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LAist Interview: Bob Baker

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Los Angeles has many hidden treasures, but nothing in this town is as precious as the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. Located at the edge of Echo Park on Glendale Blvd, the theater has entertained several generations of Southern Californian children. You never forget seeing a Bob Baker Marionette show. Unfortunately, Bob doesn’t sell videotapes of the shows due to issues involving music clearance rights so seeing the show live is your only opportunity to taste the magic. In 1963, Bob Baker and his partner Alton Wood turned a run-down scenic shop near downtown Los Angeles into a family entertainment institution. Bob Baker’s marionette shows are a pop culture staple. The puppet troupe’s annual appearances at county fairs and amusements parks had already made it famous in Southern California, and millions more became familiar with Bob’s work, if not his name, through the puppets featured in motion pictures and TV shows like the Judy Garland version of “A Star is Born,” “Bewitched,” and “Star Trek.”

Still playful at 81, Bob continues to run the theater and train new generations of puppeteers. You can see his work at the 2005 Bubblegum Achievement Awards at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, scheduled for Friday, October 7 at 7 PM. You can order tickets here.

The awards show, organized by the editors of Scram Magazine, includes live performances by Ron Dante, The Bubblegum Queen, Canned Hamm and a marionette spectacular that Bob and his crew have created especially for the celebration. Ron Dante, Dr. Demento, Steve Barri and Joey Levine will be present to accept their Gummy Awards.

LAist recorded the following interview with Bob at his theater on September 18, 2005.

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Age and Occupation:
81, Professional puppeteer and puppet theater owner. I’m also a puppet master, which the puppet guilds classify as someone who can make a puppet from start to finish.

How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?:
I’ve lived in Los Angeles all my life. I was born in the house that I still live in, near Echo Park.

Why do you choose to live in Los Angeles?
Well, one reason I suppose is that it was the heart of the entertainment industry. I always wanted to do movies. I’ve been to the Academy Awards, sold the business, sold to other people but it took 15 years to get it back the way it was. They did a lot of things I’d wanted to do originally, but didn’t do all of it. I still have a lot of ideas to do. We looked at other places. We’d been doing puppet theater shows all over town. But I haven’t retired so I just stayed here. I live 7 minutes from the theater, that’s why I haven’t moved.

What do you think the Bob Baker Theater says about Los Angeles?
Actually, I really wasn’t happy to come down here. Alt had me look at the property because we wanted to set up an artist community and puppet theater and a restaurant for families to come to to spend an afternoon. And we nearly had it when Alt found a piece of property that was part of urban renewal. We found it [the Glendale Blvd property] when we were still renting on Santa Monica Blvd, we'd left some other places we had. We thought it was smart to take advantage at beginning of urban renewal but the building didn’t extend this way out. So we were stuck here and we just stuck it out, waiting for Downtown to build west; instead of coming here it went south to USC.

Now once again [developers] are expanding down here, but now that I want to get some of the buildings adjacent to the theater so that I can expand and have my school and whatnot, now the prices are going up. It is just always the wrong time or the wrong place for us.

The main thing we need is money to expand. For a long time we thought we could do it on our own... I need someone to help [financially]. We need someone to support the organization, we need an endowment or an investment in our art project, bring children to theater and school give them that type of experience. The main thing is that we have artists who can do the art for us, but we need to find a grant writer. I'm thinking of using the Internet to find one.

I hope to see that side grow before I decide to retire. I probably won’t retire. I don't have a hobby. My stamp collection was stolen one day off the porch, so I don't collect stamps anymore. I'd like to garden, but I can’t get down on my knees anymore.

I like entertaining. I like giving a show. I’ve been doing it for 50 years with the finest set of puppets but those are collectible items. Get offers all the time. But I want to keep items together.

Which Bob Baker show is the most LA-themed show?
We did a show for bicentennial of Los Angeles called “L.A. Ole' '” and I thought it was so funny they [professional soccer team in LA] came out with "Ole' L.A.", and I said, "Gee, I wonder where they got the idea." We did that show for about a year. It was a fun show, very tongue in cheek. I went to library to get all newspaper headlines from the very beginning and reproduced them. We used headings in newspapers but some of the headlines didn’t lead to the story we wanted to do [reenact].

The only one we really used was the headline for the 1933 earthquake. The heading said ”Los Angeles Shakes” and we came up with a number with disco dancers coming up and shaking, buildings fall apart.
We did a thing on Hollywood. That was multimedia and we had an old time movie going; a producer runs around promoting this girl [to be a movie star], It was very focused on Los Angeles and Hollywood. We had slides going constantly of images of the Los Angeles and Hollywood vicinity.

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At the very ending, we did an act using the song "‘Each And Every Bridge You Build,” which came from the Broadway show, "Barnum." Our production designer painted all these magnificent buildings that had long gone; the set had the Pueblo, then the old City Hall came in front of it, then the new City Hall, then Bullocks Wilshire, then the Los Angeles theater, then all the big city high rises come in front of them -like the Atlantic Richfield tower-- come in front of them, then finally the suburban building rose up and the entire background all lit up like [candles on] a birthday cake. It was a beautiful show. We are going to try to revive it.

