How a Beloved Puppet Theater Became a Battleground in the LA Gentrification Wars

Bob Baker's Marionette Theater has been an icon in Los Angeles since the 1960s. But now, developers plan to turn the performance space into the lobby of a new apartment building, and the theater's fans are fighting to save it.

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Mar 31 2016, 4:00am

The first thing you see in Sketch book Revue, the hour-long puppet show recently on view at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, is the trio of marionette dogs. They dance onstage to whimsical fairytale music, while kids sitting cross-legged on the carpet gasp in awe. The dogs are followed by a procession of puppets—soldiers, a gingerbread man, a giant clown, and a teddy bear balancing on a rolling beach ball—all maneuvered by a set of marionette strings. There's silver tinsel strewn from the ceiling like Christmas, but it's a Thursday morning in March.

Sketch Book Revue is a revival of the first production ever staged at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in Los Angeles in 1963. Save for the young puppeteers, the performance is nearly identical to the one staged more than half a century ago, right down to the original wooden puppets, the ornate multicultural costumes, the gaudy set pieces, and the whimsical, Disney-esque musical numbers, all designed and directed by the theater's namesake mastermind, Bob Baker, who died in 2014.

All photos by the1point8

"For children, this is an unusual kind of entertainment," says Veeni Bils, a teacher who first saw a Bob Baker marionette production when she was a student in an adult education class in the early 1960s. She's been bringing her adult students and their children to see the puppet shows over the last four decades. For her, and for many of the audience members who have returned with their children, and then their grandchildren, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater is a reminder of the magic of childhood, the delight of old-fashioned entertainment, perfectly capped off with vanilla ice cream served in the party room next door.

But the performance of Sketch Book Revue that I saw wasn't a standard song and dance at the puppet theater. The revival show was part of a last-ditch appeal to save the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, staged two months before the city would decide whether or not to allow the construction of an apartment building that would force the theater to close.

The Bob Baker Marionette Theater, which occupies what is now prime hipster real estate just outside of downtown Los Angeles, is at the heart of an intense debate about how to preserve the city's historic buildings. While the white cinderblock building that holds the theater is itself a time capsule of the 1960s, the neighborhood around it is anything but. Nearby downtown and Echo Park have rapidly gentrified, giving rise to high-density housing and skyrocketing rents.

The property was sold to developers for $1.3 million in 2013, and the new owner, Eli Elimelech, plans to erect a seven-story, 102-unit apartment building where the puppet theater currently stands. The theater was designated a Los Angeles historic-cultural monument in 2009, which means developers must display historic markers, but doesn't mean they have to keep the space operational. (Elimelech did not return our request for comment on this story.)

As of now, Elimelech and his architects have agreed to build on top of the theater, keeping the main space intact—but the kitchen, office space, and the puppet workshop will all be bulldozed, according to the developer's proposal to the city, and the performance area would be converted into the lobby of the apartment complex.

Alex Evans, creative director of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, says the theater's status as a historic-cultural monument doesn't do nearly enough to preserve and continue its legacy. "The whole thing is a really big misunderstanding of what's important, in my mind," said Evans, a 28-year-old British transplant and longtime puppeteer who lives up the hill in Echo Park. "They're treating it like an architectural landmark, but it's like, no, it's a cultural resource, and that's what's important."

The value of a "cultural resource" is harder to preserve than, say, architecturally significant monuments like the Victorian-era Bradbury Building or Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House, both of which are designated historic-cultural monuments and have remarkable facades that effortlessly make the case for preservation. The building that houses the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, on the other hand, is so unremarkable that its architect is unknown even to the advocacy group LA Conservancy, which classifies it in the "vernacular," or architecturally modest, everyday style.

Stephen Albert, the principal architect at the Albert Group Architects, which is designing the building that may one day replace the theater, points out that city and state preservation laws have been written specifically to preserve buildings, rather than ideas. "How do you preserve the idea?" he said. "How do you preserve the function? Well, you can't." In lieu of preserving the function of the theater, Albert told me his client plans to install puppet displays and photography exhibits in the lobby of the apartment complex, so that "anybody who goes into the building will become aware of what happened there in the past."

