When Bob Baker passed away this weekend at the age of 90, a little of my childhood went with him. Baker was the famous founder of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, the longest continuously operating puppet theater in America. Located just west of downtown L.A. at 1st Street and Glendale Boulevard, it hosts a variety of shows each of which is capped with ice cream and punch served in a space next door.
But that’s not where I first discovered the magic of Bob Baker. I was a student when he showed up to perform at Gardenhill Elementary School in La Mirada. Baker was unique in that he didn’t put up anything that blocked the audience’s view of how the marionettes were manipulated. It was all there for you to see. You could see how the personality of the puppeteer mirrored the personality of the character. It was sheer joy. After seeing my first show (we were treated to an annual performance at my school) I insisted that my parents buy me a marionette.
Decades passed and I didn’t think much about Baker and his puppets until ten years ago. I was wandering Olvera Street during a Dia de Los Muertos event and I stumbled on Baker performing as part of those celebrations. His work captured my imagination just as it had decades ago. At the conclusion of his performance, I introduced myself. He was warm and personable, everything I hoped he was when I was a kid. I began to get to know him and he quickly went from Mr. Baker to Bob.
Through my conversations with Bob I learned about his film background (he worked with Elvis Presley on G.I. Blues, the 1954 version of A Star Is Born, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and many more); his handshake deal with Walt Disney to create the display windows for the primary gift shop on Main Street; and his amazing tales about performing for Hollywood’s elite. I will never forget his story about Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli dropping off a young Liza off at his home for a show. Hours passed and while waiting for her parents to pick her up, Liza said, “I love you, puppet man.” Bob also taught the craft of puppeteering to disadvantaged and troubled youths, many of whom still work at the theater to this day.
Bob Baker was among the most unique residents of Los Angeles. He died in the same house in which he was born. For 90 years that building was the only place he called home—aside from his theater.
A few years ago it occurred to me that we should make a documentary about Bob’s life and career. I shot a few performances and a lengthy interview with him, but as John Lennon sings in “Beautiful Boy,” “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Telling Bob that I had to abandon the documentary was one of the worst days of my life. But he understood as only Bob could.
The last few years were not kind to Bob. His health was deteriorating. He was plagued by business problems (Bob was never good with finances). Multiple fundraising efforts continue to this day, but with Eli Melech angling to build a five-story, mixed-use development on the site, it’s unlikely the Bob Baker Marionette Theatre will survive.
Baker’s company has a lease that runs through the spring, which means that although the man himself is gone, his legacy will continue with ongoing performances. What a great tribute to him to know that in this digital era, his one-of-a-kind analog theater experience could be filled with smiling children of all ages until the final curtain comes down.
Bob would love that. According to Claire, one of his caretakers, in his final days Bob would be sound asleep but his hands would move as if he were still performing with his beloved puppets. That image sums up the essence of Bob Baker. For over 80 years he lived and breathed puppets, and we’re all the richer for it.