Meet The People Behind The Puppets At The New Bob Baker Marionette Theater
A photo essay with Lisa Whiteman.
When the Bob Baker Marionette Theater opened its doors in 1963 on the southern tip of Echo Park, its namesake puppeteer expected commercial development and foot traffic to follow. When that didn't happen, Bob Baker leaned into the neighborhood. He built relationships with schools, kept prices low and courted locals to work for him. For 50 years, Baker, a prolific creator of Hollywood props and creatures, entertained children — and adults — with tales of whimsy and pathos told through his 3,000 handmade puppets. But money was always tight.
As gentrification swept through Echo Park, the theater's future grew uncertain. Housed in a cinder-block building at the crossroads of Beverly Blvd., 1st St. and Glendale Blvd., the theater was a magnet for developers. In 2013, to make ends meet, Baker sold it for $1.3 million to developer Eli Melech. After Baker died in 2014, at age 90, the staff kept the theater running on a shoestring budget. They hoped to stay but didn't know if Melech's plans to develop the land would preserve the theater in a way that would allow it to flourish. So they went to Plan B.
In 2018, a collective of staff and fans formed a non-profit, created a board, launched a capital campaign and began searching for a new space. Just as they were securing their new location in Highland Park, they received an eviction notice on 1st St. (In 2009, the city granted Historic-Cultural Monument status to the theater company but not to the building in which it was housed.)
Version 2.0 of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater soft opened in June at York and 50th. It will officially open on November 29, the day after Thanksgiving. It's the same day the theater opened in 1963 and a year to the day it closed. It will also host a grand opening gala on December 7 featuring Colin Hanks, Joanna Newsom, David Arquette and a memorabilia auction.
Although puppeteers, staff and volunteers left behind decades of nostalgia and magic, many of them believe that the new venue, in a neighborhood flooded with foot traffic, finally brings Baker's vision to life.
Despite the small financial cushion generated by the capital campaign, the organization still runs mostly on the dedication and chutzpah of its staff. Finally, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater's string-pullers are stepping out of the shadows to be photographed in their element and celebrate the venue's next 50 years.
"There is a meaningful and spiritual presence in every object at the theater: where it came from, who made it, what it does. At the old theater, the space itself was the biggest object with that value but with that was a layer of reverence that limited change and creativity. The new space liberates us to create and utilize these objects in ways we would have been reluctant to before."
Favorite Puppet: "I find Jack Frost incredibly agile and fun to manipulate, combined with such character in the design."
"I went through some scary stuff in my childhood but always had puppet shows and puppets to look up to. Now, it's important to me to be the hero to kids. The sense of purpose I get from bringing joy to families is everything to me."
Favorite Puppet: "I form a really deep bond with a few characters from every production but my favorites to play would have to be Captain Wilbur and Barnaby Bean because I get to provide their voices onstage, which is a rare opportunity."
Ginger Leigh-Lanny Duncan
"I first visited [the theater] as a third-grader on a field trip. I was completely taken. I did not have a chance to return until I started volunteering in 2013. I had heard of the trouble the theater was having and wanted to help. I instantly understood that though nothing within those walls had changed, my world was about to."
Favorite Puppet: "Our Hillbilly girl, Sondra Lee, is a pleasure to work with for her enthusiasm with life and acceptance of herself. But Black Cat never stops teaching me about myself as a performer and a person, or is that "purr"son?"
Karina De La Cruz
"Of course I am worried about the manipulations of the puppet in hand but my fear goes away when I see the audience's reaction. Everything becomes muscle memory. All you hear is your own breathing and comments from the audience, and you feel the warmth of the lights. The people here are so full of creativity and imagination, you will always feel inspired."
Favorite Puppet: "It would be our blue dog, Misterio. He's a really good ice breaker for children who are anxious about puppets."
"I lived across from the old space my whole life so I watched shows as a little girl. My aunt used to work the spotlight. Years later, my sister worked the spotlight and eventually trained me. I never left after that."
Favorite Puppet: "Percy, one of the birthday dogs, because he was the first puppet I learned the routine for."
"I'll miss the separate party room at our old space but I am excited about our new neighborhood. We are getting a lot more foot traffic and it's great to have a park across the street that kids can go to before or after the show."
Favorite Puppet: "The Purple People Eater, because the routine is so much fun to do. But also the Halloween show is my absolute favorite show. I love the showgirl skeletons, the juggler skeleton, the witches, robots, Hair Eyes, Dracula, and Vampira."
