Bob Baker, 84, Must Raise $30,000; Says Venue Will Not Close
by Anna Scott
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – The Bob Baker Marionette Theater, an easy-to-miss white box in City West, has entranced the young and young-at-heart with its string-operated figurines for 45 years. But the country’s oldest puppet theater finds itself in a financial tangle.
The theater, at 1345 W. First St., has fallen into debt, and 84-year-old owner Bob Baker has been told by his mortgage holder that he must raise approximately $30,000 to avoid foreclosure proceedings, said theater assistant manager Richard Shuler. A Dec. 3 deadline was recently extended, as negotiations are ongoing.
In an attempt to raise the funds, Baker earlier this month hired a real estate firm to put the property up for sale, hoping to find a buyer who would lease him back the space. By last Thursday, however, Baker’s spokesman said it was no longer on the market. Baker, who can still be found in the theater most days wearing a red apron, working on his marionettes and even acting as a puppeteer, clearly hopes to find another solution.
“After struggling for almost 50 years in Downtown L.A., you don’t want to sell,” he said on a recent morning, seated below strings of Christmas garlands in the theater’s post-show party room.
The financial troubles began about five years ago, Shuler said, when Baker purchased a building next door to the theater; it currently serves as storage space for thousands of puppets. To finance part of the deal, Baker borrowed against the theater, which he already owned.
The theater recently stopped meeting its $6,722 monthly mortgage payment, Shuler and Baker said, in large part because of dwindling audiences. In recent months, the 180-seat space where the puppeteers perform has been just one-quarter full for most shows.
While Baker says the theater will stay open, some fans and friends fear what a worst-case scenario would mean.
“We’d be losing the palace of puppetry, the museum of marionettes and the castle of creativity,” said Charles Phoenix, an artist known for staging retro slide shows and unconventional city tours, and who worked with Baker on a past production. “It’s not like any entertainment of today. It’s timeless and classic. It would be really sad to see something so unique go away.”
He has racked up just about every distinction possible in the field of puppetry and his creations have been seen everywhere from the windows along Disneyland’s Main Street to TV’s “The Bob Hope Show” to the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
His work at the Downtown Los Angeles theater, which opened the day after Thanksgiving in 1963, has made him deeply loved by generations of Angelenos.
“I was taken to the theater when I was a toddler,” said Kim Cooper, co-founder of the bus tour company Esotouric. She recently sent out a mass email informing people about Baker’s plight. “I started going there [again] in the early 2000s and was completely captivated. You walk in there and there is no point in pretending to be cool. There’s no pretense. It’s just pure entertainment.”
For Shuler, who has worked with Baker for nearly 30 years, the marionettes are a family affair. His late mother saw Baker perform at a Pasadena church when she and Baker were both 8 years old, he said. Shuler’s father discovered the theater as an adult, and near the end of his life hung one of Baker’s marionettes by his hospital bed.
“Even though I’m 61 years old, I still sneak into the theater to watch the shows,” said Shuler. “I never, ever get tired of watching Bob perform.”
Baker too still revels in his work. One morning last week, he peeked through the curtained entrance of the theater’s performance space. Inside, black-clad puppeteers manipulated two marionettes in white jumpsuits and gold boots, shimmying to a disco boogie – part of a decidedly untraditional take on The Nutcracker. The approximately 20 children in the audience bopped along to the music. Minutes later, they squealed as an elaborate red dragon puppet made its way around the edge of the floor.
Baker beamed. “Wait! You have to see, the hand puppets are next,” he whispered to a visitor.
In recent weeks, Baker’s friends and fans have rallied around him to try to help remedy his situation, turning the theater’s already cluttered offices into a frenzy of activity.
Since for-sale signs went up on the building (they were taken down last week) and word began to spread about its predicament, “the phone has not stopped ringing,” said Shuler. Some calls have brought in donations, he said.
Baker remains optimistic. The theater has survived difficult economic times and debt before, he said, and he seems confident that it will again.
“We are not closing. We are not going out of business,” he said. “They’ll have to take it away from me screaming.”
Contact Anna Scott at email@example.com.
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