Celeste Rose, a mainstay in Eugene’s theater scene for decades and the founder of what’s now known as the Rose Children’s Theatre, died June 1 in Springfield from complications caused by Alzheimer’s disease. She was 82.
Rose returned to her Eugene hometown in the 1970s to make an enormous impact as a playwright, songwriter, singer, storyteller, director, puppeteer, marionettist and actor. As her friend Jon Dickman wrote of her, “The world lost a larger-than-life, rare treasure.” Since founding Eugene’s Community Children’s Theatre in 1978 and the touring Oregon Fantasy Puppet Theatre when she retired from the theater in 2002, Rose impacted the lives of many over the years in Eugene and Portland.
“Well, it’s neat to see generations that participated in original productions have kids in our productions now and to have all of these generations come back and see our shows,” said Kathryn Genoves, Rose Children’s Theatre program coordinator. “It’s amazing to see this community built up.”
The Community Children’s Theatre took Rose’s name in 2006, four years after her retirement, becoming the Rose Children’s Theatre. Rose wrote dozens of original and adapted plays, leading to a production history that brought families and neighbors together with music, magic and stagecraft.
“It was her baby,” Genoves said.
No obstacle too tough
There was no child that Rose couldn’t find a theatrical role for. Psychologist Dr. Ryan Skelton still lives with cerebral palsy in Portland, which relegates his body to a wheelchair. This obstacle, however, didn’t faze Rose when Skelton appeared in her children’s theater as a kid.
“How to get him into a play was to me would be quite a challenge,” Rose’s friend Barbara Snow said. “It wasn’t for her at all. She gave him a siren and flashing lights and he became a patrolman.”
After moving away and spending time doing story and theater in Texas and Raleigh, North Carolina, Rose came back to the place where she was raised, Eugene, and began bringing her plays to the stage. Snow, a longtime children’s librarian at the Eugene Public Library, met Rose on a serendipitous day soon after Rose’s return.
“I went out at lunch to the parking lot and saw this big polka dot van and it said ‘Puppets,’ and of course, we were looking for programs for the children,” Snow said.
This started a years-long professional and personal relationship, with the two women bringing puppet shows and musical storytelling to children in the area and, at times, across the country. Along with puppeteer Deb Chase, who still operates the Oregon Shadow Theatre in Portland, the trio traveled to Ames, Iowa, to record Rose’s “Story of Noah’s Ark” at the National Puppetry Festival in 1983.
“It was hilarious,” Snow said. “Celeste was a very funny woman.”
The hour-long shadow puppet show was one of the best stories Snow’s ever seen. Part of that came from the folk elements Rose brought to her shows. Three Raleigh musicians played the soundtrack to “Noah’s Ark.” Rose was a prolific folk guitarist, as well. Melody and song contributed to most of her work.
“I appreciated the way she could take a short novel-sized book and condense it into a theater piece and still retain the essence of the story and the characters and actually add characters sometimes,” Snow said.
Not just for children
Whether it was shadow puppets, marionettes or stage shows, Rose always worked to get people involved who wanted to be included in her fanciful worlds.
“Can you imagine 30 kids on stage all wanting to be stars? She knew how to handle them, though,” Snow said.
But Rose’s plays also gave openings for adults to enter the theatrical world.
“Here’s a person who gave me opportunities I never would have gotten hadn’t been through Celeste. I even got to sing a solo in a play, and I’m vocally challenged,” Dickman said, laughing.
Dickman was in some of Rose’s first plays, appearing as the frog in “The Princess and the Frog,” the jester in “Jackolyn and the Beanstalk” in 1979 and even running the Banjo Bunny marionette.
“She figured, well, I could do a bunny because it’d be hopping around a lot and it doesn’t have to be so graceful,” Dickman said.
Shades of gray
Though Rose brought joy, her work wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Her on-the-page short stories reflected that gray and rain are very much a part of life, especially here in Eugene.
“She didn’t want to write the types of stories where everything all works out and everybody was happily ever after. They were all rather edgy stories,” Dickman said.
Rose’s father died as a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp on the last day of World War II, not surviving the infamous Bataan Death March, according to fellow playwright Jerry Williams. Rose’s mother was a nurse in Eugene. Rose left her husband when she moved from North Carolina and her only daughter died of an epileptic seizure after graduating from Wellesley College. Rose is survived by a son and a granddaughter in Texas.
Through this strife, though, Rose aimed to bring spirit to those in her world, whether it be in classrooms, the library or in parks and other outdoor gathering places.
“To open up not only for kids participating in these programs, but to give that opportunity at live shows and with stories is pretty great,” Genoves said. “What we’ve been missing and what we remember has been amplified so much with our loss of live art over this last year.”
According to friends, Rose lived out her retired days in Portland. She performed her own puppet theater for several decades six to 10 weeks during each Christmas season in an outdoor theater built expressly for her by the Portland Catholic Church at Portland’s Grotto. The Grotto was the major gig of her career until she retired.
Genoves said Rose continued doing puppet shows almost until she moved to assisted living four or so years ago.
A celebration of life ceremony will be held in Eugene at the end of July; the details have yet to be announced.