In 2011, the Independent Film Channel (IFC) launched “Portlandia,” the brainchild of former SNL cast member Fred Armisen and singer Carrie Brownstein, a show devoted to fictional characters inhabiting the city of Portland, Oregon.
In 2012, I set out to find the real personalities who bring life to a city that is quickly becoming America’s hipster paradise, or as Fred Armisen says “a city where young people go to retire.” This series—a spotlight of the people who “Keep Portland Weird”—was originally published by the now defunct New York-based cult magazine, Alt Variety. In anticipation of Portlandia’s fifth season, Den of Geek is running the series in its entirety.
A long, long time ago, America was a place where a person was encouraged to wield a firearm, smoke in bars, and bang wherever they damn well pleased. As this country ages, we’ve seen our constitutional rights stripped and our precious freedoms clouded by those who hold power. In these uncertain times, there is a group of puppets brave enough to call out the establishment.
They are Mr. Cigarette Pack Man & Friends.
Out in Portland, where creativity is bliss, a man named Freddy Heath was working in restaurant when he noticed the perfectly rectangular shape of the empty cigarette cartons people would leave at the bar. Heath decided to collect the cartons and eventually use them for something artistic. As the piles of cigarette cartons littered his living room, Heath finally decided to make life out of something that has taken so many.
Thus, the first Mr. Cigarette Pack Man was born.
“It was like a slightly more sophisticated version of a grade school arts and crafts project,” notes John Hart, the prop and set designer for what is now known as the web series Mr. Cigarette Pack Man & Friends. The production for this fabricated world of crude humor and foul-mouthed marionettes all takes place in the 12×13 bedroom of Freddy Heath’s Portland apartment. “I know that sounds creepy,” Freddy chimes in, “but puppets aren’t that big. We’d love to get a studio.”
Heath, Hart and Nathan Luppino, the Director of Photography and Assistant Director, try to do everything by hand. Their puppets are made out of mostly recycled material, something their Portland fan base has responded to.
“We’re using old materials to create something new,” says Heath. “We’re not trying to contribute to the waste we’re trying to pull things out of the waste stream. That’s something that’s really important to people out in Portland.”
Hart feels the salvaged materials they use sets their show apart: “It’s a totally fabricated world, and although the stuff it’s made of is really diverse and random, I think the fact that it’s all handmade by the same two or three people gives it a unique and consistent aesthetic.”
As the director, Heath hasn’t wasted any time in trying to build a brand from what is essentially trash. The crew has recently finished their first short film entitled “The Patriot” and they are preparing to hit the film festival circuit when the time is right.
The boisterous, raunchy cast of assorted toys and objects attempt to steal the show. But to Heath, it is Mr. Cigarette Pack Man who is the vocal point of the production: “What I want from [Mr. Cigarette Pack Man] is to be the center of their universe. He’s the guy that everything bounces around. We have a couple of stories where he’s the center of attention.”
“The Patriot” is a story Heath wrote six years ago in response to the unpopular Patriot Act passed by George Bush. The 15-minute “epic” is something that Heath feels can launch Mr. Cigarette Pack Man from his humble Portland beginnings into an adventure on a more prominent stage.
“Ultimately the biggest compliment would be if puppeteers saw this and thought that it was really good work,” Heath says. “We want to get the general populous enthused, make people laugh and make people think.”
Know someone who would make a great Portlanda in Real Life story? Find Chris Longo on Twitter and let him know!