraku style of puppeteering.

Some of ECT’s holdings are pretty special.

“Our largest puppet is certainly very dramatic,” said Hess. “It’s a six-foot shadow puppet of the Indian god Rama.”

Shadow and rod puppets are often relatively simple affairs in which a silhouette is created and displayed behind a backlit sheet or screen.

The oldest puppets in the collection are probably Punch & Judy puppets from England from the 1860s, he said. Most of the puppets in the collection are American and date no further back than the 1930s — though several date to the turn of the century.

The entire collection is not located at Hess’ home, nor will even a fraction be on display at any given time at ECT’s new site. The collection is divided up between Hess and Marshall Campbell in Palm Springs, Calif.

“We hope to rotate elements of the collections through the museum,” said Hess. Even though the new space is three times the size of the old space, there’s simply too many puppets to display in the museum all at once.

Campbell helped found ECT and the museum in 1993. Aurora Valentinetti, professor emeritus of the University of Washington School of Drama, collected the bulk of the collection and donated it to ECT. Valentinetti lives in the Wallingford District of Seattle.

Parker said Valentinetti originally planned to pack up her puppets and send them to a museum in Atlanta.

“Marshall talked her into leaving them here, in Bremerton,” she said. Campbell used to live in Bremerton. He was a student of Valentinetti’s at the UW.

Originally, ECT staged its own productions of puppet shows. Eventually, it morphed into a sponsoring agency, hosting professional puppet troupes from around the world. Performances are usually at the Admiral.

“My dream is to have a theater of our own,” said Parker. “The Admiral Theatre is a wonderful venue, but we need a more intimate space for the children.”

The ECT also holds classes in mask making and puppet construction and operation, said Parker. Eventually, museum management would like to set up a gift shop at the site.

Hess said puppets are not just for kids.

“I enjoy the creative aspects of this as an art form,” he said. “I enjoy their sculptural aspects and historical importance.”

Hess spent 30 years as museum librarian in museums in Seattle, Cleveland and Kansas City. He’s currently works part time at the Amy Burnett Gallery.

Neither Hess nor any of the many volunteers and board members of ECT get paid. To donate time, construction materials for the museum, cash or even puppets, contact ECT at 377-8141.

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