Bob Baker performed with his marionettes until he was 86, however, the theater that bears his name remains in limbo moving forward.
Several weeks ago, The Albert Group (TAG) Architects presented a new vision of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater property, called Marionette Square, to the Cultural Heritage Commission.
Baker, now 90 and in hospice care, was forced to sell his home and theater in recent years for financial reasons, but his marionette company has continued its lease that will end after March 2015. Eli Melisch is the new property owner, and he commissioned TAG to present new plans, which call for 102 apartments to be constructed around the theater’s original façade.
“It’s a contemporary building within sight of downtown — maybe not within walking distance but certainly for biking,” said Stephen M. Albert, principal of TAG. “These are improving areas that are upgrading with a lot more life.”
Where that leaves Bob Baker Marionette Theater, employees said, is still up in the air, although they intend to push forward.
“The plan is to keep it running,” said Gregory Paul Williams, trustee of the Bob Baker Trust. “We have no intention of shutting it down or losing the touring companies.”
This weekend will feature one of the group’s most popular shows, Halloween Hoop-De-Doo, which features a mummy, Dracula, the Purple People Eater, aliens and a 20-skeleton variety show. Williams said it sold out for last week’s performances.
“The theater is actually doing quite well,” he said.
Baker started puppeteering when he was 8 years old and he would later open the theatre in 1961, which seats about 200 people and averages approximately five shows a week, mainly on Saturdays and Sundays.
“It really runs itself and we have a great team of puppeteers,” Williams said.
Baker had to stop performing at age 86 after suffering a heart attack and stroke.
“I’ve been performing with him since I was fifteen,” Williams added. “If he were to pass tomorrow, I’d say it’d be from complications of old age more than anything now.”
After March 2015, the marionette company could lease month-to-month as the transition to the apartment building continues through the city planning process.
“They can go month-to-month with a minimum of a year and a half or maybe two,” Melisch said, noting construction might not begin until the end of 2016.
The future plans would allow for the front of the theater to remain, and it would include a potential space for shows, which Melisch said he was open to allowing Bob Baker Marionettes to use after construction.
However, at the Cultural Heritage Commission, Albert said the commissioners expressed some reservations about whether the theater was worth saving if the puppet company did not reside in it. The historical designation the theater has achieved does require certain preservations, Albert said, but his group would be meeting with officials to better help define that, especially should the marionette company not continue.
“We don’t really have any direction on this,” he said. “We had made a big effort to build up and around and over it [the theater].”
Marionette Square would include some commercial space, along with a fitness center and roof decks for occupants. Albert said it would have some market rate apartments and that the city’s Central City West Specific Plan requires they hold some units for affordable housing rates.
As for Bob Baker Marionettes, Williams said he and his colleagues believe the show must go on, and they look forward to this weekend’s Halloween program and their very popular run of Christmas shows in the near future.
“In the United States, puppets have been relegated to children somewhat, but that also makes it really great for families,” he said.
Marionettes manipulation, in general, he added is a great and time-honored art.
“It’s working with gravity to create the illusion of life,” Williams said. “We bring them to life. If the puppet is well-manipulated, the audience will forget there is someone there.”
And as these shows continue, Williams said their concerns are with Baker’s health, although they will look to sit down with ownership to discuss the future soon.
“The show goes on and it will go on as long as people buy tickets to the theater,” Williams said.
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