Recently we visited The Bob Baker Marionette Theater for a friend’s birthday. It was our second visit to what is the oldest puppet theater in the United States, and it was just as trippy and wonderful as the first time.
For the afternoon we got the party room all to ourselves before the show, and afterwords we received a behind the scenes tour and got to have up-close time with some of the puppets.
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater opened in 1963 by, you guessed it, Bob Baker. Baker became enchanted with marionettes with he saw his first puppet show at age seven (or five or six… sources vary) at Barker Brothers Department Store, where he stayed for all six showings that day. After seeing the shows, he knew he has to get his hands on a marionette. He saved and bought two soldier puppets at Bullocks Wilshire. While at the store, Baker’s mother lamented how he was ever going to learn how to use them, the woman working offered to give Baker lessons. He proved a natural, and soon began to help demonstrate puppets on weekends at Bullocks, where eventually he was asked if he would like to give a private show, as the store arranged private shows at homes. Agreeing, he found himself performing in Bel Air to movie director Mervyn LaRoy at the young age of eight.
Baker did a variety of work with Hollywood in movies and TV, and also made puppets for some of the windows on Main Street in Disneyland, before teaming up with Alton Wood to open up a theater. The two turned a rundown scenic shop into the beloved institution it is today.
Baker passed away in 2014 at age 90, but his legacy continues, with a group of passionate puppeteers who bring Baker’s original puppets to life with over 200 performances a year.
Although the theater was designated a historic and cultural landmark in 2009, the building is being altered as part of a mixed use development project. The bright side of this is that the new interior of the theater will be based on Baker’s original design, and some original elements will remain, including the courtyard. The new project also includes a renovation of the party room, and addition of workshop and educational spaces.
The show we saw, “Enchanted Toy Shop” is a reimagining of the 1963 show “Toyland Review” and included an added version of the puppet scene in the 1975 Disney film (and childhood favorite of mine) Escape to Witch Mountain.
If you are in or visiting the LA area I highly recommend catching at show at The Bob Baker Marionette Theater. Regarding the upcoming closure, they do not yet know when they will be (temporarily) closing, but during that time they “will be doing shows and residencies all over the city of Los Angeles” which is exciting.
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater is located at 1345 W 1st Street in Los Angeles. To learn more about upcoming shows visit their website.
February 2019 UPDATE: The Bob Baker Marionette Theater has found a brand new location at 4949 York Boulevard in Los Angeles, and is planning on opening in early summer, 2019.