Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Friday 30 September 2011

Places to Go Before You Die: Happy Face Museum, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Sometime in the seventies, God gave Debbie Power a mission to promote happiness on earth. The smiley face icon was to be her medium and inspiration, and she has pursued that goal unswervingly ever since.

I know because I have seen it. Most roadside attractions are overpriced kitsch-holes, and some I only think I’ve been to because I saw it in a movie. But I have been to the Happy Face Museum in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia twice, and it left an impression I will never be able to stop talking about.

The tour begins inauspiciously on a residential street before an ordinary-looking home.  The ground floor is occupied by Debbie’s dog grooming business, though yellow-painted rocks in the backyard foreshadow what’s to come. The tour begins in earnest when Debbie shows you up the stairs. Every step is decorated with an unedited-but-earnest quotation, such as “Kindness is the oil that takes the frickson out of life.” The walls are plastered with cartoons grinning at you as you climb.

The first step into the museum is almost overwhelming. Artifacts are spread out wall to wall and four layers deep. The palette is mainly yellow but the entire spectrum makes an appearance. The effect is somewhat like stepping inside a cluttered brain – every pop culture phenomenon you’ve ever forgotten is still being venerated in Debbie’s attic. Apart from the usual smileys, you can find Smurf memorabilia, Batman action figures, Cookie Monster pez dispensers, Care Bear dolls and Obama soda pop. The effect is not just visual, since “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “What a Wonderful World” play on an endless loop while Debbie dispenses bubblegum.
The effect is not just nostalgic, either. As much as the premise sounds ripe for ridicule to the cynically minded, there is a powerful atmosphere to the place. And it is not claustrophobic, but has the intended effect of feeling warm, friendly and kind. The credit’s not due as much to the geegaws on the walls as to Debbie herself, who conducts the same tour she must have given thousands of times with an unusually authentic enthusiasm. When she turns on a robot dog, it may surprise you how funny you find it. She has achieved happiness, and she can even confer it on a jaded visitor who thought he was done with Care Bears.

This being the case, Debbie also has a giant smiley face costume she wears in parades when she’s doing outreach work. Guests have donated so many toys and widgets that she has started receiving doubles and often has no place to put new acquisitions. However, there are binders of photographs of smiley face sightings from around Nova Scotia and beyond, my favourite being a freezer full of smiley face potatoes at Wal-Mart. The first time I visited, Debbie even gave us burnt out lightbulbs with smiley faces on the front and biblical quotations on the back as souvenirs.

Anytime anyone tells me they are headed out east, I instantly regurgitate this story. I hope that by putting it in writing I can save time and stop hassling my friends. My only fear in making it public is that someone will visit the Museum in the wrong spirit, and it will be my fault. I know I make it sound strange, but a cursory look around this website will tell you that strangeness is my bread and butter, and I am sincerely grateful to Debbie Power for taking the time to show me her work and for instilling in me a very unlikely sense of wonder. I think the appeal is taking what sounds like a plastic premise and turning it into something organic and real. I’ll stop short of posting the address and phone number, but I urge you if you’re feeling sociable and curious to look up the Happy Face Museum the next time you visit Halifax. Call ahead, and consider making a donation towards the upkeep. If you do go, you’ll be the first to actually take my recommendation, so let me know and set my heart at ease.


  1. I live down the street from this museum. It is amazing. She is amazing. I told her about this article you wrote and she was flattered. I am going to visit her soon I think I will bring her a copy.