Los Angeles is a deeply conflicted city. Bukowski recognized it. So did Wambaugh. X’s Los Angeles is hardly a love song to the city of Angels. Even Miley Cyrus took time to reflect on how vapid and unfriendly a place it can be. It’s a place that manufactures images of perfection and sells them to the world, but stumbles over its ability to improve itself. For all of its sunshine and warmth, it’s an inhospitable place full of strangers. It wants to be palm tree lined streets and clean lines, an ideal attempting to emulate a Nagel print. However, what lies beneath is a decaying metropolis, almost completely absent of joy.
And yet, while it is a city of brooding unhappiness, it is also home to The Bob Baker Marionette Theater. For fifty-five years, the theater company has offered up a place where families can come in and shake off the weight of the city. What happens in that little concrete building sitting in a fold between the high rises of downtown and Echo Park is pure magic. It’s a place where puppeteers transport a room full of children on an afternoon of wonder with little more than their collected imaginations. It is one of those very special places where even the worst in life can be corrected with nothing more than some laughter and a little bit of ice cream.
In late July, the editorial staff of Animated Meat headed out with children in tow in order to experience the Bob Baker Marionette Theater at their first street location. What we found was absolutely amazing. A performance by the Bob Baker Marionette Theater is remarkable because they are able to produce so much from a few simple ingredients. There is nothing more to be found than a capable crew of puppeteers, a pre-recorded soundtrack, and a room full of kids. That’s it. And yet, when the lights dim and the first puppet steps out front and center, something special goes on in that space. It’s a kind of magic where the outside world and all of its troubles cease to be.
With an ever changing parade of puppets over the course of the show, it is evident that the late Mr. Baker understood a child’s attention and knew how to feed the sense of awe, with princesses, robots, dancers, and monsters, all twirling and moving to songs recorded in a bygone era. Every weekend, the theater company welcomed another group of children and entertained them without the slightest shred of irony or cynicism. There is no cool here. Brownie points are not awarded for being clever or cutting. Unlike companies like Disney who have figured out how to maximize profits, the Bob Baker Marionette theater only charged fifteen dollars for a show. The only thing for sale is a five dollar marionette. The constant push to maximize the profit margin does not exist within these four walls. It is an art produced for one reason, to delight children and provide them some shelter from a harsh city that has provided very few safe harbors.
Currently, the company is in a state of flux, opting to shut their doors and become a puppet show in residency for the time being. For the next few months, people can catch a show at the Southern California Children’s Museum in Pasadena. However, they just announced a new, permanent home on York Avenue in Highland park. The proposed theater will be created from unrealized designs drawn out by Bob Baker himself. While the news sounds optimistic, I can’t help but think that the potential loss of this theater says so much about the value this era and this city puts on children. It’s jarring to consider that something so special and necessary to the common good of a conflicted place like Los Angeles has such an uncertain future. Los Angeles would be a sadder, grimmer place without it.