Pulling strings for a cultural icon
A parade of puppets managed to string along Los Angeles City Council members long enough Wednesday to persuade them to designate a West 1st Street marionette theater as a historic-cultural landmark.
The animated figures danced and pranced atop the council’s ornate horseshoe-shaped desk in the City Hall chambers before officials voted 14 to 0 to place the Bob Baker Marionette Theater on the monument list.
Baker was performing a series of previously scheduled shows in Paramount as the council recognized what was described as the country’s longest-running puppetry showcase.
“At age 85 he’s still the star of his company,” explained puppeteer Steve Meltzer, owner of a Santa Monica puppetry center and president of the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry. “There are performances where his presence is requested.”
Meltzer waltzed his song-and-dance-man figure named “Calvin Collidisworth” across the council desk as Echo Park puppeteer Christine Papalexis pranced a fuzzy dog character called “Fluffy.”
“I got to bark at Bernard Parks,” Papalexis said afterward. “That was cool. He asked, ‘Does he bite?’ ”
Marionette operator Richard Wilson of Burbank marched a 50-year-old handcrafted Pinocchio puppet in front of council members. “Pinocchio asked if they were lying or if anybody’s nose was growing,” Wilson said with a laugh. Councilman Ed Reyes “said no, they were all honest.” Councilwoman Janice Hahn “said no one is pulling her strings.”
Baker’s theater at 1345 W. 1st St. is a former movie scenery shop that Baker and partner Alton Wood purchased in 1961 and converted into puppet stages a year later. It has produced puppet shows six days a week ever since, said Lanna Pian, a Lomita resident representing the L.A. Conservancy.
The theater also houses the nonprofit Academy of Puppetry and Allied Arts, where high school students are taught the art of puppetry, she noted. “It’s a cultural treasure,” she said.
Reyes, who represents the area in which the theater is located, called Baker “an institution here in Los Angeles.”
At Baker’s puppet shows, youngsters “can actually see and touch what stories do for the imagination,” Reyes added. “In today’s day of broadband and videos and all the technology that isolates our kids, this is one where they actually get together in the theater and see artists perform.”
Wednesday’s council puppet show was interrupted when residents on hand to protest plans for a 219-unit apartment building at La Brea and Willoughby avenues attempted to complain that they had been ignored when the council earlier moved the matter forward with a routine “consent” vote.
Police escorted a shouting Melrose Neighborhood Assn. member, Stephen Buscaino, from the speaker’s stand as Pinocchio, Calvin and Fluffy wrapped up their council performance. “They’re more interested in seeing a puppet show than allowing people to have a say in what is done in their neighborhood,” Buscaino said of officials afterward.