November 25, 2018

Photo Essay: Bob Baker Marionette Theater Company Bids Farewell to Their Home of 55 Years

Ever since I moved to LA nearly eight years ago, I've been preparing for this day. The closure of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater was always a clear and present danger.

When you know something's going to be taken away, you try to not get very attached.

 But the urgency of experiencing as much of it as you can before it disappears makes any attachment you forge even stronger than it would've been otherwise.

It's been a rollercoaster, even while Bob Baker himself was still alive—the theater company falling into debt, continuing to lose money, not be able to pay the mortgage—but we thought the theater had been saved and that the puppets and their masters were in LA to stay.

And they are, but they're losing the building they've called home since 1963 to a condo development—despite the fact that it was designated a Historic-Cultural Monument. That, however, does not guarantee any salvation for the building.

The theater at 1345 West 1st Street wasn't Bob Baker's original home. After all, when he moved in, he was already 20 years into his career. But it was built to his exact specifications—and it hasn't changed much in 55 years.

It's also where Bob and his team did the majority of his work—the sketching, backdrop painting, scripting, and soundtrack selecting.

It's also where at least two decades' worth of marionettes were fabricated—costumes sewn, hands and feet carved, faces painted.

Since Bob's death in 2014, the young puppet enthusiasts who took over have transformed the inside of the theater...

...into a kind of museum tribute to Bob and his work.

You can walk around and examine plenty of puppets not featured in the current show... both the lobby and the ice cream room.

On Friday, we had the chance to say goodbye to them all, before they're packed up and moved (or not) to the as-yet-undisclosed new location.

In the meantime, Bob Baker Marionette Theater the troupe will perform its Nutcracker at Pasadena Playhouse—and after that, they'll become a roving band of puppeteers for a few months while they pack away all the puppets and Bob's archives.

For the final day that the theater was open, the puppeteers brought out some of their favorite stars of the puppet shows... well as some puppets I've never seen in the 10 or more shows I've attended.

The day after Thanksgiving, among the puppets that were brought out of the closet and paraded around were a pardoned turkey, a snake oil salesman...

...a monkey riding a giraffe...

...and a working model of a Pinocchio marionette that Bob had designed and fabricated for Disney.

Pinocchio isn't the only collaboration between Bob and Walt—Bob also did the puppets for Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Escape to Witch Mountain, and Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. 

His marionettes of Jiminy Cricket and Minnie Mouse were sold at Disneyland for decades. Although Bob didn't make the marionettes sold at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater gift shop, I had to buy one for myself as a souvenir.

The imminent departure of the troupe from the theater also opened up the backstage area for wider public access during the Best of Bob Baker farewell show.

Although I'd been backstage four years ago, it was during the run of Fun With Strings...

...which means I hadn't gotten to see the monkeys...

... or clowns from Circus.

And I hadn't gotten up close and personal with the dancing carrot (though I had met Mrs. Broccoli and a tomato from Revolt of the Vegetables at a gallery show).

In the three weeks before the final performances at Bob Baker Marionette Theater, I attended no less than four shows...

...the Halloween Spooktacular on Halloween...

...the Best of Bob twice...

...and a final time, during the open house, on that last day.

I didn't just get choked up. I found myself full-on bawling.

A little girl next to me was fighting with someone I presume was her grandmother, asking to leave and saying, "I'm too old for this!"

I chimed in with, "I'm 43, and I'm here by myself." The woman with the little girl said, "I'm in my 70s, and I'm loving this!"

Maybe that little girl will come around one day. But when she does, it won't be in this magical, outdated, haunted theater.

It'll be somewhere else, someplace some people will consider a major upgrade.

But no matter how good that next place is, the real spirit of Bob Baker lives on in the puppets and strings and costumes and hands of the puppeteers that give them life.

Wherever they are, Bob's legacy lives on.

The magic will follow.

Places have meaning, but places aren't everything. Buildings burn and crumble after earthquakes. Humans heartlessly tear them down.

As long as the puppets are saved and still get brought out on stage, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater will survive.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Behind the Scenes at Bob Baker Marionette Theater
The Art of Master Puppeteer Bob Baker, Upon His Passing

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