It was 1961, Bob Baker was looking for a place for him and his beloved marionettes to call their own. Handcrafted and each with its own distinctive “personality,” the Bob Baker Marionette Theater was more than just puppets with strings. And they needed a home.
Baker’s life as a puppeteer began when he was only eight, for he was something of a child prodigy. He was already giving professional performances at a young age for several different LA-based puppeteering companies. By the time he was in high school, he was making and selling his marionettes in the United States and abroad. Within two years of high school graduation, he was the head animator of Puppetoons, the Academy-Award nominated studio that popularized stop motion puppet animation. After World War II and in his early 20s, Baker became an animation supervisor and consultant for multiple film studios, including one studio upstart ran by an intense fellow named Walt Disney.
Back in 1961, in his mid 30s, Bob Baker had become the face, or rather he’d painted the face, of a new form of entertainment. But they had no place they could call home, and therefore no place for his marionettes to walk, dance, sing – to come alive. So when Alton Wood, one of Baker’s puppeteer protégées, agreed to help finance an acquisition of a theater, they partnered up and went on the lookout to find the perfect home.
They found it in the form of an inauspicious, windowless studio near downtown Los Angeles. Built in 1951, this studio is believed to have been built by Academy Award-winning special effects artist M.B. Paul. Baker and Wood purchased the building and it has remained the “Bob Baker Marionette Theatre” ever since.
Today, this studio has been transformed into a 200 seat theater with red velvet drapes and a grand chandelier. It houses over 3,000 of Baker’s beloved marionettes and shows are performed at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater five or six times a week. In 2009, it was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Landmark as the longest running puppet theater in the United States.
Alton Wood has since passed away, but Mr. Baker, now 89, can still be seen hustling about the theater, visiting his marionettes, checking in on shows. Every once in a while, he’ll puppeteer himself, to the delight of adults and children alike.
On Saturday, January 26th, Obscura Society LA went down to the Bob Baker Marionette Theater and experienced the magic of marionettes first hand. We saw a performance of Bob Baker’s “The Nutcracker” and then afterwards, we were taken backstage to learn more about the art of marionettes and puppetry.
Among the things we learned: Puppeteers regularly perform arm exercises in order to have the arm strength to work the puppets; many of the puppets at the theater are original Bob Baker creations and are over 50 years old; there’s a puppetry school in Nashville that is the only one of its kind in America; the light board used at the theatre originally belonged to Liberace.
Obscura Society LA encourages people to get out in their community and experience fun things that they didn’t know about. We do up to three events a month in the LA area. If you are interested, sign up on our mailing list!