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.