Arts & Entertainment

Marionette maker Bob Baker puts LA theater up for sale; will keep the puppets

Marionettes hang inside at the small gift store.
Marionettes hang inside at the small gift store.
Marionettes hang inside at the small gift store.
Bob Baker has been working with marionettes for 80 years.
Marionettes hang inside at the small gift store.
Backstage at the marionette theater that may be forced to close if financial issues aren't resolved.
Marionettes hang inside at the small gift store.
The party room at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater is often full of school kids eating ice cream after watching a show.

Marionette maker Bob Baker has been building his whimsical puppets for decades and putting on shows with them on the outskirts of Echo Park — now, because of deteriorating finances, Baker has put his beloved theater up for sale.

"We've been here 50 years, and the last five or ten years we've had a lot of problems," said Baker.

Taxes, mortgage payments and the $6,000 a month the theater costs to remain operational have become too much to handle, said Baker, and the revenue stream isn't what it used to be.

Technology has passed the old-school theater by and taken away a lot of the work they used to do for movies, Baker said. The marionette theater also used to produce a lot of puppets for sale at department stores, but most are no longer interested in selling the specialty puppets.

Even the schools have run out of money to pay for their tickets, so the theater's associated non-profit Academy of Puppetry and the Allied Arts has been footing the bill for busloads of children to come in and see the show.

The total listing price for the five lots located on the corner of Glendale and First streets is listed at $2.05 million on Loopnet. This includes two vacant lots, the theater, storage and the corner parking lot.

Baker said he hopes that someone purchases the land with a lease-back option. Since the listing has been posted, Baker said they've already received calls from a few interested buyers. Baker's also open to taking on an associate partner, or any other arrangements that could keep the theater in business, he said.

His longtime business partner Alton Wood was always the numbers man, and he passed away in 2000.

"I was always building the puppets and putting the shows together," said Baker, adding that he could tell you how many strings each puppet has, the amount of paint used and any other intricate detail about the puppet process.

"When it gets into bookkeeping, I can't even remember a phone number going across the room," he said.

In addition to standard daily costs, the theater needs maintenance. The last few years they've been lax on upkeep because money was tight, Baker said, but now there is some necessary electrical work that can't be ignored. Also, their main stage curtain is 53 years old and has been there since the place opened — it's well worn with repeated openings and closings.

"It's getting to be more like chiffon, you can see through it," Baker said with a laugh. A replacement was donated, but it will still require work and money to get it up and operational, he said.

While the curtain may be tattered and fading, Baker's passion and commitment to the world of puppetry doesn't seem to have waned. He said that even in the time of iPhones, Twitter and movie special effects, there is still a common ground to meet children on.

"You still reach them with imagination; you still reach them with love," Baker said. "It was through imagination with many a young person that we got airplanes, telephones, motion pictures, you name it — it came through imagination first."

If the Bob Baker Marionette Theater is forced to leave their space, the show will go on, Baker said, but it will be mobile — holding performances at schools, parks, warehouses and civic auditoriums.

"If we have to move because of not being able to pay our bills, I think that we'll ask for a couple of big dumpsters and everything but the puppets will go in it," he said. "I finally have had to come to the conclusion that it's gonna be one way or the other."

Although Baker seems zen and collected about the possibility of losing his theater, he's also still hoping things will turn around. His space is one of the longest running puppet theaters in the country, and they're currently working on producing two new shows, "Arabian Nights" and "Hansel and Gretel," he said — he only hopes they'll be able to finish them.