The longest running puppet theater in the United States is holding on by a string but the curtain on this Los Angeles Historic-Cultural landmark has yet to close and continues to entertain audiences of all ages.
It’s hard to miss The Bob Baker Marionette Theater. Sitting just west of downtown L.A., where 1st and 2nd streets merge with Glendale Blvd, the theater stands out with its huge colorful mural which was painted by DabsMyla earlier this year.
Opened in 1962 by Baker and business partner Alton Wood, it was an immediate hit with children and their parents.
A Los Angeles native, Baker fell in love with marionettes when he was six years old after attending a local puppet show. By age 8 he was taking puppetry lessons and staged his first professional performance in 1932 for an audience that included film director Mervyn LeRoy.
While he was a student at Hollywood High School, Baker began working with the WPA doing puppetry and selling his own hand-crafted marionettes to high-end department stores.
After high school, he apprenticed at George Pal’s animation studio, recognized for its Oscar-winning stop-motion techniques using puppet figures. Within a year, Baker became a lead animator for Pal’s Puppetoons division, which was contracted at the time to Paramount Studios.
After World War II, Baker served as an animation advisor at many film studios, including Disney.
His puppetry was featured on TV in Bewitched, Star Trek, Land of the Giants and NCIS; and on film in the 1944 movie Bluebeard, in A Star Is Born, G.I. Blues, Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Walking into the theater today is like stepping back in time.
Just as it was 40 years ago, children (and some adults) gather along the red carpet that borders the 200-person shoebox theater, where they sit and watch Baker’s creations come to life.
For the next hour or so, we were entertained by a troop of very talented puppeteers who performed a classic show that had not been seen for decades, Hooray L.A.!
Baker called the show his “love letter to Los Angeles” and for the crew running the theater, bringing back this show was a love letter to Bob Baker, who passed away in 2014.
When LA celebrated its 200th birthday back in 1981, artists across the city created special birthday tributes. Baker’s tribute, Hooray L.A.! included an oil derrick kickline…
…skeletons dancing in the La Brea Tar Pits…
…and these sexy ladies celebrating the funky era of 1970s Hollywood. Good times!
This was my second time seeing a show at the theater and it never disappoints. Just watching the joy that this place brings to children and adults alike is well worth the price of admission.
Despite its history as being the longest running puppet theater in the United States, the theater has seen it’s fair share of hardships over the years. Film and TV commercial work dried up when computer-generated imagery came into vogue in Hollywood and attendance at weekday puppet shows dwindled as schools struggled with budget problems and began cutting back on field trips. The loss of revenue put the building at risk of going into foreclosure at numerous times over the years.
By 2008 Baker had fallen behind on the theater’s mortgage payments and the property was listed for sale for $1.5 million. Closure was averted when the Ahmanson Foundation and other donors came to its rescue.
A year later, Los Angeles officials declared the theater to be a city historic-cultural landmark. The designation gives the building — or at least its architectural shell — a protected status but doesn’t necessarily prevent it from being destroyed.
Baker was forced to put the property back on the market in 2012 for $2 million as he searched for $150,000 to pay back taxes and for a private investor willing to refinance the mortgage. He made it clear that only the theater site was for sale, he intended to keep his vast collection of puppets intact and hoped to lease back the theater from its new owner.
It’s no wonder Baker wanted to hold on to his creations.
His marionettes were elaborately designed and carefully crafted, with some taking 350 hours to hand-build and outfit in his intricate costumes.
His puppets weren’t cheap and some of the more detailed ones cost as much as $5,000 to create.
Just imagine how much time and money went into all of these wonderful creations, just a small selection from his collection of over 4,000 puppets.
The building was eventually sold to a property developer in 2013, who agreed to lease the theater back to Baker until the end of March 2015, then move to a month-to-month lease.
Bob Baker died at his home in Los Angeles of age-related causes on November 28, 2014. He was 90 years old.
The theater has been in limbo ever since but Baker’s puppeteers plan to continue staging performances as long as they can.
The developer submitted plans back in 2014 for a mixed-use development that would of wrapped around the theater and saved much of the existing structure.
Tentatively named Marionette Square, the new complex would of spanned over much of the existing building, included 100 apartments (with 5-10% reserved for affordable housing) and some commercial space for retailers.
This past April, residents who live around the theater were notified by the City of LA that there are now plans for an 8-story, 102 unit mixed-use development that would be built on the site of the theater. After attending a Department of City Planning hearing on May 9, 2016, the residents were told that there was no guarantee from the developer that the Bob Baker Marionette Theater would remain. In addition, they found out that there were many holes and oversights in how the development was approved and that there is still no agreement between the developer and the theater.
There is a real possibility that The Bob Baker Marionette Theater will cease to exist if the current plans are approved. After entertaining Los Angeles and the world for over 50 years, you would think the city or some other institution would step in and try a little harder to save this incredible place but I guess another ugly mixed-use piece is shit is more important. UPDATE: Learn about what the future holds for the Theater here.