Baker constantly tweaks shows to keep up with the changing tastes of children, something he has been doing ever since he started staging puppet shows at the age of 8. For instance, he said, there's the way that children sit in the theater -- on red carpets arranged on three sides. The puppeteers walk up to them, manipulating the marionettes as they go; the puppets dance around the children, rather than on a curtained stage. It's "a way of staging puppets I helped pioneer," he said.
L.A. resident Kim Miller, who has taken her 5-year-old daughter to the theater, said that the interactive quality is one of the theater's draws. "The important thing is that it's live, she can see other kids -- it's a different experience in that way."
But Miller also said that she has been frustrated that the theater performs one show for months on end before switching, something she said keeps audiences from returning more often. She's noticed that audiences are dwindling and worries about the theater's longevity. "You get the feeling it's on the verge of disappearing, and that makes it a poignant experience. But the kids don't notice that at all. They are just into the show."
Baker himself loves recounting stories. He tells of walking through Disneyland with "Walt" on the day before the park opened. He remembers birthday parties for the children of Old Hollywood: Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, Eleanor Powell. His puppetry was featured on "Star Trek," "A Star Is Born" and "G.I. Blues" with Elvis Presley. He sold his hand-crafted marionettes at stores including Bullocks Wilshire and FAO Schwarz. He says he can look at any of the 3,000 puppets in his catalog and tell which one it is just from looking at the controls.
Baker will admit that he is much more the artist than the businessman -- especially because most of his wealth resides in the thousands of puppets he cares for, many of which he made himself. (Though some, he said in a stage voice, "decided they wanted to live somewhere else.")
Each puppet costs from $1,000 to $5,000 to make and takes 350 hours of workmanship, he said. They are all stored in a building next to the theater, in three rooms, near another overrun by a tangle of props and banker's boxes containing financial records and IRS forms.
Baker says he is "terribly sad" that he has had to ask his many admirers for financial help -- especially because he had to do something similar a decade ago. He said he is in the process of finding a new board for the nonprofit Academy of Puppetry and Allied Arts he runs, in part to be a recipient for donations to keep him in business.
For now, though, he said, the show goes on.
Just off of stage right, past a wire rack full of marionettes for "The Nutcracker" and an electrical board laden with wires and knobs, a whiteboard strongly forbids any "diva" behavior and makes Baker's mantra clear. "The puppets are the *s!"