Alex Evans, the creative director and "string puller" at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater

To friends and staff at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, that's hardly enough."You can knock this place down, I don't care," Evans told me, referring to the ramshackle facility itself. But because the theater's current layout and the attached workshop are so unique to the theater-in-the-round-style shows Baker pioneered, Evans worries that relocating it will be too costly—plus, any potential new location won't come with the hard-fought historic-cultural monument status.

"[Baker] gave his whole life to this. To see it taken down and destroyed with a plaque, it's just so insulting and demeaning," said Bils, the teacher and decades-long patron of the theater. "That's the worst thing I can think of."

Bob Baker photographed in 2008. Photo by Lizzie Brandt

Bob Baker was born in Los Angeles in 1924. Save for his last few years spent in hospice care, he lived all his life in the same Koreatown home where he grew up—a fourplex near Vermont Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, just a couple of miles west from the warehouse he'd eventually name for himself and his art, according to friend and historian Charles Phoenix. Baker saw his first puppet show at a Christmas celebration at a downtown LA department store and became immediately transfixed, he told KCET in 2012. "After that, I drove everyone crazy because I had to have a real puppet," he said. The first marionettes he purchased were a pair of soldiers from the Bullocks Wilshire, a department store near his home.

Within two years, he'd already launched his first puppet variety show, which he staged in his garage, according to Evans. By the time he got to Hollywood High School, he was already carving his own marionettes and selling them to department stores like Bullocks Wilshire, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue, according to a biography included in the application for historic-cultural monument status. He became the head of Paramount Pictures' Puppetoons division after having spent just a year apprenticing at the Academy Award–winning animation studio. And in 1949, he founded his own production company, under which he worked as a consultant for Disney and produced puppet sequences in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Escape to Witch Mountain, and Star Trek, among hundreds of others.

In 1961, Baker and his partner, Alton Wood, purchased the building at 1345 W. 1st Street, where he'd spend the last half of his life creating puppets, designing shows, training puppeteers, and dreaming up new ways to entertain children. He could talk for hours, especially about Los Angeles history, and his aspirations ranged from far-fetched collaborations with Walt Disney to opening a puppet theater in Japan, Evans remembers. "Bob was the most ambitious and crazy-minded person," Evans told me. "He was a dreamer for sure."

"As long as we do a show tomorrow, Bob lives on another day." — Alex Evans

Outlandish as some of his ideas were, his work helped to legitimize the art of puppeteering, says former employee Christine Papalexis, who worked at the theater in the 1980s and who, like Baker, served for a time as president of the LA Guild of Puppetry. "In film and television, people who were puppeteers were just sort of considered part of the prop [department]. But Bob really pushed for [puppetry] to be considered a performance, and therefore, it should fall under SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction, which makes a huge difference in terms of having the respect of it as a performance." (The Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is one of the industry's most prominent labor unions.) In the 1950s, Papalexis remembers Baker performed a puppet show for Ronald Reagan when the then-future president of the United States was still president of SAG.

Baker was also one of the first to popularize a cabaret style of puppetry for children, in which the puppeteers are incorporated into the show, rather than hiding behind set pieces. During his shows, it's not uncommon for the puppets to get up close and personal with their audience. In the Sketch Book Revue, for example, a pair of ostriches wag their tails and snap their beaks just inches from the crowd's faces; a slinky black cat dressed as a jazz singer swishes her way into children's laps; clowns on unicycles lean in for surprise embraces.

Baker never had children of his own, but as Evan remembers, he used to tell people he had 2,000 puppets instead.

"The puppets themselves are what amaze me about the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. Each one is a masterpiece," said Phoenix, a local historian who travels the country documenting kitschy Americana culture. "There's such a radically wide variety of marionettes there, and each one of them is a national treasure." He refers to the theater as the Fantasyland of downtown.

But for all of its magic, there were plenty of hard times, too. Baker and Wood sold the theater in 1988, saddled with expenses they could no longer afford. The owner offered to return the property two years later, citing its marginal profitability, and two businessmen who were fans of the theater covered the remaining $25,000 required to keep its doors open, the LA Times reported at the time. But Richard Schuler, Baker's partner who now owns the business, said the Baker had mounds of credit card and mortgage debt that he never recovered from.

