The puppeteer

Entertaining children, adults in the big blue house of magic

jwilkinson@thestate.comApril 25, 2013 

Lyon Hill and John Scollon are puppeteers at the Columbia Marionette Theater. Scollon's mother, Alie, founded the theatre in 1988. Scollon is the executive director, and Hill is the artistic director.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

— Tucked away near Riverfront Park is a house of magic.

The Columbia Marionette Theatre has been educating and entertaining children and adults alike through the art of puppetry since the Vista became the Vista.

The theater first opened in 1989 in an old warehouse on Huger Street – a building that now houses Fulton Studios near the Publix grocery – and was one of the first art ventures in what would become Columbia’s premier arts and entertainment district.

“At the time we started out, everybody said the Vista was going to be the hot property,” said executive director John Scollon, who founded the theater with his mother, Allie, a puppeteer since the 1950s. “It was a matter of jumping on the place that was getting ready to be hot.”

Then in 1995, the theater moved to an 8,400-square-foot, custom-made building – a big, blue castle-like structure just west of Huger Street near the city water plant. It leases the land from the city for $1 a year. The theater was built with $180,000 in donations.

“My mother found a piece of land the city didn’t know it owned,” said Scollon, 46, who now serves as the theater’s executive director.

The theater has shows every Saturday for only $5 a ticket. And the puppeteers travel to another 450 performances a year, sometimes doing four shows a day.

Although still technically in the Vista, it is on a bit of an island from the rest of the district.

“We’re a bit isolated and set back from the road,” said art director Lyon Hill. “But once people know we’re here, we’re very easy to get to.”

Scollon said the buildup of the nearby CanalSide apartment development from 200 units to near 400 will help business. But completing the greenway from the EdVenture children’s museum and the State Museum to Riverfront Park also would help the theater, he said.

“If they could open that up it would be a huge benefit for us,” he said.

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