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LOS ANGELES — This past May, a small team was busy putting the finishing touches on the new home of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in Los Angeles’s Highland Park Neighborhood. An artist painted a bucolic scene of rolling green hills on the walls, while a group of workers on a scissor lift carefully hung a large chandelier from the ceiling. A Wurlitzer organ on loan from the LA Theatre Organ Society sat covered in plastic waiting to be unwrapped. Bunches of marionette puppets hung on racks, though the majority were still at the location the theater had occupied for over 50 years on First Street in the Westlake District. “The last thing that hasn’t moved over which gives me stress dreams are the puppets,” said Winona Bechtle, the theater’s director of development and community outreach. “They’re still at the old spot. All 3,000 puppets.”
Los Angeles native Bob Baker became infatuated with puppets at age seven after his father took him to a Christmas puppet show at the Barker Bros. Department Store at Flower and 7th Streets in Downtown Los Angeles. He started his own “Petit Theatre” in his backyard while still a child, and began his career as an animator and puppeteer for various studios, including Disney. In 1963, he and partner Alton Wood opened the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in a former scenic shop on the border of Echo Park and Westlake. Over the ensuing decades, over one million children would be entertained by Baker’s original puppet productions. Although Baker died in 2014 at the age of 90, his devoted company continues to honor his legacy at the oldest children’s theater in Los Angeles.
The new space — originally a silent movie theater, known as the York Theatre, dating back to 1923 — seems like a natural fit for the country’s longest-running puppet theater. But last fall, the company’s future was anything but guaranteed. Faced with economic uncertainty, Baker sold the original building to a developer in 2013 for $1.3 million. A planned mixed-use development on the site originally included the theater, which was designated a Historic-Cultural Monument by the Los Angeles City Council in 2009. However, later proposals for the new property drastically reduced the theater’s size. With no guarantee that their longtime home would be viable even after the construction dust settled, Bechtle and Alex Evans, the executive director and head puppeteer, decided to jump without quite knowing where they would land. “We closed just willing this into existence with nothing behind it other than a lot of work and knowing that we wanted to do it,” Bechtle said. A closing ceremony was held last November 23, the same date that the theater opened 55 years earlier.
After looking at dozens of potential properties, the company announced this past February that it would be moving to the York Theater, whose owners were looking for a tenant who would keep the space a theater. “They offered us a 10-year lease with an option to extend, which is kind of unheard of in this neighborhood,” Bechtle explained, referring to the rapidly gentrifying Highland Park. “Being month-to-month for so long and knowing that there were going to be apartments built there, it was not a way to do any kind of longterm planning.” She was quick to point out that although their new landlords have been accommodating, the company is still paying market rate rent for the 10,000-square-foot space.
Since it was originally a theater, the Bob Baker team didn’t have to completely overhaul the interior, though its various iterations — from vaudeville theater to an organ showroom to, most recently, a Korean Church — have all left their marks. “It’s been kind of fun because it’s literally these layers of like, ‘there’s the old organ pit and on top of that is a baptism pool that the church put in,’” said Bechtle.
They did add some of their own touches, however, including hand-cut VCT flooring by artist Laurie Crogan based on daisies designed by Baker that lined the courtyard at their old space. Painted red curtains line the hallways leading to the main theater, a nod to the fabric red curtains that hung at their Westlake location. Upstairs, they laid down the original redwood planks from the floor of Baker’s office in a room they intend to turn into a small museum dedicated to the history of the company and Baker’s life.
One of the side rooms — which Bechtle calls the “crying room,” where crying babies went during church services — now houses dozens of boxes of puppet parts that Baker made for Disney: “Peg Leg Pete,” “101 Dalmations,” “Mickey/Minnie,” “Goofy,” etc. It also houses molds for three clown puppets — Bobo, Coco, and Toto — that Baker designed and sold at shows around Los Angeles, and which Bechtle says they’re hoping to get back into commercial production.
In the front of the theater are two rooms they’re planning to convert into an artists’ residency and a shop that opens onto the street. To fund the project, they applied for an LA2050 grant, which gives grants of $100,000 to 10 Los Angeles-based nonprofits, but weren’t selected this year. Fundraising has been a major goal of the company, especially with the cost of the build out and the increased rent. One successful strategy has been a “Name a Chair” program, for which they sold plaques on 70 chairs in the new theater for $1,000 each.
Since reopening in June, they’ve wasted no time, putting on shows in the theater, welcoming school field trips, and partnering with other artists and organizations. A summer-long residency at Oxy Arts on York, a new nearby arts space established by Occidental College, offered free puppet shows and workshops. And earlier this month, the company brought puppets on roller skates to the famed Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale for an off-site road show.
Then there was Lil Nas X, the hottest rapper in the county, who reached out to the theater about having his EP release party there earlier this summer. And he wanted a puppet made of himself, with eight days’ notice. “It was a good kick in the pants,” joked Bechtle. “But it was an amazing project. The more we worked with him, it made sense the collaboration of styles.”
Underground musician and writer Ian Svenonius brought his signature swagger to the theater last Friday for a sold-out show. It was part of a sponsored music series organized by Burger Records where a portion of ticket sales go to support school field trips.
And last summer, artist Marnie Weber performed at the theater with her improv drone band F as marionettes danced along. “It was one of the highlights of my performance lifetime. It was just so magical,” she told Hyperallergic. “I kept thinking, ‘after this, what’s going to be as good?’”
Weber often uses grotesque or campy costumes and masks in her own surreal performances and films, and has a natural affinity for puppets. “Puppets are like a full body extension of masks. The love of masks came from being able to be more emotive on stage, a way to lose ego and become this other thing.”
As a legacy arts organization squeezed out of its longtime home by development, the theater now finds itself a newcomer in a rapidly changing neighborhood, an irony not lost on them. “To be honest, when we were looking at spots, most neighborhoods like Highland Park were totally out of our budget,” explained Bechtle. “When this came up, we had a lot of very frank conversations about, ‘what does it mean that we’re moving here, that we’re taking up so much space?’”
To this end, they’re trying to set the barriers to entry low, with free shows like the ones at the Oxy residency. Baker himself had always had a close relationship with the community around the theater, and many of the puppeteers that he hired back in the day were neighborhood kids from Westlake or Echo Park, a trend the company hopes to continue in Highland Park.
Eric De La Cruz is one of those kids who met Baker at the age of seven when he used to mow his lawn. He began interning for the company at 16, learning the ropes of fabrication, lighting, and stringing, before coming on as a full-time team member. Nineteen years later, he’s still there, helping to train new puppeteers and performing in the road shows.
For De La Cruz, puppets weren’t just a whimsical diversion, but a life-changing experience. When he began interning, he had a facial tumor that prevented him from speaking, leading to a deep depression. “I learned that people don’t have to speak to communicate,” he told Hyperallergic. “You can project yourself through puppets. Puppetry isn’t just one art form. You have dancing, staging, lighting, drama, suspense. That brought me back to the world. It was meant to be.”
Looking ahead, the company is hoping to create new shows that build off the foundation that Baker has left them. “There’s a lot of little seeds of ideas that we could run with in an original way that still comes from like a hundred years of collective artistry here,” Bechtle said. “There’s not much here that is strictly old or strictly new. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it’s already pretty darn good.”
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater is now open at 4949 York Blvd, Highland Park, Los Angeles.