When Joe Sachs set out to write episode No. 139 of one of broadcast television's top-rated scripted shows, "NCIS: Los Angeles," he asked himself: How do you merge a story about 21st century technology with marionettes from the 1950s and '60s?
The episode will air Monday night, and a good bit of it takes place inside the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, the oldest children's theater in Los Angeles and the oldest puppet theater in the United States.
"The theater is a giant vintage Christmas present from the 1960s with red velvet from floor to ceiling," says Sachs, who took his kids, 9 and 4, to the theater to see a performance of "The Nutcracker" in November.
The theater was in turmoil at the time. Baker was in hospice. (He died Nov. 28.) His beloved theater, which opened in 1962, was struggling financially and had been since 2008. The property had been sold in 2013, and the theater's lease was widely reported to be up this month.
That was where things stood when Sachs approached head puppeteer and stage manager Alex Evans about filming "NCIS: Los Angeles."
Filming at the theater isn't unusual, but Evans says the "NCIS" shoot was much bigger in scale than anything that had been done before. The show filmed four scenes at the theater over a day and a half.
"It has never happened that the theater has been a part of the story, at least not in my time here," says Evans, who signed on as a volunteer in 2007.
He says the theater's lease is not up this month and that it will continue operating for the next year or so until the property's owners break ground on a mixed-use development.
What will happen to the theater at this point is murky. The Los Angeles City Council designated it a historic cultural landmark in 2009. The new developers will have to find a way to incorporate the theater into their plans.
"The architecture of the theater is nothing significant," Evans says of the boxy white building perched at the corner of Glendale Boulevard and First Street. "It's what Bob did on the inside — the shows and the cultural impact — that’s the landmark."
More than 9 million viewers are expected to tune in at 10 p.m. Monday, when the CBS show reveals the inside of the theater and the workings of its vintage craft.
Using the city as a character of sorts, "NCIS: Los Angeles" follows the members of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which specializes in undercover assignments. It stars Chris O’Donnell, LL Cool J, Linda Hunt, Daniela Ruah, Eric Christian Olsen, Barrett Foa, Renée Felice Smith and Miguel Ferrer.
Sachs won't give away too many spoilers, but he will say that the show is based around the actions of a group of "hacktavists" (think Anonymous) who might be responsible for hijacking a missile test and sending it off course. One of the college-age hacker's girlfriends is a theater major and studies puppetry at Bob Baker.
Humor rose naturally from the scenario. LL Cool J's character, Sam Hanna, has an established clown phobia, and when he and O'Donnell's character arrive at the theater to interview the suspect's girlfriend, they are greeted by a 12-foot clown out front.
The puppeteers were hired as part of the crew, and they took pride in teaching their art form to the cast. Olsen got to be so good, he used a goat puppet dressed like a frontier woman to deliver a five-minute monologue to Hunt.
"The actors were so thrilled to be there, no one had seen anything like it," Sachs says. "I had electricians and grips in their 40s and 50s thanking me for filming there because it brought back childhood memories."
Sachs' son made his first appearance as an extra. When his meager paycheck arrived, he asked Sachs if he could donate it to the theater.
"The end is not near," Evans says of the theater, whose weekly performances can be found on the Bob Baker website. "We are going to keep on putting on shows for people for as long as possible."
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