"The business started going downhill because people didn't want to see puppet shows anymore," Schuler told me. "The economy was tanking, and the first thing that goes is school budgets, entertainment, and field trips, and we were sensitive to that."

When Schuler and Baker first started working together, he says they'd do four shows a day. By 2000, they were doing one a day, then one every three days, if that. Things only got worse when Baker's health began to collapse in the late 2000s, restricting his ability to work and cutting his theater visits down to about once a month. In Baker's absence, Schuler stepped in, attempting to cut costs any way he knew how, even if it meant laying off employees and slashing the building's maintenance budget. In 2013, they sold the property to Elimeleich.

"He made the most beautiful things, but he did not know how to pay for it," Schuler said of Baker. "We sounded like a man and wife, screaming about money. Bob would say, 'Oh I know, I understand,' and then he'd go right out and spend every dime he could lay his hands on." One of the most explosive fights erupted after Baker discovered Schuler had paid the electric bill in full, using the same money Baker had already spent to buy fabric and glue for his puppets, according to Schuler.

By November of 2014, Baker was 90 years old and on his deathbed, sick with kidney failure. Schuler considered shuttering the business right then and there, but decided to wait until after Christmas—the theater's busiest season, when up to four shows are scheduled on the weekends.

"One night, we were sitting there with him and talking to the nurses. He was talking about new shows and new puppets he was going to build," Schuler remembers. Then suddenly, he gasped and took his last breath. The nurses had expected him to survive at least until the New Year, Schuler says. "Bob Baker did what Bob Baker wanted to do on Bob Baker time. He passed the same way."

It was around 2:30 in the morning on November 28, 2014—the very same day Baker had purchased the theater back in 1961, according to Schuler. Schuler fetched Baker's favorite marionette, a circus pauper named Scherzo, and placed it on a puppet stand on the nightstand next to him.

Inside the Bob Baker Marionette Theater today, it's as if not a day has passed since the Sketch Book Revue staged its first production beneath the colored spotlights made of coffee cans painted black some half a century ago.

"We have grandparents bringing their grandkids, who [themselves] came as little kids. That to me is cultural history," said Evans. "I find it hard for people to see that and realize that and consciously let that disappear and go away."

For that reason, he's spent the last several months urging anyone and everyone who's ever been to a show at the theater to write a letter to the city conveying its importance. The public comments will be considered in advance of a May hearing to review the developers' permit application and determine whether the proposed project will have an impact on its surrounding culture and environment. Best-case scenario—short of winning the Power Ball and buying the building back, Evans said—is to convince the city and developer to keep the theater in operation, rather than covert it into an obsolete lobby.

But as the hearing date looms, he and other staffers at the theater are starting to lose hope. In a declaration published March 14, the City Planning Department recommended that the project won't have any significantly adverse effects on its surrounding community. Without Baker around to tell his own story, his puppeteers, friends, and fans have been scrambling to devise a campaign to sway the city to leave the theater intact.

"If it shuts down tomorrow, it sucks, it's horrible, but it's here right now and it's going strong," said Evans. "It's going just as Bob wanted it to be. As long as we do a show tomorrow, Bob lives on another day."

If they can't save the original space, theater staffers have talked about the possibility of rehousing the theater elsewhere. The neighborhood's zoning laws require residential properties to be mixed-use, so the new building will also have commercial spaces for rent on its first floor. Albert, the principal architect, sees it as a silver lining for the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, which could opt to sign a new lease on the ground floor of the building. But to Evans, the move would be more like a sad consolation prize. "It's kind of like having a party next to a gravestone of what it once was," he said.

The theater will continue to stage shows throughout the coming months, and will pay rent to the new owner while the architecture firm attempts to pass inspections and obtain permits. If all goes to plan, Albert says construction could begin by the end of 2016, and the apartment itself could be housing new tenants as soon as summer 2018.

For now, though, Evans and the puppeteers are busy preparing for a jam-packed month of performances of Hooray LA, another circa-1960s puppet show, this time an ode to the great city of Los Angeles. There are dinosaur marionettes that melt into the La Brea Tar Pits and earthquake set pieces that shake up the stage, brought to life with tiny strings and hand-carved wooden parts. It's the sort of show only Baker could have written, with his lifelong knowledge of the city and its history—the kind of history his staff fears may soon be forgotten.

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