"Once the soundtrack starts, you forget about the outside world and step into Bob's dream. Usually it's a blur. Sometimes time slows down. There is always a different dynamic happening that can affect the performance. That's why we have to be alert and able to improvise. Those moments are some of the most exciting."
Favorite Puppet: "For this run of Halloween Spooktacular, I'm having fun with the People Watchers. Even though they are fairly simple puppets, they are fun because they utilize the whole stage. It's controlled choreographed chaos."
"I started performing as a puppeteer only a month ago but I've been performing as the 'resident organist' for almost two years. I had just moved to Los Angeles and was driving around aimlessly. I saw the big clown on the marquee and decided to celebrate my birthday there. I was totally hooked and ended up volunteering at the theater a couple months later."
Favorite Puppet: "The violin skeleton player is a personal favorite. He has a handsome head of fringe hair and his violin playing is surprisingly convincing."
"I started performing this year but first became involved with the theater through its volunteer program. Prior to puppeteering, I was hired to work on the buildout of our new York space and to design and build Bob's Petite Theater for our OxyArts residency this past summer."
Favorite Puppet: "The little orange witch and Centurian, for their elegant simplicity. These puppets use the classic Bob Baker 'airplane control' bars — no trick strings — but despite this, they have an amazing range of motion and expression."
Eric De La Cruz
"I miss every single bit of the old space. There was a lot of history there. But I love the fact that we found a place for 3,000 marionettes. I will do my best to make sure the art form never dies and continues to be passed down from generation to generation."
"Performing for Bob Baker Marionette Theater is my truest joy. It is the reenactment of history on a daily basis, the rebirth of analog wonder, a way of creating that manifests in a being that can walk, sing and dance."
Favorite Puppet: "Bob Baker's Humpty Dumpty taught me a lot about endurance, and I cherish him for that."
"I grew up in Los Angeles and was the second generation of kids in my family to see a Bob Baker show. My first time attending was in 2001 for my third birthday."
Favorite Puppet: "The People Watchers, which look like little mushrooms with eyes and fringe hanging from the brim. They're very simple puppets compared to others but they always make me laugh. They have a lot of life if you're able to give it to them."
"It is a unique experience to be performing while simultaneously [being] your own audience member. You are constantly looking down at your puppet to watch its movements. But the most beautiful feeling is when it feels like my limbs and the very sinews of my hands extend into the strings and I feel as much controlled by the puppet as the puppet is controlled by me."
Favorite Puppet: "Clown Fairy. Bob Baker's clown puppets are very special. Some are mischievous, some are daring, some carry deep sadness, some walk on their hands or cascade across the stage on roller skates. They encompass the range of emotions and abilities we each have within us."
"It's unlikely that we would work this hard to preserve a bunch of marionettes that are basically doing vaudeville. But here we are. It's so uncynical. It's imagination come to life. The York space used to be a vaudeville theater and a silent movie theater. Most recently it was a church. Alex and I were talking about how we have a kind of congregation here, gathered together in the name of imagination."
"The hardest thing to translate is the lived-in authenticity that took 55 years to develop at the old space. This is something we will never try to replicate, but are instead excited to create together with new generations of Angelenos."
"I had decided that the greatest thing I could do professionally is to help bring joy to people. After an initial conversation with the staff, I was impressed by the dedication of everyone involved and charmed by the option to end the meeting with chocolate, strawberry or vanilla ice cream."
"The new space was transformed to reflect old sketches that Bob had made of his ideal space so it actually doesn't look like the old space. Still, the new space somehow feels like the old. Maybe it's the 2,000-plus puppets, red curtains and familiar soundtracks. Maybe it's the puppeteers napping in the theater between shows. But something just feels like home."
"While packing up the old theater, there was constant rediscovery. Finding alien head molds from Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a highlight, as were original Disneyland pieces from Bob's Main Street storefront installations. Bob was a hoarder so it was difficult to determine what had no value and what was priceless. As we were taking everything down, Alex asked Miguel [Ayala] to collect and label the dust from different areas of the building. It's stored in Gerber jars in the offices now."
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly used the spelling "theatre" for the organization's name. It uses "theater." Also, the date of the gala was incorrectly given as Dec. 9, it is scheduled for Dec. 7. LAist regrets the error.