Marionettes at Play – The New York Times

Marionettes at Play – The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — One afternoon last month, the shiny red curtains parted at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater to reveal the dancing Three Caballeros — puppets in the shape of a big-beaked toucan, a parrot and a rooster — manipulated from above by puppeteers dressed head to toe in red. Two long-necked feathery ostrich puppets followed, with one laying an egg that cracked open to reveal a baby ostrich puppet. Then a bright orange squirrel puppet tap-danced to the old show tune “I’m Fascinating.”

After the show had ended and the bows had ceremoniously been taken, a couple of marionettists stepped from behind a second curtain, balancing trays of ice cream cups. The children in the audience rose as one, and a little girl in a print cotton dress and strawberry blond hair sprinted ahead of the pack. “This isn’t the first time she’s been here,” her father said with a laugh.

Scenes like this have played out for 56 years, since the theater’s handcrafted puppets began jerkily careening around the stage, accompanied by scratchy recordings of tunes like “Cockadoodle Blues” and “Racing With the Clock.” But that day the puppeteers were celebrating not just another performance by one of the longest continuously running puppet theaters in America; they were also toasting the theater’s new Highland Park location, which opened on Nov. 29.

The routines on display that afternoon weren’t new. Far from it. Many of them — as well as some of the satin-and-net-clad puppets — date back at least to 1963. That was the year the animator-puppeteer Bob Baker and his partner, Alton Wood, bought a disused, cinder-block scenic shop on the edge of downtown Los Angeles and set up shop.

From the beginning, Baker handed down all of his techniques, teaching aspiring puppeteers how to make his collection of over 2,000 puppets walk, swoop and twirl. A classic Bob Baker bit has been described as “interactive,” but even that is too passive a term. The puppets, controlled from above using strings, perch on children’s laps or nip playfully on an elbow. After a show ends, the performers weave their way through the crowd, carrying on conversations with the children while in character. “Do you have any cheese for me?” a mouse in high heels and a green and yellow gown might ask.

“The show is not that different than the one I saw in the third grade,” said Ginger Duncan, one of the puppeteers. She first caught the show on a field trip while attending Betty Plasencia Elementary School and began as a volunteer six-and-a-half years ago. “We like to say that things are always changing, but nothing changes.”

But starting back in 2013, a series of calamities almost derailed these time-honored traditions. That was when Baker — a man who bubbled over with creativity, but when it came to business, was a car wreck — was forced to sell the building, and the troupe became tenants in their longtime home. When Baker died the following year at the age of 90, the company members dedicated themselves to preserving his legacy.

“At the end of the day, we’d still be doing shows, and there’d be a hundred happy kids,” said Alex Evans, a scruffy-bearded 34-year-old who arrived at the theater in 2006 from New York after Googling “Los Angeles” and “puppets.” He is now the theater’s executive director and head puppeteer. “So it was easy to look around and highlight this as a beautiful moment.”

After Baker’s death, the group learned the landlord intended to raze the theater and replace it with a mixed-use development, which would include a spot for them to perform. “Then we looked at the plan and it was like, ‘We are essentially going to be squeezed into a space otherwise allocated to a Starbucks,” Evans said. “We were, like, ‘This won’t work. We can’t do that.’ ”

They visited dozens of places before finding the two-story former Pyong Kang First Congregational Church on a bustling, tree-lined street, across from a children’s park. Not only was it bigger than their original home — at 10,000 square feet compared to about 5600 — it was also zoned for assembly. “We could just open the doors and just go,” Evans said.

But the move still stirred some apprehension. It had to do with nostalgia, with what a multigenerational family of regulars — accustomed to celebrating Christmas, Easter, Halloween and birthdays by piling into their cars and driving downtown — might think. The puppeteers could pack up everything physical — the neon wall decorations, the dangling puppets and Baker’s library of 6,000 LPs — but not the theater’s distinctive old-timey charm. Evans wondered how much of the magic “was tied to the old space and the dust on the walls.”

Once they began their overhaul of the new digs — this is a D.I.Y. bunch — and they discovered a whole other sort of history, the fears faded. The building was originally a silent movie theater, which opened in 1923, and over the years it has housed a barbershop and organ showroom. “To this day, we’re pulling back pieces of board, and there’s a piece of an old proscenium,” said Missy Steele, the theater’s purple-haired director of operations, who likes to point to the spot on the stage where they opened a trap door that revealed a small, hidden baptism pool.

Then the volunteers began to show up, over 400 of them, all offering their services, like the ultimate neighborhood welcoming committee. Local artists painted the walls with designs replicated from old drawings found in Baker’s archive. The Los Angeles Theatre Organ Society lent them a replica of a Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ. When the comedian Maria Bamford and her husband, Scott Marvel Cassidy, asked how they could help, they were tasked with dusting off enormous glass chandeliers. Overall, the company has been buoyed by the sense that they’ve landed in a friendly, tight-knit community.

“We used to be located under a bridge, and maybe our cars would get broken into,” said Steele. “Here people pop their heads in and want to check out what’s happening.”

The new venue came with a 10-year lease with options to extend. Collectively, they’re ready to exhale, Evans said.

“The last few years have been like a ‘winter is coming’ situation,” he said, citing the ominous tagline from the television series “Game of Thrones.” “But through good programming and just trying to be smart business people, we now have a tiny cash reserve. Everything is on this bright, beautiful track. And that’s the long and short of it.”

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