Bob Baker Marionette Theater, a Los Angeles Historical Monument, Needs Your Help to Keep Their Iconic Puppets Dancing
Puppetry, as a form of live theater, has been around since at least Ancient Greece and was popularized in Europe in the following centuries. Punch and Judy shows have been delighting audiences since the late 1600s (including the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business in 1931 and Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade in 1963). In 1951, Edgar Bergen's pals Charlie McCarthy--and to a lesser extent Mortimer Snerd--staked a claim for puppets' rights everywhere when their likenesses were immortalized in black and white caricatures alongside fellow Hollywood luminaries on the wall of the legendary Brown Derby restaurant.
When the Bob Baker Marionette Theater first opened at 1345 W. 1st Street in Los Angeles in 1963, founders Bob Baker and Alton Wood took puppetry from traditional Parisian street shows and the American traveling vaudevillian circuit and introduced it in a new way to Los Angeles--and eventually, the world.
In the early 1960s, the cultural soil proved fertile for planting an enduring puppet theater. It was an emerging era of kitsch--inviting in bright colors, big eyes a la Margaret Keane and the requisite inclusion of at least one clown painting in every American living room.
Fred Rogers had began exploring puppetry on the East Coast and in Canada for the new medium of television for limited local markets by then, and would soon go on to introduce a new generation of American children to the art form through memorable characters from his Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
Jim and Jane Henson were in the infancy of the Henson Company at the time, then experimenting with their new breed of puppets on television commercials and five minute shorts before their big break with "Sesame Street" in 1969 and of course "the Muppet Show" in the following decade.
For 57 straight years, the puppet theater has enchanted generations of children, tourists and lovers of the whimsical and charmingly weird. Much in the same way that the neighboring Hollywood film industry took classic theatrical acting and made it their own through the lens of a camera--so too did the Bob Baker Marionette Theater when they took puppetry off the streets or out from under a tent and showcased it from a Downtown LA theater.
And perhaps, most remarkably, it's done so with longevity. The theater has kept their own unique brand of puppet show dancing for longer than "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" and "the Muppet Show" combined. According to the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater is the longest-running live puppet theater in the US.
Now, as California State-imposed restrictions aimed to curb the spread of COVID-19 continues to challenge public gatherings through the city and beyond, the theater's future is in question (though not for the first time).
Even without the added strain of a global pandemic, analog entertainment of all sorts might struggle to compete with the dopamine-driven feedback loop of TikTok and YouTube. But anyone who's seen a group of highly-skilled puppeteers infuse a motley cast of dolls with personality and humor, knows they've seen something special.
In a recent phone call with Sputnik’s Vintage, pop culture historian Charles Phoenix referred to BBMT as a "total original" that’s not only an icon of LA, but of the world.
“It’s a unique craft form, and it’s a unique theater form that’s wafted away from our culture,” Phoenix, who’s served as a host, comedian and cheerleader for previous fundraising efforts at the theater, said.
“Every show is wonderful,” he noted. “They have thousands of puppets they made over the years. Some as far back as the 1940s. They are still using these puppets.”
Due to the necessity of social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, the theater stopped its daily shows in March, which translated to a loss of $30,000 in monthly revenue. The theater is now hoping to raise $365,000 in donations to keep the lights on.
If it survives, it won’t be the first time the BBMT has emerged victorious from an existential threat. The theater endured the death of its cofounder and namesake in 2014, and has chugged along thanks to repeated public generosity in recent years.
In late 2019, the BBMT moved from the building it had called home for 55 years (designated a historical cultural monument by the city in 2009) to a former 1920s silent movie theater (and later a Korean church) on York Avenue in Highland Park.
“We had only been in the new theater for four months when everything came to a screeching halt,” said Theater Director of Communications Molly Cox.
In addition to asking for donations, the theater’s staff of five scrambled to develop a comprehensive a strategy to stay afloat.
The team launched a contactless "Peek-a-Boo Stroll Thru” of the theater for smaller groups, as well an online store and Zoom puppet shows. Thanks to a steady stream of $5 and $10 donations, Cox says the theater is now more than halfway to reaching its fundraising goal. She said she is hopeful the theater will survive the spring.
“It’s just affirmed that the Bob Baker Theater is essential for the Los Angeles landscape and beyond,” she said.
Natalie Etcheverry, who grew up just outside of Los Angeles in the early 2000s, regularly attended shows at the theater as a child and continued to return with friends as an adult.
“The marionettes either really scared you, or you were really fascinated by them,” Etcheverry said. "As a kid, I was the latter.”
She remembered being captivated by the sets and the way the puppets would whoosh over the audience’s heads. Afterwards, attendees gathered to eat soft serve ice cream in a room adjacent to the main hall.
“They would bring the puppets out after so you could see them up close,” she said.
Returning as an adult, she was able to appreciate the jokes tailored to the adults in the room, which had been lost on her years prior.
Los Angeles comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have both taken to social media asking followers to donate. Fans of their Adult Swim comedy TV show “Check it Out! with Dr. Steve Brule” will recall the episode in which the good doctor, played by actor John C. Reilly, visited BBMT in an attempt to face his fear of puppets. A hilarious nightmare sequence ensues.
The theater's namesake and co-founder Bob Baker had been fascinated by puppetry since seeing his first show at age six. He apprenticed at George Pal animation studios, and served as an animation advisor at Disney Studios.
In addition to performing for groups of children and at festivals, the theater produced effects and props for films ranging from Disney’s "Bed Knobs and Broomsticks" to Steven Spielberg’s "Close Encounter’s of the Third Kind."
But as the production of entertainment marched to an ever more digital future, the theater struggled financially. Cofounder Wood died in 2001, and Baker fell behind on the bills.
In 2012 he asked for donations to help to pay for $125,000 in taxes and another $20,000 in loans. Four years earlier, the theater had been put up for sale, but last-minute help from the Annenberg Foundation saved the day.
Pop culture historian and Americana torch-bearer Charles Phoenix walks his followers through the Bob Baker Marionette Theater's socially distant puppetry walk-through experience.
Though there is hope the theater will survive COVID-19 regulations and delight audiences once again, it remains to be seen if it will find a way to remain sustainable for future generations to enjoy. No doubt, the sting of such a loss would be felt by many.
Etcheverry, the fan who much like Baker himself was enchanted with the theater's puppetry since her childhood, says she still hears from friends who remember seeing shows at the old theater as children.
“I’ve heard from people saying they passed it and started crying. It’s kind of that place for people.”
You can take a virtual visit to the Bob Baker courtesy of Atlas Obscura here:
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater is accepting donations to help keep the cultural landmark open through and after California's COVID-19 restrictions.