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Bob Baker: The Man Behind the Puppets

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Bob Baker | Photo: Aline Smithson.

For more than five decades, The Bob Baker Marionette Theater has served up laughter from a non-descript building tucked under a bridge adjacent to downtown L.A.

Today it hangs on by a string, pinning its future on a gala fundraiser, hosted by comedian Charles Phoenix, planned for July 29, 2012 where its supporters hope to raise a $1 million to save the theater, as well as build a school and museum of puppetry.

The Bob Baker Marionette Theater | Photo: Ariel Carpenter.
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater | Photo: Ariel Carpenter.
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater | Photo: Ariel Carpenter.
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater | Photo: Ariel Carpenter.

An L.A. historic cultural monument (#958), The Bob Baker Marionette Theater is considered hallowed grounds by many, consecrated as a place to honor and celebrate the art of puppetry by its namesake Bob Baker, who at 88 has become as much a part of the city's fabric as the puppets he's created. An affable man who still shows up to work most every day, Baker is an L.A. native who lives in the very same house where at age seven, he worked the strings of his first puppet--a clown he bought for a dollar at the corner drugstore. He still has the puppet, well, most of it. "It doesn't have a head anymore," Baker says. "But it does have a change of costume."

The Bob Baker Marionette Theater | Photo: Ariel Carpenter.
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater | Photo: Ariel Carpenter.

He was bred to embrace the arts by his doting parents, who shuttled him to dance, piano and acting lessons and brought him to see various stage productions. But after seeing his first puppet show at the Barker Bros. department store's Christmas celebration in downtown L.A. he fell in love with puppetry. By age 8 he had performed his first puppet show for director Mervyn LeRoy. It was at the height of the Great Depression that Baker discovered his love for performing for children, even as he was still one himself. His audience at the Beverly Hills Hotel one Saturday in 1932 was the Rockefeller Family, who sat only a few feet in front of him as he played his marionettes, without a stage for the very first time.

When the kids came up to hug the puppets after his show, he knew he'd devote his life to recreating that moment of sheer wonderment the rest of his career. And he never again used a stage to separate the puppets from the audience.

Baker is considered one of the foremost authorities on puppetry in Los Angeles as well as the country. His accomplishments are in a word, remarkable. In addition to founding The Bob Baker Marionette Theater with partner Alton Wood, he also helped unionize puppeteers and created the Academy of Puppetry where they could preserve their art. He established the city's first puppet manufacturing operation in his teens that filled the shelves of shops around the world.

His theater, now the longest running puppet theater in the U.S., is the home to 3,000 puppets; a few of Baker's favorites include Bobo, Coco, Scherzo and Dodo Bird. He also has a soft spot for FiFi and Collette when they dance the Charleston because it always makes the audience erupt in laughter.

With a 50-year life span, the theater is at a unique point in time where multiple generations of Angelenos are still alive to recall an experience with The Bob Baker Marionette Theater; kids whose parents' parents have attended a show. Now, Baker and his devoted followers hope to keep the theater as a treasured experience for new generations. At the July event, they will debut a new puppet production, "Arabian Nights," to help raise money to reorganize and refinance.

However, Baker offers a simpler solution as back up: "If all the people who have come to see the puppet shows over the years just sent us a dollar, we'd be OK," he says.

To find out more, Artbound caught up with Baker to delve into the past and the future of his historic theater.

Bob Baker with Scherzo | Photo: Ariel Carpenter.
Bob Baker with Scherzo | Photo: Ariel Carpenter.

What should people know about puppets?
When you build them, you kind of fall in love with each puppet. People don't realize that a puppeteer goes from a drawing, then sculpts the head, makes all the molds and bodies, and sometimes even makes the costume. When you string it and it starts to move, you bring it to life as an artist. I really don't think people know what goes into it; they think you throw a couple of rags together and you're in business. It's like creating a painting, but yet we're not considered that kind of an artist.

What's one of your most memorable performance experiences?
I had lied about my age and applied for a National Youth Authority (NYA) job at the Federal Theater [part of the national Federal Theater Project in the 1930s]. I said I was 12 but I was only 10, and it was for those who didn't really have a lot of money. I didn't really fit the bill, but they said, "OK you can work here."

One day, I substituted for a puppeteer who was ill, and they put me up on the bridge in the theater. During the show, I dropped my control of Snow White. Her legs went flying up in the air, and I was only holding on to the foot bar, while the big record was playing: "Oh my dear you look so beautiful. The way to the castle we must go." I was hysterical, shouting, "Close the curtains!" Afterward I went up to the head man and said, "My family isn't that destitute, and I'm not 12." He said, "We know it." And I said, "I dropped my puppet." And he said, "Don't worry about it. You have to drop your puppet once from a 12-foot bridge to become a real puppeteer. Now you're a professional."

