Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Is the Bob Baker Marionette Theater worth saving without puppets?

ECHO PARK — Portions of  the Bob Baker Marionette Theater  would serve as the lobby of a proposed 104-unit apartment complex. But Baker’s struggling puppet theater company is scheduled to move out next year, prompting the head of the Cultural Heritage Commission to ask if the historic landmark is worth preserving.

The issue was raised today after an architect and consultant for the new owners of the theater property proposed constructing housing around and above portions of the cinderblock building where Baker’s marionettes have been entertaining children and adults for more than 50 years.  The developer would construct a nearly 60-foot wide platform above the theater building – a former industrial and warehouse space –  to support three floors of housing.  Art displays honoring Baker’s legacy would be included in the former theater, which would serve as a lobby and meeting rooms for the housing development.

But Commission President Richard Barron said the idea of preserving parts of the building – described as a nondescript industrial space – without an operating puppet theater seemed ‘wrong-minded” and “foolish.”

“It’s sort of sad for me to watch this presentation,” said Barron. “The beauty of the Bob Baker Marionette show was Bob Baker and his fantasy and love for the marionettes. The building is nothing….Without Bob Baker and the marionettes, you don’t have a monument anymore. It’s been hollowed out.”

The city declared the  building a historic cultural monument in 2009 as part of an effort by fans to rescue the struggling theater from closing.  The 90-year-old Baker  has been one of the nation’s most prominent puppeteers who began working with marionettes at age 7.  His theater contains 3,000 handmade marionettes and has hosted shows – followed by ice cream – for nearly 50 years, making it perhaps the nation’s longest-running puppet theater.

Three years after being declared a landmark, the theater property was put up for sale for $2.05 million as the theater’s problems continued.  Online property records show it sold last year for $1.305 million.

While Baker’s building is not architecturally significant, it was deemed to have cultural value.  But instead of going to the expense of  building a large platform to save a “dumpy” structure, Barron and others suggested that the developer could create space in the new apartment building to stage puppet shows. But it was not clear if that was feasible or whether it could complicate efforts to preserve other sites that are deemed landmarks but are not architecturally important.

Baker is said to be in ill health and is not active in running the theater company, which is still staging shows. One man who said he is works as a puppeteer told the commission that the theater is currently operating on a “day-to-day” basis.

The commission, which oversees changes to the city’s historic cultural landmarks, instructed the developer to keep working with city staff on their proposal.

A historic consultant for the property owner said the theater would likely remain in the building until March of next year.

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  1. Today’s presentation was an unpleasant surprise to the folks who run the Bob Baker Marionette Theater–I saw that their building was on the emailed agenda for the Cultural Heritage Commission meeting and pulled their sleeves to it. There was no time to inform fans of the theater about the pending presentation so that they could attend the meeting or send letters to the Cultural Heritage Commission.

    I think it would be nice if the new owners made a good faith effort to keep Bob Baker and company informed about their plans for the building, while giving lip service to preserving the Historic Cultural Monument theater and its wonderful history in their mixed use redevelopment.

    The timing for this proposal to transform the theater is painful. Bob Baker is currently in hospice care at home and seeking contributions to allow him to remain there, with his friends close by and his life’s accumulation of treasures around him. If you care about Bob and his creative legacy, and would like to help, please share the link:

  2. Why don’t the developers donate the money they are planning to spend on incorporating a puppet theatre I to the the new development and give it to Bob. I think this would serve his legacy with the grace and respect he deserves more so than an empty theatre without Bob. What a special soul he is. The theatre won’t be the same without Bob.

  3. I appreciate the effort to save the Bob Baker Marionette Theater – and I visited it as a child in the 70s and took my first-grade students there in the mid-90s – but I find it a bit distasteful that the owner passes the hat around for donations every few years. I’m willing to bet that most kids who grew up in the area haven’t visited the theater; when I taught high school nearby, few, if any, of my students had ever attended a show there. It’s had a good run, but perhaps its time has come.

    • Look up a little about Bob Baker’s career and life. He is a victim of the lack of interest in the arts that is all too common in America these days. Bob had a long a prolific career in film and TV, a great deal of which he spent keeping this theater alive for children. As a professional puppeteer for more than forty years I can tell you that among people in this business,( and there are a great many more of us than you might think) Bob Baker is considered a living artistic treasure. His life and legacy deserve better than this. The children I am about to go an entertain with my marionettes owe the fun they will have this afternoon in part to the great inspiration Bob Baker has been in my life.

      • I don’t think that I’ve said anything to detract from Bob Baker’s legacy, but according to the link posted in one of the above comments, Mr. Baker’s in-home care costs $7000 for every two weeks. Is it that awful to stay in a facility that’s covered by Medicare instead of paying so much for in-home care? If he could afford it himself, I wouldn’t take issue with it, but he’s asking for donations to cover the cost. I just wonder how many four-year-old Ebola orphans in Freetown, Conakry, or Monrovia could be helped for $7000.

  4. Sad story here folks but I wish the best for Mr. Baker is these tough times he is facing, and hope that aside from helping him with being able to stay at home as he well deserves in his 90’s, that someone or many someones, take the helm and help to keep his life work alive and well going forward!

