Puppeteer Bob Baker, now 85, has a sense of L.A. that even many natives cannot comprehend. He grew up in Koreatown back when it was known solely as the Wilshire District, close to the Bullocks Wilshire department store that now houses Southwestern Law School. And he can recall as a child heading downtown, not far from where the Bob Baker Marionette Theater is located today, to check out the oil fields.
“They had been closing them up,” he says, “taking them out and building on top of them.”
Back in those earlier days of Hollywood, Baker was a showbiz kid. Although he worked as an actor, he found his true calling behind the scenes as a puppeteer when he was only 8 years old. Baker studied the art from every angle, and by the time he finished high school, he was working at George Pal’s UFA Studios, where he quickly became a head animator. As television grew more prominent, Baker found himself “running from one studio to the next, doing puppets.”
Television in those days was where he wanted to work, and so he and partner Alton Wood opened the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in 1961 as a means of showing producers “that you could do stuff with puppets.”
“We got so involved with the theater that we forgot about the filming,” says Baker, which isn’t to say that the puppets left Hollywood. For years, Baker was known as the “butterfly man,” because he would stand on a crane, holding out a long pole filled with butterflies, which children and animals would chase in TV and movie scenes. His work has appeared in projects ranging from A Star is Born to The Ben Stiller Show. But the theater took on a life of its own, becoming an L.A. institution that has catered to generations of birthday parties, Scout troops and elementary-school classes. Baker, who admits to being “sentimental,” can tell stories about great-grandmothers bringing small children to the theater for what has become a family tradition. Without prompting, he will recall puppeteers who spent much of their adult lives working here. Those who make it through training tend to stay with the company for years, redoing tales like The Nutcracker and Arabian Nights in a whimsical, sometimes psychedelic, fashion, with elaborately handcrafted puppets and a soundtrack that incorporates the theater’s ample music archive.
“It’s a crazy place to work,” Baker says proudly. “No two days are alike.”
But times have been tough for this troupe of puppeteers. The advent of CG has limited the need for such artists in Hollywood, and shrinking school budgets have led to a substantial decrease in the number of field trips kids take to the theater. Last fall, news spread that the Bob Baker Marionette Theater’s financial problems could lead to the closing of the famed children’s haunt.
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“It’s kind of bittersweet what happened,” says Baker of the resulting outpouring of support. But the man behind a theater that has withstood riots and outlasted several waves of urban-renewal plans in the area, insists that the puppets shows will remain for years to come. “We’re going to be active for the next 20 years,” he states. “I have 10 years planned out.”