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Holding on by a string

DiMassa is a Times staff writer.

From the outside, the low-slung, white concrete building huddled underneath the Beverly Boulevard bridge looked like any other building in its industrial area just west of downtown, adorned with razor wire and a forbidding exterior.

Inside, as an elderly man wielded a marionette, the place’s distinction became apparent. Bob Baker slowly tilted his hands this way and that, pulling on a series of delicate strings. And as he did, the 55-year-old puppet -- itself almost a senior citizen -- a black crow decked out in a straw hat, white jacket with red piping and matching tie, began to dance the Charleston.

Behind wire-rimmed glasses, Baker’s eyes lit up as he worked, a peppermint pink polo shirt and gray hair framing his smile. “Ha, ha, ha,” he whispered, in a syncopated rhythm. The crow’s eyes darted open and closed, and its claws seemed to jive to the unheard music. And then, Baker moved his hands again. The crow jumped to his grand finish, and Baker exhaled: “Yeah, man!”

The Bob Baker Marionette Theater is a place that is both magical and earth-bound. Operating from the corner of 1st Street and Glendale Boulevard just west of downtown Los Angeles for 49 years, it is a vestige of childhoods lived, where vegetables dance to old vaudeville tunes and musical instruments dance and jump across a black box theater festooned with crystal chandeliers.

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But it’s also been struggling for years, trying to eke out an existence on $15-a-head admission, amid the fickle nature of children’s passions.

Last week, reports began circulating that the theater was in trouble. A manager sent out an e-mail saying that Baker had been the victim of “an elaborate mortgage fraud operation bent on stealing his theater and home” and asked fans of the theater help pay nearly $30,000 in past due mortgage payments on the two buildings. If the funds weren’t raised, the manager said, the buildings would be sold “and Bob and his thousands of puppets will be homeless.”

Real estate records showed that the building had been put up for sale for $1.5 million, with the property “priced for a fast sale” and the seller “looking for a short escrow.”

News organizations and blogs quickly picked up on the news as a sign that the theater’s closure was imminent.

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In an interview this week, the man behind the puppet theater said that’s not quite the case.

“I’ve got too many things planned,” Baker said. “I’m not quitting now.”

But sitting in the theater’s party room -- its walls wrapped in bright candy colors to resemble presents -- where children are fed ice cream and cookies after every show, Baker admitted that his financial problems are real.

Things have gotten tight, he said. Audiences have dwindled. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which usually brings busloads of children weekly to the theater for field trips, has cut back on the number of off-campus trips amid budget cuts. A tenant on the property, a roofing company that provided the theater with a much-needed stream of cash, folded as the economy tightened. September and October are traditionally slow months, and this year was no exception.

And the rewriting of what Baker called the “scam loans” meant that he had to come up with cash to bring payments up to date. In the last few days, he said, he has made efforts to negotiate with his lender, and on Monday night, he put some money toward his loans, to show what he called goodwill. “They are willing to work with us.”

“We are not going out of business,” Baker said. “We are not selling the building.”

But on Thursday, Anthony Esguerra of Keller Williams Realty said the building was still for sale.

As for the news release and the outpouring of attention that has been lavished on the theater, “Some of it has helped,” Baker said. “Some of it got out of hand.”

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Spend any time with Baker, and he will tell you that he has plans. Even though he’s 84, even though some of them seem vastly out of reach, they are his plans. He has bought a pipe organ and wants to install it in the theater to accompany screenings of old-time movies. He talks of renovating the building and opening a school within the theater space. He wants to expand more into the toy industry. And oh, he dreams of doing films again.

For now, though, Baker is concentrating on what he called the big show: a rendition of “The Nutcracker” that, as Baker explains it, involves acid rock, disco dancers, Czech orchestral music and a cavalcade of 100 puppets including dancing jelly beans and Chinese dragons. “We have changed it around so children enjoy it,” he said.

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.

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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!”

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cara.dimassa@latimes.com


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