We did a thing called “City Lights.” Our designer also created these signs, the old Cafe Tracadero, the Ambassador, which is gonna be gone anyway, and CBS. And all these signs that light up Paramount Theater, Earl Carrollnightclub in Hollywood, Broadway, all these signs. It was a very elaborate show. We wanted Mayor Bradley to come see it but he could only send an aide. Too busy. We would have liked for him to come. We did an amazing show

What surprises you about the reaction of children to your shows?
The tempo of things has changed. The kids like things to move a little faster. They still like the puppets coming over to them and they still believe in the puppets. They still want to know what they wear, what they’ve done, how they go to sleep, where they go to school. They think the puppet is alive. The only thing that has changed, since Kung Fu came in, the kids look at the hands and feet of the puppets. Kids will always hug the puppets. I’ve noticed that a little boy will be the first to hug the puppet when it is placed in front of him, while a little girl is more reserved and lets the puppet hug her first before she hugs it back.

We still have the child who is afraid of the puppet. That’s only because of two things. One may be that their exposure is limited or, as happened when I was doing a show at a Catholic school in Pasadena, one little girl got up and ran out of the room screaming. And we finally found out that her mother told her that once, when she’d been bad, the little people are gonna come and get you." And there [our puppets] were the little people.

What do you have planned for the Bubblegum Achievements Award show?
Well, for the Bubblegum Achievment Awards, we are putting together a show that's a fusion or essence of bubblegum music, songs that were popular during the time.

We're putting together about 10 acts using some of the sets we have. Yesterday we did decide to include the Eloise characte, from the Kay Thompson books. Another number that we’re gonna put on is a candy number. It will be performed to the song "Yummy Yummy Yummy." We're doing "Sugar Sugar," that song and other songs may be interwoven into the music [as a medly].

We’re doing dancing candy and Candy Dandy..., then we’ll have a whole candy number that we’re pulling out of our Nutcracker Show where we have all these waltzing cakes, candies, lollipops. We are also going to have an acid rock band, We'll have a jelly bean drummer, a mouse that plays piano and a funny disco dancer. We have waltzing cakes and lollipops.

How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?
I’ve always rode the LA subways and light rail. I remember riding the Red Cars all over the city as a kid. The area has changed. The worst thing I’ve seen happen to LA is destruction of public transportation. We all blame it on the demise of the Red Car, but Huntington didn’t want to expand the line. They blame it on oil people, they blame it on the tire companies, they blame it on GM but that’s not true. Huntington wouldn’t extend the lines to the next piece of property that he didn’t own so people had to come down to where his line ended and people got in their cars those days and gas just 9 cent a gallon and even lower. The logical thing to do was take the car.

I love the current light rail system and take the subway whenever I can. I like to people watch.

What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in LA?
Well, one of my favorite movies is "Pinocchio," but that's not set in L.A.
I really liked a play called "The Music People.' It opened at the Artistic League, moved to the Hollywood Playhouse and then moved to play at the Old Music Box Theater on Hollywood Blvd.

In your opinion, what's the best alternate route to the 405?
Well, I try to avoid the 405 from UCLA to the other side of the airport. Instead, I take Lincoln, believe it or not I even drive Figureroa. Figueroa isn't that bad any more. If I'm going to pay a show in Torrance, I'll take La Cienega.

What's the best place to walk in LA?
I used to do a lot of walking. I used to roller skate every night, this was till we had that big gasoline shortage several years ago. I went from Santa Monica to Playa Del Rey and back on the bike path.

Each morning [when I was a young man], I liked to walk up to the top of Mt Hollywood. At the time was going up, there were a lot of wonderful people coming over from Europe; this was right before WWII. I got to talk to a lot of people. At that time they had breakfast at the "Tam O' Shanter" and I used to have breakfast there. I also liked to take my bike to Griffith Park.

It's 9:30 pm on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?
Up until last year, I’d leave the theater about that time and head to a bar with entertainment. When LA used to be open later, I remember you could have dinner at 7 or 8 and catch a late curtain at the Turnabout Theater or catch a cabaret at Ciro’s or The Macambo.

If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?
I would have liked to have lived in LA as an adult during the ‘20s and ’30, right when the motion picture industry was entering its golden age. I’d have liked to participate in Work Projects Administration theater shows and seen the flowering of theater in the area. I would have liked to see legends likeCharlie Ruggles perform or catch the many vaudeville shows touring the region at the time.

What's your beach of choice?
It’s hard to select just one beach. I loved Santa Monica because I knew Marion Davies and had permission to hang out on the beach in front of her house. I didn’t like Malibu too much because it had too many pebbles and rocks. I have fond memories of Long Beach because I grew down there in the ‘30s. My parents liked to stay there during the summer. We’d stay at the Old Virginia Inn and I got to know all the workers, like the glass blowers, at The Pike amusement park. I remember when the Blackstone Hotel was a very big deal until it closed.

What is the "center" of LA to you?
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater is the center for me. LA has changed so much; I remember when the Wiltern Theater was built because the center of town was considered Western Ave. Then the center moved west to the Miracle Mile and then further west to Beverly Hills.

If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?
As a kid in the 1930s, I always wanted to live in these houses we called the "Chapman’s ice cream houses" on the corner of Kingsley Drive, near Lafayette Park.

Today, I admire the houses in the Hollywood Hills and I always liked Laurel Canyon. My business partner, Alton Wood, lived on Hyperion so I know Silver Lake really well.

What is LA’s biggest secret?
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater is not known nearly enough by Angelenos.

What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?
I say that the East Coast is great, but Los Angeles was more casual and relaxed.

Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?
I prefer the threat of earthquakes.

Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
I hope that I’m in a safe place when the Big One hits, not in some tall building.