Monday, December 01, 2008

LA Puppets Take Manhattan! Or At Least The New York Times!

The New York Times' gal on the ground in LA - Jennifer Steinhauer - has the best story yet on Bob Baker's Marionette Theater's quite stageworthy melodrama of being foreclosed upon by an evil banker just before Christmas.

Other places have covered the dollars and cents angle in more detail, but she really captures the soul of this only in LA, scratch, make that - only in Hollywood venue - that holds forth place right here in Downtown Los Angeles. And be sure and look at the linked to slide show above - and then go to the below Facebook site - and adopt a puppet!

Or - donate art or whatever to a benefit auction:

December 2, 2008
Forget Citigroup, Puppet Show Needs a Bailout

LOS ANGELES — There are many ways to measure California’s tanking economy: an 8.2 percent unemployment rate; a multibillion-dollar state budget gap; threatened endowments of the city’s museums, causing some cultural institutions to nearly default on mortgages; and the continued weakening of the Hollywood studio system. But the meltdown of the marionettes may say it all.

Near a freeway overpass on a decidedly scrappy edge of downtown Los Angeles is a marionette puppet theater that has enchanted children over nearly five decades, several recessions, two riots, at least four failed urban renewal plans and an earthquake or two.

The Bob Baker Marionette Theater’s shows, employing an eclectic selection of Mr. Baker’s 3,000 handmade puppets prancing about a shoebox-size theater perpetually decked out in gold garlands, are a staple of a Los Angeleno childhood. It is the cultural equivalent of the annual march by the nation’s third graders to the neighborhood firehouse.

But the struggling California economy and some bad business decisions by Mr. Baker have left the Bob Baker marionettes in a deep financial ditch, and Mr. Baker, a rather unheralded Hollywood legend, with an uncertain future. “We have all kinds of problems that have come up recently,” Mr. Baker said. “But we’re not going to close. We’re going to fight this out to the very bitter end.”

Over the last few months Mr. Baker, 84, has fallen $30,000 behind on his mortgage and lost a rent-paying tenant, while his two major sources of revenue have dried up. First, the public schools have reduced financing for field trips. And second, some of his lower-income parents, he said, unemployed and swimming in debt, are unable to come up with the $15-per-ticket admission.

“We’ve had quite a few people call who are losing their houses and have to cancel birthday parties,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Baker said, a few years ago he refinanced the theater’s mortgage to help pay for rising operating costs, and the mortgage payments have shot up. A business deal he made to improve his space went bad. He said he was negotiating with his lenders, and added ruefully, “I am more of an artist than a businessman.”

In a city where children’s movies are often screened in a Hollywood theater with white-glove popcorn service and the organic certifications of birthday cakes are debated at length on Web sites aimed at parents, Mr. Baker’s theater is a charming throwback.

As they have for generations, children gather in a circle on the floor of the 200-person capacity auditorium as Mr. Baker’s elaborately appointed marionettes scamper about to the sounds of old phonograph records, scratches and all. The theater is one of the few places in Los Angeles that routinely attracts racially and economically diverse groups of children.

A typical show requires about 15 workers, including 8 puppeteers, a lighting designer, a costume maker and ticket takers. There are usually two productions a year, one with a Christmas theme. The second show might be “Something to Crow About,” a barnyard spectacular; the Latin-flavored “Fiesta”; or a revue like “Bob Baker’s Musical World,” which might evolve over the season and employ a rotation of 100 or more puppets. Mr. Baker also performs puppet shows around Southern California for birthday parties and other events. The annual budget, Mr. Baker said, is about $360,000.

Victoria Hurley, 42, grew up in Los Angeles going to the shows, and now takes her children, who are 5 and 3. “They still serve the exact kind of ice cream with the exact same wooden spoon I got 30 years ago,” Mrs. Hurley said. “The quality of the entertainment has certainly held up fantastically, but I think the building could use some sprucing. It is almost like they haven’t even repainted. I personally think it is charming, but if I came from New York and brought my children I might feel otherwise.”

At a recent performance of “The Nutcracker,” an eclectic mix of Mr. Baker’s handmade puppets appeared, ranging from a Mouse King, resplendent in velvet, to what is perhaps best described as selections from the “Soul Train” collection, white leisure suits and gold trim included.

The marionettes are handled by Mr. Baker’s students, who spend a good year under his tutelage before they are allowed to don black clothing and work before an audience. As they moved through the room they occasionally dropped a puppet into the lap of a delighted toddler. As usual, the whole affair ended with a cup of vanilla ice cream handed to each child.

The shows are not exactly linear. The “Soul Train” marionettes, for example, are wedged into “The Nutcracker,” and the story seems oddly lacking in the middle section. But the focus is really on the puppets, in their glorious velvet and gossamer.

“There is a magic thing about a live puppet show,” Mr. Baker said recently. “I was watching the children just today and they were hugging the puppets, and then they always come up after me and ask me how they work. A lot of children who come here have never been to a live show and may never go to a live show again.”

The number of people whose careers as puppeteers Mr. Baker started is “amazing, at least a dozen professionally,” said Greg Williams, 51, a professional puppeteer who helps Mr. Baker with his road shows. “I started with him when I was 15, and was cleaning the party room. I went from there to doing the sets to the lights. One day a puppeteer wasn’t available, and I got shoved on the floor,” Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Baker “gets a lot of the neighborhood kids, and some of these kids who look like they would have no future are here entertaining and enjoying it,” Mr. Williams said. Mr. Baker still does many private birthday parties personally. “You get those Beverly Hills parents and you need to keep those people happy,” he added.

Mr. Baker, whose puppet passion began at an early age, has had an authentic Hollywood career — something not immediately evident given his modest site downtown.

He grew up in what is now Koreatown, in a house often full of actors and others from the “theatrical world,” Mr. Baker said, and graduated from Hollywood High School. When he was a little boy, his father took him to a holiday show at an area department store, which featured, as many store entertainments did in the early 20th century, puppets.

When he turned 7 he bought two puppets and soon started working the birthday party circuit. He said his first party was for Mervyn LeRoy, a producer and director for both Warner Brothers and MGM, which set off a word-of-mouth campaign. Years later he would perform at Liza Minnelli’s fourth birthday party. (And, keeping it in the family, a few years after that, he appeared in the 1954 Judy Garland film, “A Star Is Born,” conducting a marionette show.)

In the 1940s Mr. Baker worked as a puppet maker for George Pal, creator of the Puppetoons, whose movies and television credits include cult films like Edgar G. Ulmer’s “Bluebeard” (1944), the original “Star Trek” series and “Bewitched.”

Mr. Baker started his production company in 1949 with his business partner, Alton Wood (who died in 2001). It has remained one of the more well-known training grounds for puppet makers who have gone on to work in fantasy films.

But it is the theater, opened in 1960 in a warehouselike building, for which Mr. Baker is best known around town. The elaborate facade meant to suggest “Alice in Wonderland” is long gone, as are the evening performances, which Mr. Baker said faded after the 1965 Watts riots made people afraid to venture downtown at night. Weekends and shows for school groups — along with sales of puppets and movie work — have sustained him, and he hopes the doors of his theater will stay open.

“My mother used to say, ‘We can fall into a mud puddle and come up smelling like roses,’ ” Mr. Baker said. “We have gone through some pretty hard times, and I just have to see the light of day. We’re just going to make it.”

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