    We reside in Vermont and own the old “Wild Wood Marionette Theater” that was once not too long ago, a traveling old time show that I, along with my wife’s help, used to work for the husband and wife team who owned it and built the various shows props & tear down stage as their 3rd puppeteer. For years it was registered in the Vermont Counsel of the Arts listing and was supported in part by them as well.
    After her untimely death, he wanted to sell the marionettes off individually and we could not stand the thought of seeing that happen to complete shows. So we purchased the Company from him for a goodly fee and it now takes up a great amount of space in one of my larger shops. The show list includes shows such as: “The Bremen Town Musician’s”, “The Wind in the Willows”, “Charlet’s Web”, the old “Punch & Judy” show, the unfinished “Rip Van Winkle” and other hand carved from Vermont Basswood marionettes like stick puppets and all the hand made hand painted props, scrips and show tapes that went with the company. When we performed around New England at fairs, the Adirondack October-fest, schools, museums, the Maine Fest and First Night in Burlington VT for example, it took a full van to load these purposely designed traveling old time shows with the stage on the vans roof. But Oh my, to have 500 people at our largest show cheer and stomp their feet was ever so rewarding for the puppeteers behind the black & red velvet curtains! But to load a show (we were our own roadies) and travel to a place to load in, set up, perform, interview the audience, tear down, drive home to unload, was always a days affairs and often enough a two day affair. These are state marionettes and puppets, as well as are the many props and hand sewn roll down/up backdrops! And though some marionettes are smaller than the others such as the crow and the rooster from the “Bremen Town Musician’s” for instance (and they are not real small, other main character Marionettes are on average 3 feet tall without their long controls and are very fluid and come fully to life under the arms, hands & bodies of good puppeteers, and the fact that many of them have working mouths make them come even more alive oh to see them talk! We hope to find a good use of these shows and their many diverse characters, and have thought of mixing up the various props & marionettes to create new shows.
    But my present health as well, has hindered our going forward with ideas such as re-establishing the old traveling company and or filming or recording shows for the DVD world.. So, other than the fact the we have no home performing theater to do this in, we truly hope to see this large collection of Marionettes & Props get put to use some day in one form or the other. For in a stage setting under lights, these grand marionette shows are truly a thrill and a unique art form, that we hope will live on!
    And so as for Mr. Baker’s Company, we hope the same, for I would think that of all the places in this country that someone, or some company in the Grand City of Lights, would see the importance of his life work & his collection to the entertainment world, and move to not only help support saving at the very least, Mr. Bakers life work & art form, but to help take it to a new level for generations to come!
    And if it were done with some good solid detailed thinking, it could also help Mr. Baker not only live out his live at home adequately and confortably, but would also help his spirits in knowing that his life work would adapt and live on for generations to come!
    My Best Wishes to Mr/ Baker and to those trying to save and support, “The Bob Baker Marionette Theater”!!!

  5. Developers should be required to incorporate the theatre into their apartment complex as a condition of permitting. As a community benefit.

  6. I think incorporating a new theater into part of the building would be a great idea. The cultural significance is the theater company more than the building itself.

  7. Jason Segel (the actor) is obsessed with puppets (consider Forgetting Sarah Marshall & the Muppets!) I’ve been wishing for years that someone would get his attention to this issue and he’d swoop in to save the theater, or at least the Bob Baker puppet operation. Anyone know him?!?

  8. I used to work at the Bob Baker Marionette theater. It bring many fantastic memories to all those that attend. It also brings many happy times to the puppeteers too. LA needs to embrace this concept…unfortunately, few with the power and the money do understand how rare and powerful this is for the community. Bob was the best… And now, just like Walt Disney, it needs to be passed on and protected because it is worth it. As the world continues to become more digital… We must support and promote and protect all things analog. It’s art. Let’s get behind it.

  9. Over the years the marionette theater has had good times and more recently bad times as a
    combination of Bobs loss of income coupled with the economy tanking in 2008
    The non profit we had was designed to keep the theater admission
    for other non-profits to a minimun.
    However, the name was difficult to connect with the theater and we were not able
    to keep the Academy of Puppetry funded and in turn allow other low income or
    non prifits to enter for a smaller fee.
    And yes we’ve passed the hat. Amazing that some people who complain of us
    passing the hat will go out and buy overpriced tickets for Disney Land. or
    Thousands on season tickets for Football or Basketball or Baseball
    But a donation for the puppet theater. absurd. Enjoy your season Jock tickets.
    Even Eli Broads camp told us that they didnt support puppet theaters. Then went
    and funded the shameful parade for the Lakers from his own pocket
    We are planning to stay open as long as Angelinos want us

    The rumors of our demise are totally premature.
    For those of you who would and have supported us if you dont want
    the theater to close (I am the only person who has the authority to do so)
    please call your council man and especially Gil Cedillos office and register your support
    In the meantime no one from the property owners camp is authorized to speak
    for Bob , the theater, or the Marionettes
    Richard Shuler
    mother bear of all that is Bob Baker
    dont mess with a mother bear when she’s with her cubs

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