Within the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, resides the city’s very own wonderland: Bob Baker Marionette Theater. Entering the theater is akin to stepping into a childhood board game — the green lobby floor is dotted with daisies, the walls are painted pastel shades of pink and blue, and the main showroom itself is draped in bright red curtains, flanked by puppet dioramas of some of the theater’s most notable productions. A grand organ sits in the corner of the room, whilst over 2,000 of the theater’s marionettes wait idly backstage, neatly tucked away on various racks and rafters.
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater has a storied past. It was founded in 1963, in downtown Los Angeles, by longtime puppeteer and animator Bob Baker, who began making and operating his own marionettes as a young boy. Although the original location closed down in 2018, it relocated the following year to its current home on York Avenue, occupying a former theater-turned-church built in the 1920s. Despite Baker’s passing in 2014, the theater has managed to preserve his legacy through the help of its dedicated staff, some of whom knew Baker personally or attended the theater as children. It is also aided by its nonprofit status, alongside the large community of volunteers and loyal attendees who have lent their support throughout its nearly 60 years of existence.
Still, Los Angeles’s oldest marionette theater is no stranger to adversity. Alex Evans, the theater’s executive director and head puppeteer, and Missy Steele, director of operations, have been working there long enough to witness this. Both Evans and Steele began as volunteers in 2007 and 2017, respectively. Steele recounts that she arrived at a “moment of struggle for the theater,” while Evans similarly recalls, “There were these voids in the company that just weren’t happening. And so I kept trying to fill those voids, recognizing that they needed it, or the void was just going to get bigger and bigger.” Without their founder and the theater facing financial trouble, both Evans and Steele took pride in dedicating time to save the space — eventually becoming full-time staff.
It had been less than a year in the Highland Park location before COVID-19 put a halt to the theater’s operations. Like many other businesses, Bob Baker Marionette Theater was faced with the threat of shutting down forever. But luckily, the staff were quick to adapt. “When COVID came along, we were kind of panicked,” Evans admits, “but we also were uniquely suited to, like, be so used to this kind of crisis and panic that I feel like it allowed us to very quickly figure things out.” In order to recoup some of their losses and spark joy during the pandemic, the theater began doing everything from performing virtual puppet shows through Zoom, hosting walk-through tours of the theater, and even used the space as a venue for small weddings. When it was safe to do so, they began performing outdoor shows to limited crowds. “We didn’t take any downtime during the pandemic,” Steele says.
Inspired by the theater’s efforts to stay afloat, Natalia Gaydos (who began volunteering in 2019), came up with her own way to raise funds: a series of zines featuring different artistic interpretations of the theater’s many puppets. They were a hit. “I feel like the theater gave me a chance to do something creative that helped them in a way, too,” she mused. “The one thing about the theater is that it’s so community driven. I think the reason why so many people did the zine was ’cause they just were, like… they fell in love with the characters. I feel like it’s really hard not to.”
Although it appeared that the theater had found different avenues to get through the pandemic, constantly shifting COVID guidelines and monthly losses meant they were dangerously close to losing their physical space. On the verge of permanently closing, Bob Baker Marionette Theater announced a fundraiser in November of 2020, asking their audience to band together and raise the money needed to make the necessary rent. With the help of more than 3,500 donors, they met their goal in a month — effectively raising $365,000 to get them through the rest of the year and 2021. Their network of support seemed stronger than ever.
While the theater had returned to performing sold out shows by the end of 2021, the next challenge was planning this year’s Bob Baker Day carnival. The last in-person celebration of Baker’s birthday had taken place in February of 2020, and the staff remained fearful that their eighth annual event would fail in the face of COVID. However, in a moment of pandemic-era triumph, the turnout was unprecedented. Thousands flocked to Los Angeles State Historic Park. Children and adults alike participated in various activities around the vast outdoor space, where visitors were entertained by performing musicians and puppeteers, and could peruse over thirty-five booths and vendors of all sorts. For those interested in a more hands-on approach, crafts were readily available to spark the imagination further. In true whimsical Bob Baker fashion, the grand finale of the event (which is always completely free, as a thank-you to the public for all their support) was a pie fight. What started as a half-joke between theater staff and Bozo the Clown, transformed into a swarm of people of all ages gleefully shoving shaving cream pies in each other’s faces. “Watching it in person, I was enamored by just how incredibly happy everyone was to be involved in this crazy pie fight hosted by clowns,” Steele says. “It was so ridiculously joyful that I think that is now a Bob Baker Day tradition. Like there’s always gonna be an end-of-the-day pie fight.”
The multitude of smiling faces gathered to celebrate the return of the Marionette Theater is perhaps surprising, given the rarity of puppetry in the current day. Yet the artform’s timeless charm has managed to retain an audience, and its value is evident even to this generation. Bob Baker’s mission to inspire amusement for all ages seems to be more important than ever now; the idea of community togetherness is fundamental to the theater’s continued operation. Pure passion, solidarity, and a willingness to keep imagination alive is what has allowed it to persist for decades. “I’d say all of it is a challenge, but all of it has turned out really well. It’s helped us grow as a company. And we’re in a much more stable place now than we were, you know, five years ago, more than we were two years ago,” Steele says. “At this point, we have figured out so many different ways of entertaining people and bringing joy to people that — like, I’m not asking for another curve ball — but I think if another one was thrown at us, we could figure it out.”
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater’s oldest production, Something To Crow About, is currently running at 4949 York Boulevard in Highland Park through July 3rd. The show is said to be Baker’s masterpiece.