It's a grungy area, this downtown spot where 1st Street glances off Beverly Boulevard and creates a shortcut to the Hollywood Freeway.
A dismal overpass. Chain-link and padlock security. Graffiti is by the layer and the generations. Certainly no living theater, no place and palace of froth, pink glamour and young laughter should exist here.
Except, peculiarly, even miraculously, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater.
It not only survives, it thrives and has lasted 25 years. Performances are daily, and weekends bulge with three shows each Saturday and Sunday. And that's about 28,000 children each year who have been amused, astonished, touched, delighted, mystified, intrigued and eased into fine, early memories by the high theatrical art of puppetry.
"This area was marked for urban renewal and that's why we decided to locate here," Baker said. He's small, neat, a puppet master who almost looks like one of his puppets. "Well, the urban renewal didn't go through, but we're still here and the theater is even paying for itself."
A talent like Baker, obviously, does not live by the bread of a marionette theater alone.
Bob Baker is a 22-person business, a puppet manufacturing company and a road show that tours this country and Canada. His characters have appeared in 200 television and feature movies and videos. It's Baker pulling the strings for a runaway cute television commercial--the moon-faced and piano-playing Mac Tonight.
Yet his theater is the hobby he gets paid for, his escape from gray realities beyond the front door at 1345 West 1st St., the place, he likes to say, "where imagination begins."
It's also a vessel for Baker and his troupe to preserve a past. Once, he said, young fantasies could build around Punch and Judy, pantomime, vaudeville, the circus and Saturday matinees. Booing, cheering, singing along and being a part of the performance were allowed.
"But television has made everyone so sophisticated," he mourned. "It has become the one medium of enjoyment; it tells us everything until we lose our curiosity. The magic of the unknown has gone, of wanting to believe, of searching to find . . . it's all gone."
Except, of course, in a marionette theater where children are the best audiences in the world, because adults have been ruined. "Adults will be very gracious and say 'nice show' when they didn't really like it," Baker explained. "But kids . . . they'll boo, get up and go to the sandbox, and let you know right then and there if something is wrong.
"That's our challenge. We've got to do it now and get it right for them the first time. And we've only got one shot at it . . . at fulfilling a child's first theatrical experience and teaching the communication of music, dance and comedy.
"We're also telling them that it's OK to imagine something, and it's OK to keep on using that imagination . . . and that imagination allows a dream to become a goal."
Currently, Baker's imagination is producing " 'Tis the Season," a one-hour puppet show that will run daily through Jan. 17. It celebrates Christmas, Navidad and Hanukkah. It is Jack Frost as magical emcee for dancing poinsettias, Rudolph and his nose, Mr. Dog and his skating flea, Santa and his elves . . . and, on Tuesday, an audience of 150 children whose captivation was total.
Sitting cross-legged on shag rug, a circle of knees and elbows forming the stage, they waved at the Currier & Ives skaters and shook hands with flickering robots and pointed in hilarity at a comedy team of Top Dog and Second Banana.
But their star, the proof and communication of it all, was an 8-year-old with Down's syndrome. She touched Jack Frost's shimmering sleeve and opened her arms to the dog who wanted a kiss on his sloppy nose. She knew all the words to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
And for 63 minutes of show time and magic, she was whole and a part of everything and certainly no different to any other child in the theater.
Bob Baker Marionette Theater, 1345 West 1st St. Show times and price information: (213) 250-9995.