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Hanging by a Thread

After More Than Three Decades of Marionette Magic, Bob Baker's Theater Faces Mounting Debt and the End of an Era

October 01, 1998|JON KRAMPNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In an age of high-tech toys, fast-moving video games and slam-bang cartoons, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater quietly sits as a beacon of traditional children's entertainment. But that beacon may soon fall dark, as the theater is nearly half a million dollars in debt and may not survive beyond the Christmas season, say its owners.

The theater has produced magical but decidedly low-tech marionette shows in 36 years of operation, making it quite possibly the oldest working puppet theater in the U.S. In that time, thousands of people have seen some 50 different performances there.

But the theater's crushing financial burden may deny another generation of youngsters the chance to experience the simple delights of marionettes. Attendance has fallen dramatically in the last year, and Bob Baker, who runs the theater with partner Alton Wood, is at a loss to explain why.

"My partner and I got to thinking that maybe what we're doing is wrong, but the people who come in say, 'We're so happy you're doing this kind of show,' " says the 74-year-old Baker, sitting in the theater's party room, a festive and gaudily decorated space where children come for ice cream, cookies and punch after the show.

There simply haven't been enough of those people, though. At one recent performance of "The Enchanted Toyshop," there were only 10 people in the audience.

Some of the theater's problems are long-standing, such as its inconvenient West 1st Street location in a business-industrial area near the old Pacific Red Car tunnel west of downtown. Also, baby boomers seem to prefer supporting libraries and museums rather than the performing arts, Baker says.

But then, his own practice of scheduling particular shows without a close date may be a culprit as well.

"People who run an open-ended show have the hardest time because most people figure, 'Well, it'll be there tomorrow and we'll go then,' " Baker says. "Tomorrow comes, and that's the day to go to the beach. The next tomorrow comes, and that's the day to go skiing."

His shows are open-ended, Baker says, because there is limited seating (maximum capacity is 200), and he likes to have as many people see the show as possible before he goes through the costly process of setting up a new one.

But recently, the theater has faced new problems as well: The 86-year-old Wood, who has traditionally managed business operations and publicity, has been ill, and a long-term employee who helped run the office resigned.

Wood also thinks that television may have dulled children's tastes for the kind of entertainment the theater provides.

"Look at the cartoons, the violence in them," he says. "Look at the mayhem that's in a lot of the other things kids are watching. Unless the parents insist, they don't want to come down and watch a beautiful show."

But Baker insists today's kids are not too jaded for the old-fashioned pleasures of marionette theater.

"Sure, they go and play the high-tech games and that sort of thing, [but] I still think there's room for live entertainment," he says.

Candace Barrett, executive director of the Los Angeles Children's Museum, agrees with Baker.

"We've kind of moved into this society where we want everything predictable, with the answers already set up for us, so we tend to do entertainment for our children that is very . . . it's videos, it's convenient, it's very predictable," she says.

"That's not to say it's all bad," she continues. "Some of it is quite wonderful. But I think there's also a need for the kind of experience that, in other times, was the shaman at the campfire or the elder who was the storyteller. The one-on-one contact of a child with another live person."

Several of Baker's puppeteers say today's kids are very responsive to marionette shows. Eugene Sereogin, 42, has worked as a puppeteer for more than 20 years, most of them at the acclaimed Obratzov Puppet Theater in Moscow.

In "The Enchanted Toyshop," Sereogin operates a circus clown marionette who's saddened when his yellow balloon flies away. After the show, a boy's mother came up to Sereogin and told him her small boy cried at the scene.

"A child cannot exist without theater, because it's live contact with art," Sereogin says, adding, in the spirit of Russian romanticism: "The theater is a communion of souls."

A Tradition to Pass to the Next Generation

Susan Gayle, 34, has worked as a puppeteer since she brought Oscar the Grouch to life for the 1987 national touring company of "Sesame Street." At just 5 feet, 1 1/2 inches and 110 pounds, she has had to work out to gain the muscle strength necessary to operate the marionettes for an hour's show. The marionettes are up to 2 1/2 feet high and sometimes weigh 10 to 15 pounds. Gayle says she is struck by not only children's reactions to the show, but also those of adults.

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