Bob Baker Marionette Theater, located in downtown Los Angeles, California, was founded by Bob Baker and Alton Wood in 1963. The theater was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural landmark in 2009, and is reportedly the longest running puppet theater in the United States.
Baker is an established puppeteer, and with the help of his 3,000 handmade marionettes, has been entertaining audiences for over 70 years. Baker was a key activist in establishing union status for puppeteers, and his theater serves as a training ground for many puppet-makers who go on to work in fantasy films. With a long history of working in Hollywood, Baker’s creations have been featured in TV shows such as Star Trek and Bewitched, and films such as Bluebeard, A Star is Born and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The theater was built in 1953 and believed to have been constructed as a studio for Academy Award-winning special-effects artist, M.B. Paul. It was purchased by Baker and Wood in 1961, where it has remained as a window-less warehouse in a somewhat rundown area of town. Despite its unassuming white facade, the interior is decorated with red velvet drapes and grand chandeliers.
Just as it was 40 years ago, children (and some adults) gather in a circle on the floor of the 200-person shoebox theater, where they sit and watch Baker’s creations come to life. For a little over an hour, Baker and roughly 8 other puppeteer students, dressed in all black, weave the marionettes around their audience. The puppets, dressed in bright ensembles, fly and dance to the charming soundtrack of old phonograph records, complete with scratches and the warm hiss of analog audio.
When the show ends the children are all given a cup of vanilla ice cream, a tradition that Baker has exercised since the theater first opened. Some parents, who frequented the theater decades ago, have even remarked on how Baker still uses the same wooden spoons.
Though the shows cater to a mostly young audience, many adults have referred to the performances as “psychedelic.” The dizzying colors and interactive experience have given the theater a reputation for non-linear, off-beat performances. Indeed, Baker is known to weave disco scenes into the Nutcracker, and incorporates many sci-fi alien themes into his Halloween Spooktacular.
Update October 2018: The theater has recently announced that it will be moving.
We explored the Marionette Theater on Obscura Day - March 20th, 2010. Photos, stories and more here