Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Bob Baker Marionette Theatre Celebrates 50 Years in Los Angeles
When Bob Baker founded his marionette theatre in downtown Los Angeles in 1960, he had little idea that his puppetry post would become a must-see destination for generations of Angeleno tykes.
Now, 50 years later (and after facing a real financial struggle a couple of years ago) Baker is celebrating his company's longevity -- and its relatively new status as an L.A. historical cultural landmark -- with an anniversary lineup that boasts five shows in one year, more than any other year before.
His latest production, "It's a Musical World," which opens April 20 and runs through July 11, is the second on his 50th anniversary schedule. Debuted at the theatre in 1978, this marionette revue includes a stop at an Enchanted Toy Shop as well as at a Teddy Bear Picnic.
I had the chance to talk with Baker about his company as well as how entertainment has changed over the last 50 years. Not only that, but Baker isn't going anywhere. In fact, he's even making plans for the theater to see another golden anniversary.
"Audiences are pretty much the same, believe it or not," Baker said. Of course, he noted, attention spans have shortened, but kids, who are also more diverse, are still entranced by the puppets, the music and the performance.
Baker even mentioned one enthusiastic response, which could be filed under "The TiVo Generation Meets Live Theater."
"One little boy after the end of the show got up," Baker recalls, "turned to his mother, and said, 'Oh, I like that, Mom. Rewind it. I want to see it again.' "
It's that kind of affirmation that's been bringing kids -- and CC soon! -- back to the theatre for five decades.
As to being considered a staple of an Angeleno childhood, he said, "I'm certainly proud of it. And that came to pass being down here (in the downtown area of L.A.).
"We'd had -- (business partner) Alton Wood and I -- had been entertainers in the Los Angeles area from 1950. I did it before, but we had built up quite a reputation, and we thought that opening the theater it would be just wonderful.
"But we came down, and they took the Urban Renewal off. There was no activity, there were no restaurants, no parks, none of the things that they had promised that were going to be down here to attract people.
"And, as the years went on, we realized that the people that were coming to see our shows were coming here just to see us. And that's quite an honor," he said.
Baker's theater is the only permanent marionette theater in Southern California and despite the new puppetry technology out there -- and there's plenty -- he insists that marionette shows are very much appealing and here to stay.
"Marionettes have been around a long time," he said.
Baker has a stable of 6-7 regular puppeteers, but he's always looking to recruit more. That can be tricky, when it comes to selling the longevity of the craft.
"A lot of people feel that they're stepping back in time by being a puppeteer," he said. "But actually, that's not the case. We may not use a lot of the new technology, but those things will be a passing thing also. There will always be something new, but the thing is, we try to look and see how those type of things can be used in our work."
Perhaps it's also the rise of 3D animated movies and TV that has provided some competition for the company. That, and the economy.
"We would like to do more productions, more things, but unfortunately we've had a lot of reversals in cash flow because the schools have had their budgets cut and families haven't had the money to have birthday parties here. We've even had to raise our prices during this crazy time just to stay open," he said.
Baker plans to continue, however, long into the future.
"We're setting up a trust, so the theater and the puppets and the whole thing hopefully will continue for years to come. If we get enough people interested in supporting it financially and enough people interested in supporting it by working in the theater and doing things of that sort, we'll be here."
And 50 years is nothing to overlook. There must be something that keeps audiences coming back despite new developments in kids' entertainment.
What, according to Baker, makes his marionette theater special?
"Being able to do a show each day," he said.
"The fellows and gals that are here," he added, "they have kind of a devotion to the job that they're doing, which I appreciate very, very much."
"They want to do what they're doing -- entertaining and doing things for children."
Bob Baker Marionette Theatre
1345 W. First St.
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Remaining 2010 Shows:
* "It's a Musical World" -- April 20-July 11, 2010
* "Bob Baker's Circus" -- July 19-Sept. 26, 2010
* "Bob Baker's Halloween Hoop-De-Do" -- Oct. 1-31, 2010
* "Bob Baker's Nutcracker" -- Nov. 6, 2010-Jan. 16, 2011
Box Office: 213-250-9995
Performances: Tuesdays-Fridays (10:30 a.m.); Saturdays & Sundays (2:30 p.m.)
Tickets: Children & Adults ($20); Seniors ($15); Children Under 2 Years (Free)
Call Box Office for reservations