Last month, 55 years to the day that Bob Baker opened the country's oldest continuously operating puppet theater, its landmark home on First Street downtown was closed to the public for good. Its pretty chandeliers were packed with care, its archives preserved and its enchanting puppets put to rest — but not for too long. The company currently is doing a residency at the Pasadena Playhouse with performances of Bob Baker's Nutcracker running thru Dec. 30. After that, the whimsical wood and stringed creations will be traveling the city, performing in various venues as part of the #ImaginationDwellsHere tour with pop-ups and full theatrical shows including Dynasty Typewriter, Miracle Mile Toy Hall and the Yard Theater. The Bob Baker Marionette Mobile will launch as a traveling ice cream truck and puppet caravan in 2019, too.
Establishing a new home to call its own is the goal for next year, a place where its history can live on forever. For those not in the know, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater was founded in downtown Los Angeles in 1963 by Bob Baker and his then partner, Alton Wood. In its 50-plus years, it grew to be a home for more than 3,000 marionettes and spawned the Bob Baker Marionette Theater traveling roadshow, a summer program for kids, a research library and a puppet workshop. The theater also hosted dozens of special performances, such as Lindsay Benner's Women in Vaudeville, a monthly show featuring women contortionists, jugglers and DJs.
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater provides an authentic old-time experience, from the puppets themselves to the music they perform to. The feeling of delight and wonder is undeniable with little room for cynicism, which is very refreshing these days, and why so many sought to hold events there. “I love working with the puppet acts blending modern vaudeville with the old,” Benner says of hosting her shows there.
I was first introduced to the BBMT by Charles Phoenix during one of his “Disneyland Tour of Downtown L.A.” events. And of all the stops, even the Walt Disney Concert Hall, this theater was the closest to capturing the magic of Disneyland in L.A. Not surprising, since Bob Baker was a puppeteer and animation adviser at Disney's studios and enjoyed a long friendship with Walt Disney. Just a quick glance into the archives room in the old theater revealed sketches Bob made for the legendary dioramas in Sleeping Beauty's Castle, complete with fabric samples used on the figures and Baker's signature collection of Disney character marionettes. Bob Baker was involved with movies, TV shows and even retail puppetry but his first love was that little theater that he grew from an old scenic shop into the longest-running puppet theater in America.
When word spread last month that the theater was closing its doors and was due to be torn down, fans of vintage L.A. were in a tizzy. Where else would we see Patton Oswalt camp it up in a staged reading of Plan 9 From Outer Space, complete with puppets? Who was going to take care of the chandeliers? I thought of the puppets: Birthday Dog, Black Cat, the clowns … where would all the clowns go? Visions of homeless marionettes lining downtown Los Angeles streets holding cardboard signs filled my head. I knew I had to get the skinny, and get it fast, straight from the source.
“The Bob Baker experience is eternal no matter where the imagination dwells,” says Alex Evans, creative director at Bob Baker. “Our plan is to grow, [and] it is the reason we walked away from the opportunities to stay in this facility. There was an opportunity to be inside the (new) space but it was smaller. We would be playing second fiddle to a big apartment building.”
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater is a city Historic-Cultural Monument, so many were puzzled by the redevelopment, but clearly a choice was made to leave. “Bob kinda stormed City Hall and convinced the city to make it a historic landmark,” Evans explains. “The landmark status is more than the building. It's the puppets, the experience, the craftsmanship — that's what is important. We plan, wherever we go, to take that monument plaque. It will be wherever the puppets are.”
Evans says Bob Baker has already identified a few locations they'd like to move to on L.A.'s east side. “Part of our identity is the fact that (we) are part of the local community,” he says, adding that the theater's eight puppeteers will be coming along to perform its most beloved numbers, and they will continue working with others on projects such as Women in Vaudeville. “Our plan is to expand the programming from shows to educational offerings. We don't want to be a venue with random shows in a unique space. The idea is to have a program that leans into what we do. Like Lindsay has a show rooted in vaudeville and what we do is vaudeville. We will do live music shows that are incorporated with puppets. It's all an avenue to explore Bob Baker.”
Evans says that before Baker died in 2014, the theater was about his vision, and they have worked to keep it alive ever since. “My job is sharing that,” he says. “How do I open the doors so people can come and explore? The goal is to have as many 6-year-olds come and be empowered to spend the rest of their lives making a puppet theater or something else. The research library is Bob's mind. It is important to us that this stays together. Just the tactility. Our goal is to explore and maintain and exhibit everything. It is the most timeless place.”
Now that they know what they want to do and where, they are working out community support. “Truly we will grow as big as the community wants us to grow,” adds Evans, referencing the publicized goal of $50,000 to keep BBMT going. “The $50,000 goal is arbitrary. Boy, do we need $50,000, but our capital campaign is like $4 million. That will come from individual donors, from grants and foundations.”
No matter how much they are able to raise, Evans assures that the Bob Baker puppet theater experience will continue no matter what. “If people are upset about buildings changing and moving and losing culture, this is the opportunity to put your money to support an institution that can survive with change,” he says. “[We] can lose a building and that doesn't need to affect the cultural experience. That only happens by people supporting the cause.”
“It feels rare to find a truly authentic old experience in Los Angeles,” Benner says. “The spirit and delight of the Bob Baker Theater is strong and alive in those puppets and the people who care about them.”
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The Bob Baker Marionette Theater will be performing Bob Baker's Nutcracker at the Pasadena Playhouse in the Carrie Hamilton Theater, 39 S. El Molino Ave., thru Dec. 30; $20; pasadenaplayhouse.org/event/bob-bakers-nutcracker/.