Eye surgery is a delicate procedure. But what if your patient can’t feel pain or talk? I pondered this as I watched Ginger Duncan painstakingly restring the left eye of “Clara,” a marionette who performs in “The Halloween Spooktacular.” The show recently opened at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, and will be the last run of shows presented at the historic venue.
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater is the oldest children’s theater in Los Angeles, and has been dazzling kids and adults with hand-made puppets since 1963. But the late founder and namesake of the company, Bob Baker, sold the building five years ago to a real estate developer. The theater’s owners now say the theater will close its current location in less than two months. There will be a closing celebration on Nov. 23, the same date it opened 55 years ago, that will be free and open to the public.
At a recent performance of the Halloween show, I found myself seated on red carpet next to two girls dressed as a pirate and a princess. Spooky piano music filled the air as lights fashioned from coffee cans flicked on and off. Puppeteer Jared Ramirez jumped from behind the red curtain, welcoming kids and parents to the first show of “The Halloween Spooktacular” as cheers cascade from all sides.
The Bob Baker Marionette Theatre is housed in an unassuming large white cube, just a mile west of downtown at Glendale Boulevard and 1st Street. A large clown statue greets you as you enter the courtyard, green paint covers the ground, and painted daisies dot the landscape.
A few days before the start of the Halloween show, I met up with Winona Bechtle, the theater’s Director of Development and Community Outreach. She walked me through the theater, which at thatmoment looked like a messy kids room. Halloween-themed marionettes hung motionless from racks. A witch named “Bagatha” with big cheeks dangled next to smiling silver robots. Skeletons with nipple tassels and eyeliner stared blankly into space, ever-ready for their mildly-risque dance number.
“This week, we’re putting away the enchanted toy shop puppets and loading in Halloween, so the puppeteers will be here every night of the week, getting ready for Saturday opening,” Bechtle said. “That’s why everything is scattered around here.”
Bechtle then lead me upstairs to what used to be Bob’s office, but is now referred to as the library. Its floor-to-ceiling shelving is packed full of over 5,000 LPs, hundreds of his books on topics ranging from puppetry, Hollywood and Shakespeare, and dozens of Baker’s concept drawings. Everything in the library is slowly being categorized and numbered. It will all have to be packed up and moved come winter.
As Bechtle pulled books off shelves, her co-worker Alex Evans joined us. He’s the executive director and head puppeteer for the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. Evans has worked at the theatre for 10 years. And despite the theater’s troubles, he’s excited about its future.
“Things have never looked brighter. I’ve never had such wonderful people around and everyone from people in the city helping us, to Winona and non-profit people, to artist and technicians,” Evans said.
He said the theater is recapturing the magic of past decades.
“The stories I used to hear [about] the 60’s and 70’s, it feels like we have that creative environment again,” Evans said.
Bob Baker built a career as a puppeteer and animation consultant to Disney and other studios. On top of founding the theater, Baker’s marionettes graced the silver screen. His work can be seen in Judy Garland’s “A Star is Born,” Elvis Presley’s “G.I. Blues,” “Star Trek” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Over 55 years, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater grew into an LA institution with one generation bringing the next to puppet performances. The city of LA officially recognized the fact that the Bob Baker Marionette Theater is the oldest marionette theater in the U.S. and in 2009 designated it a historical cultural monument.
But the theater struggled financially. School budget cuts meant there were fewer field trips to the theater. In an interview with KCRW in 2012, Baker said things were looking dire.
“We’re having a really horrendous time with finances and trying to keep the place open. Theater business all over the United States is not as successful as it used to be. Television, movies have cut into it,” Baker said.
Shortly before he died, in a last-ditch effort to keep the theater afloat financially, Baker sold the property for $1.3 million to real estate developer named Eli Elimelech. While Baker was on hospice care, Elimelech announced plans to build 102 apartments in its place. Baker died near the end of 2014, at the age of 90.
Along with the apartments, Elimelech plans to build 2,700 square feet of commercial space — which he said would include the theater.
“I want them there. I want them to stay there, that’s my goal. And I’m trying to do my best to keep them there,” Elimelech said.
Under Elimelech’s proposal, the theater would shrink to about 40 percent of its current size. But their future plans include a museum and library, along with a theater space. And to realize this plan, they say, they need a bigger space, not squeeze into a smaller venue. Evans and others at Bob Baker say Elimelech listened to their concerns, but wouldn’t promise them the space they needed.
Bechtle said the theater’s management decided that leaving their current location may be the best solution.
“Throughout this whole process, the thing that was underscored most to us, is that, to really make it work, there’s not some magical entity that is going to come down from the sky and protect you. What it took for us to cement our future is for us to really get in gear, to figure out where we wanted to be and to work really hard to define what this theater is, which is the spirit of imagination in Los Angeles,” Bechtle said.
The spirit of imagination — meaning that the marionettes are the important part. Bechtle reiterates that it’s puppets that make the Bob Baker Theater, not the building itself.
The councilman for the area is Gil Cedillo. His communications director, Fredy Ceja, said that they view the theater as a community asset that they want to keep in Cedillo’s district.
“It brings arts and culture to some of the communities that are disenfranchised from that sector and really don’t have the opportunity to partake in arts and culture,” Ceja said.
Ceja said Councilmember Cedillo recently toured empty theater spaces in his district.
“There are 4 or 5 theaters in our district that we are looking to help grow, and if that’s a possibility for a new home for this theater, then we’d more than happy to accommodate them there,” he said.
Even as the theater prepares to move to a new location, Elimelech has offered the theater to move back in if management chooses to. Nothing has been signed, so Bechtle and Evans are reluctant to say where they hope to go. What they do say is that they are actively searching for locations in northeast Los Angeles.
Evans takes a deep breath and leaves me with a final thought.
“You can get sad about the brick and mortar of this building disappearing. But truly, the brick and mortar is only a fraction of what we are about. We are about serving generations of kids, we are about tradition and culture and history and the future. If you don’t want to see those aspects of society disappear, don’t be sad about losing a building. Here’s the opportunity to support holding on to that into the future,” he said.
The puppet show will go on until Nov. 23 at the original Bob Baker Marionette Theater space. On Nov. 24, “Bob Baker’s Nutcracker” will open at the Pasadena Playhouse and run for five weeks. What happens to the theater space next is still to be determined.