Hanging by a Thread

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.

"When you're puppeteering and you see the kids' faces, it's amazing--they light up, and the adults too. We're like three generations deep. We have grandparents who brought their kids. [When they grow up] they remember the show from when they were like 6, and bring their kids. So for them, it's like, 'Oh, my God, that ostrich sat on my lap when I was 6! I can't believe it!' "

The chatty, outgoing Bob Baker has roots in puppet theater anchored deep in his childhood. When he was 6, his father took him to a Saturday morning puppet show at what was then Barker's Department Store at Figueroa Avenue and 7th Street in Los Angeles. It was not until early that evening--and five shows later--that Baker let his father take him home. The enthralled youngster had his first puppet lesson several months later and began staging puppet shows when he was 8.

Baker trained with George Pal, who popularized replacement animation (the technique used in the film "The Nightmare Before Christmas") during the 1940s and '50s with shorts and features such as "Puppetoons" and "When Worlds Collide." A member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Baker has an extensive list of movie, TV and commercial credits as a child actor, puppeteer and animator.

"I was in pictures with Shirley [Temple] and Judy [Garland]," he says. "The first puppet picture that I did was 'Poor Little Rich Girl' with Shirley Temple. I did a skater that was skating on a bar of soap in a drugstore window. The scene was cut out." The mannequins he supplied for a desert scene in Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point" stayed in, however.

Baker and Wood, who have been partners for 50 years, have plowed much of their savings into keeping the theater alive. While acknowledging the theater's problems, Baker is the eternal optimist, projecting shows for next year and even dreaming about a school of puppetry to be built alongside the theater.

But Wood is slightly less certain about the theater's future.

"It depends on the mortgage holders and Uncle Sam [to whom the theater owes considerable back taxes]," he says. "If they come in and demand something we don't have and then say, 'We'll close you down,' what are we going to do? Both Bob and I have spent every cent we've saved. Right now, I'm trying to live on Social Security, which doesn't go that far."

And while appreciating his partner's optimism, he doesn't share it.

"I have to look at the figures on paper and, honey chil', they don't lie," he says. "They show you the facts, whether you want to hear them or not."

In addition to falling attendance, the theater's financial problems have been aggravated by an inability to raise ticket prices (when they considered adding $2 to their current $10 ticket price, many patrons complained), rising utility costs and other expenses, and late payment from schools and the Walt Disney Co., for which they supply collectible puppets.

Wood says that if the theater could come up with $100,000 of its $500,000 debt, that would provide some breathing room. But he and Baker don't like to ask for handouts (although Baker admits he wouldn't mind having a corporate sponsor) and have no idea where the money will come from. L.A. Councilman Mike Hernandez has expressed an interest in getting some grant money for the theater, but a city effort in the early '90s to help the theater set up as a nonprofit corporation fell apart when board members realized just how dire the theater's finances are.

Tweaking Fairy Tales for Modern Audiences

The theater has also been having problems of artistic expression. Remarkably, a number of parents objected to an upcoming production of a classic fairy tale.

"I had some women here and told them we were going to do 'Hansel and Gretel.' They said, 'Oh, no you're not. Not for our kids. That's about cannibalism,' " Baker sighs. "Another one said, 'I resent the idea of this hateful stepmother.' "

Baker introduced some plot changes in which the cruel stepmother becomes a "concerned" stepmother and the wicked witch, after she's pushed into the oven by Gretel, turns into a fairy godmother who loves to give birthday parties. The changes may not be true to the spirit of the original tale, but it's hard to argue with your customers when business is bad.

Such concessions to political correctness notwithstanding, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater has been a touchstone of local children's entertainment for decades. What would its loss mean to Los Angeles?

"There is to me a kind of ecology of the arts in Los Angeles," says Barrett of the Children's Museum. "Like any circle, every part is important.

"First, we would lose the voice of a wonderful artist, Bob Baker," she says. "But we would also lose that piece of the whole that says stories are at the center of our lives, children are important, and children's imaginations are the future."

Can the theater, like Gretel, find a way out of adversity? Or will it bake in a financial oven stoked by its creditors? The signs don't look good, and this time, Bob Baker isn't pulling the strings.

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