Inside an industrial white building just west of downtown is a place where roosters serenade chickens, hats become ice skaters and cactuses dance toe to toe. Here at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, children sit enchanted by the world of puppets.
“There’s nothing else like it. I can’t imagine what my life would be without it, nor what Los Angeles would be without it,” said Alex Evans, a puppeteer and stage manager at the theater.
The landmarkat 1st Street and Glendale Boulevard has been entertaining audiences for 52 years. But financial troubles may bring the shows to an end. Owner Bob Baker is selling the theater, adjacent warehouse and empty corner lot for about $2 million to cover late mortgage payments and taxes.
“We’ve put everything up for sale. The people with the mortgage said if you don’t do that, we’re going to foreclose,” said Baker, who hopes to sell to a friendly buyer willing to keep the theater open.
Baker is also open to other financing options, such as cash donations or a private investor helping refinance the mortgage.
In a recent email to his supporters, Baker set the fundraising goal at $350,000. He owes about $125,000 in taxes and $20,000 in loans. The rest will be used to pay future loan payments and reinvest in new shows.
Baker said his love of marionettes began when he watched his first puppet show at the age of 6. About 30 years later, he opened the theater with his good friend Alton Wood, a former concert pianist. Wood dealt with the business side while Baker maintained the creative vision.
Wood died 12 years ago, and Baker said it hasn’t been the same since. He’s fallen behind on his taxes and mortgage payments and has reduced the theater staff from 20 to 15 people.
“Things started to go cuckoo. It’s been hard to bring it up to snuff,” Baker said.
The theater used to rely on profits from Baker’s work in commercials and training films. He also had a steady business with Disney for high-end collectible puppets.
“Now the only thing left is the shows for kids, which is great, but they were never the real moneymaker,” Evans said.
The Academy of Puppetry and Allied Arts, a nonprofit that Baker started a decade ago, subsidizes ticket prices for students, which sell for $10. On the weekends, tickets go for $15.
The funds cover the cost of putting on the show, but not the overhead. The theater needs about $6,000 per month to operate, he said.
Robert Morris, 55, drove from Burbank on a Wednesday morning to catch a show with his 3-year-old daughter, Chloe. They were the last ones in the door.
“It was wonderful. It was quite an amazing show. Was it not, Chloe?” Morris asked his daughter. Chloe nodded.
For 25 years, Cynthia Christopher has been bringing her kindergarten classes to watch the show.
“It is an institution, and I would hate to see it go. It would break my heart,” said Christopher, who teaches at Stonehurst Elementary in Sun Valley.
The theater was put up for sale four years ago, but support from the Annenberg Foundation and additional donations helped keep it afloat.
“We want to stay in business,” Baker said. “Our biggest problem is the economy in the last few years has been such that [it] has taken away all the people that used to come to the theater.”
If the theater doesn’t find a buyer, Baker said, “there will be a nice trash day.”
“The puppets will be put somewhere, and everything in this room will go out to the” trash, he said.