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It's hard not to laugh and stare when you first walk into a room with Mike and Linda Walsh's puppets. But that initial fascination only lasts a few minutes, Mike Walsh said.

To keep an audience interested in his puppets for the entire 45-minute show, the acting behind the puppets is more important than the puppets themselves.

ยค Old Town Puppet Company When: 11 a.m. June 21 Where: Strings in the Mountains Music Festival Park Cost: $1 for children; $5 for adults Call: 879-5056, ext. 107 When: 7 p.m. June 29 and 7 p.m. July 13 Where: Yampa River Botanic Park Cost: Free When: 6:15 to 7 p.m. Aug. 3 Where: Bud Werner Memorial Library lawn Cost: Free

Mike Walsh considers himself an actor first and a puppeteer second.

He ended up behind the puppet stage almost by accident in 1980, and he still seems a little surprised when he looks at his growing number of puppets.

In 1980, Walsh was a member in the Great American Laughing Stock Company, a community theater group, which got him invited to participate in his church's children's puppet ministry.

The puppets he used at Euzoa Bible Church were created by someone else and were loosely styled after Jim Henson's Muppets. For two years, he performed for the children at the church. Word of his shows made it to the children's librarian at Bud Werner Memorial Library, and he was invited to perform as part of a reading program.

Before long, Walsh was performing melodramas at the Ore House Restaurant accompanied by Brian Houston's improv piano. He was a regular at Art in the Park and landed a 13-year gig at Kid's Vacation Center at the Steamboat Ski Area. And his puppet company had grown by one performer. He met his wife, Linda, in 1987, and she started performing with him and making puppets of her own.

Known as the Old Town Puppet Company, the Walshes were once a staple of the local entertainment scene, but four children and a thriving business kept them from writing new shows or looking for opportunities to perform.

This summer, Steamboat will rediscover the Walshes.

Between shows at Strings in the Mountains, the Yampa River Botanic Park and Bud Werner Memorial Library, they have a busy puppet season for the first time in years.

Their puppets are handmade out of scraps from their upholstery business -- vinyl, thick felt and fake fur. They have big faces, big mouths and humorous, googly eyed expressions.

Among the Walshes' puppet troupe are the entire cast of "Little Red Riding Hood," "The Three Little Pigs" and "The Billy Goats Gruff." Their shows are reproductions of the Grimm's Fairy Tales brought to life with original dialogue, jokes and songs.

As they perform, Linda Walsh likes to look through a small crack in their puppet theater to watch the faces of the children.

"That's the best part," she said. "Then you notice the adults are enjoying it, too."

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