For years, puppeteer Bob Baker’s puppet theater hung by a thread.
In the end, he outlived Baker, who died on Friday at 90 after an eight-decade career pulling strings with his whimsical creations and delighting young and old alike.
Baker died at his Los Angeles home of age-related causes, said Greg Williams, a friend and puppeteer who worked with Baker for many years.
The Baker Theater, housed in a former cinder block movie set store just west of downtown Los Angeles, is the oldest puppet theater in the United States. When it was opened in 1962 at the corner of 1st Street and Glendale Boulevard by Baker and his business partner Alton Wood, it was an immediate hit with children and their parents.
Thirteen years earlier, Baker and Wood had teamed up to form a traveling company that busied itself with putting on puppet shows at school fairs, women’s clubs, and churches. They also had a thriving side business in a small workshop on Santa Monica Boulevard where they designed and made puppets for movies and commercials and produced Pinocchio puppets sold at Disneyland.
The workshop has created promotional displays for Disneyland and animated displays for Knott’s Berry Farm. His puppets have appeared in advertisements for Bob’s Big Boy, McDonald’s and Burger King as well as advertisements for new cars, drugstores and a cigarette manufacturer.
Over the years, Baker liked to recount how he had worked as an animation consultant for Disney Studios and walked through Disneyland with Walt Disney by his side the day before the park opened in 1955. He also reminisced about the birthday parties where he was performing his puppet magic. for the children of Hollywood celebrities like Eleanor Powell, Jack Benny and Danny Kaye. He was proud that his puppets played roles in “A Star Is Born,” “Star Trek,” Elvis Presley’s “GI Blues,” Disney’s “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
But movies and TV commercials dried up when computer-generated images became all the rage in Hollywood. Attendance at weekday puppet shows declined as schools grappled with budget issues and began cutting field trips. A roofing company that rented space on the theater grounds closed due to the recession.
By 2008, Baker had fallen behind on the theater’s mortgage payments, and the property was listed for sale for $1.5 million. The closure was averted when the Ahmanson Foundation and other donors came to its rescue. A year later, Los Angeles officials declared the theater – the oldest of its kind in the United States – a historical and cultural landmark in the city.
Baker put the property back on the market in 2012 for $2 million as he sought $150,000 to pay taxes and a private investor willing to refinance the mortgage. He clarified that only the site of the theater was for sale: he intended to keep his collection of 4,000 puppets intact and hoped to lease the theater to its new owner.
The building was sold last year, but Baker’s puppeteers plan to continue holding shows there at least until the lease expires in March, Williams said Friday.
No wonder Baker wants to keep his designs. His puppets were painstakingly designed and crafted, with some requiring 350 hours to be handcrafted and dressed in lavish costumes. Others, like the dancing cacti, were delightfully simple. Many were surprisingly complex: circus characters on horseback, juggling monkeys walking on stilts, Spanish tango dancers. Some cost up to $5,000 to create.
From the theater, Baker also ran the Academy of Puppetry and Allied Arts, where high school students could learn the art of puppetry. The academy helped subsidize tickets for school children’s field trips to puppet shows.
Originally from Los Angeles, Baker lived in the same Koreatown house where he was born on February 9, 1924, a seven-minute drive from the theater.
Baker has always explained that he was bitten by the puppet bug at the age of 6 when he went to a puppet show. At age 8, he took puppet lessons; he staged his first professional performance in 1932 before an audience that included director Mervyn LeRoy.
By the time he was a student at Hollywood High School, Baker was working with the WPA puppetry and selling his own hand-made puppets to high-end department stores. After graduating, he apprenticed at George Pal’s animation studio, known for his Oscar-winning stop-motion techniques using puppet figures. Within a year, Baker became the lead animator for Pal’s Puppeteons division, which was then under contract to Paramount Studios. Later, he and Wood formed Bob Baker Productions. Wood died in 2001.
As a Fellow of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Baker helped pick the winners of the Oscars’ Animated Feature category. He was also governor of the animation branch of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and past president of the Los Angeles Puppet Guild.
The puppet theater has been a trip back in time for generations of baby boomers and others who grew up watching TV shows “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” in the late 1940s, “Howdy Doody” in the 50s, “The Shari Lewis Show” in the 60s and “The Muppet Show” in the 70s.
The Los Angeles City Council designated Baker’s Theater a Historic-Cultural Landmark in 2009 after a parade of puppets paraded over the council’s ornate horseshoe-shaped desk and other puppeteers from south of California rallied to support the historic nomination. Baker, ever the workaholic, missed watching the 14-0 vote because he was hosting a series of previously scheduled shows at Paramount.
He has no immediate survivors.
Pool is a former Times writer.