Fiesta Black Cat | Photo: Courtesy of The Bob Baker Marionette Theater.
Fiesta Black Cat | Photo: Courtesy of The Bob Baker Marionette Theater.

How did you initially become involved in puppeteering?
I was seven and my father took me to Barker Bros., a big department store at corner of Flower and 7th to see the Christmas celebration. We went to the first show of the day, "Jack Sprout." My dad saw how much I was enjoying it and we ended up staying for all 6 shows until closing.

After that, I drove everyone crazy because I had to have a real puppet.

I'd saved up some money and I saw two soldier puppets at Bullocks Wilshire and had to have them. Mrs. Henrie Gordon was demonstrating the puppets for us, and my mother asked, "How on earth does he learn to work these things?" Henrie said she'd be very happy to give me lessons and came by the next morning on her way to work. I had to practice an hour or two a day--along with all the other practicing. By the time I was eight, I had acquired enough puppets and a puppet stage to do a variety show. I also had my first portable Magnavox electric turntable.

I had been helping Henrie demo the puppets at Bullocks Wilshire on the weekends, and the store asked if I wanted to do my first show (the store would arrange for private puppet shows around town). I said I'd love to. It was in Bel Air for the film director Mervyn LeRoy and I got $15. It was the early 1930s during the Depression, and that was good money. Some people at that time had to work a whole week to earn that! I kept doing the shows until World War II came along and I joined the service. Henrie's daughter, Tina, would drive the car for us with all the equipment and puppets in it and we played all these shows at all the movie stars' homes including Jean Harlow, Shirley Temple and Judy Garland.

At what point did you start making your own puppets?
I had become a gofer at the Federal Theater (after the Snow White debacle). When I'd go on errands to workshops, I watched how professional puppeteers were building their puppets, and a year later, I was hired to make puppets. When I got to high school, Radio City Music Hall had me build puppets for their girls to work during the show. Soon word got around and other puppeteers were coming to me to build custom puppets for their shows. Then I took on 10-12 people as students.

Henrie suggested that we go to Bullocks Wilshire and see if they wanted to buy some puppets that I could make. I showed them a sample, and they ordered 100 puppets in July 1943 to be on the shelves by Halloween. We delivered them to the store, and they all sold. For Christmas they ordered another 100. I then got an order for another 100 for Easter. So, we were in business!

Where did you make all these puppets?
Backyards. Garages. Then in 1944, I moved it to 7760 Santa Monica Blvd. I had two buildings there. By 1948, we had orders for puppets totaling 50,000 going to 50 of the finest stores in the world. We had a crew who would go to the stores and set up displays and do demonstrations. They came with a big record turntable and would show the puppets to customers. We also created mechanical windows for the department stores. We sold puppets like crazy.

We worked night and day--a 24-hour shift. The police raided us one night because they saw so many people going in and out of the buildings at all hours and they were quite embarrassed to come in and find us painting nails and gluing materials on puppets.

Guitars | Photo: Courtesy of The Bob Baker Marionette Theater.
Guitars | Photo: Courtesy of The Bob Baker Marionette Theater.

What made your marionettes special?
We had multi-cultural puppets: Spanish, Dutch, clowns, soldiers, sailors. No one else did. We used beautiful satins and materials. I would order dowle by the yard from Maine and New Hampshire. I had a wonderful German dyemaker who once played in an Oompa-pa band who made my bodies by the hundreds. Every puppet that he made was exactly alike. He would get soft white pine that you couldn't usually find. He made a dye of the hands from Masonite. They were all very high quality.

How did you choose this location to establish the theater?
People ask why we picked such a terrible place to put the theater. The building (a rundown scenic shop) was earmarked as part of an urban renewal effort for the area. We thought we were being smart by opening the building that would be part of the renewal. One month after we opened, they moved the urban renewal project to South Park. We have struggled for 53 years. Now the City says we need to get in line to be part of L.A.'s renewal.

Ursula | Photo: Courtesy of The Bob Baker Marionette Theater.
Ursula | Photo: Courtesy of The Bob Baker Marionette Theater.

How has the L.A. puppeteering community evolved?
It's grown from a very few people to 200. We now have a Guild that Alton and I started 30 years ago. I've always wanted to put on a good show, having been influenced by the entertainment industry. I took Disney ideas and applied them to puppetry. I started recording and editing show material and could turn a one hour show to a five minute show.That was an eye opener for a lot of people. Most puppeteers had never seen anything like that.

What do you want audience to walk away with?
We love children and we love to see them laugh. With our puppets we try and show them how to be nice to one another, say "thank you" and "please" but above all have fun.

For more information about Bob Baker's Celebration & Preservation Extravaganza on July 29, please call 213-250-9995.

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