Marionettes have been entertaining us for perhaps 2,000 years. At the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, this timeless entertainment continues.
BY: Julie Carlson
PHOTOS: Ian Byers-Gamber
“Come here and be a kid again. It’s an enchanting and important place. The puppets are old but everything feels new and fresh, yet the Bob Baker Marionette Theater is timeless,” says Alex Evans, executive and artistic director.
Since 1963, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater has been a staple of the Los Angeles art and theater scene, making it the oldest children’s theater company in LA. Baker began designing marionettes as a young boy. During his adult years he moved his craft into the film and television industry. Later, he founded his own theater in 1961. Baker continued his passion for his beloved puppets until his death in 2014 at the age of 90.
If you’ve never seen a marionette or don’t remember them from your childhood, here’s your chance to view a stunning visual performance like none other. “From a historical museum perspective see an ancient art form,” says Evans. “From an educational point of view, everything we do is so imaginative. And to see how everything is pulled off is mind expanding.”
The theater boasts 200 performances a year, including traveling shows at schools, parties, churches, and country clubs, requiring 2000 handcrafted puppets. The bulk of the gorgeous puppets are from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The hour-long show is held in a theater in the round, complete with lights, backdrops, and music, in a former scenic shop. It’s a definite must-see musical variety show for kids of all ages. “It’s very much like vaudeville where it’s short vignettes strung together,” explains Evans.
The puppeteers dress in all black and perform alongside the puppets on stage, engaging closely with the audience. Most of the music consists of elaborate collections of soundtracks of Off Broadway shows, Christmas albums and assorted forgotten gems. The troop is made up of both puppeteers of long experience, as well as newer members. Baker’s visionary tradition however, is both the basis and inspiration for everything they do. It’s a tradition that supplies plenty of creative grist for the future as well. “There’s so many shows that haven’t been done on stage in decades,” said Evans.
Recently, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater held performances telling the history of LA in humorous 3 minute vignettes featuring dancing oil rigs and the La Brea Tar Pits. Starting June 17 through Halloween they present their circus show which hasn’t been performed in 30 years. All shows are being restored and rejuvenated for a new generation.
The theater’s coming event slate is a busy one. Now in production is a “Women in Vaudeville” performance intended to become a monthly feature, as well as the third annual puppet camp that will be held in late July. Kids ages 6 to 12 can learn more about the art of puppetry through a behind-the-scenes program, while the theater crew has an opportunity to explore expanding the educational classes.
A for-profit venture since its inception, the Marionette Theater recently became a 501(c)3 non-profit, and launched a capital campaign called In LA to Stay. Plans for a renovation and expansion include a museum, display areas, and additional programs for children and adults. The newly formed board, made up of filmmakers, Disney imagineers, community members and preservationists, intend to raise funds via community donation opportunities such a School House Rock event, galas, a 5K run and the Bob Baker Marionette Mobile—an ice cream truck with puppets cruising around the streets and parks of Downtown LA. It’s a daunting and exciting time for the dedicated group of staff and volunteers. “Yet it’s important that everything we do is kid-focused,” says Evans.
Whether you’ve been to the Bob Baker Marionette Theater before, haven’t been for a long time, or even if it’s your first visit, Evans believes the theater is a way to see both history and culture in a fun and entertaining environment. “It has so many layers,” he says, “There’s always something to get out of the experience. It’s live theater. The shows are never the same. There’s always a different atmosphere of how the crowd reacts and how the puppeteers perform. It’s a magical experience and shouldn’t be missed.”