Bob Baker and Charles Phoenix*

Last night I was lucky enough to be transported by a theatrical experience that could only happen in Los Angeles. The performance took place at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater at the intersection of the Belmont Tunnel and the Beverly Blvd./First St. Bridge – an unlikely place to re-live one’s childhood at 8:00 PM on a Friday night.

First off, this was not my first visit to the famous landmark. When I realized that the theater was inaugurated in 1962, a year after my family moved to Silverlake, I erroneously remembered having gone there as a jaded ten-year old. Imagine my surprise when my sister reminded me that my first visit took place around 10 years later as a not-so-jaded 20-something. The occasion was my half-sister’s birthday – 4th or 5th, I don’t remember which. It was strange that other than a cousin or two, the entire birthday party consisted of adults. I remember being mildly interested in the performance, but my ability to suspend disbelief was hindered by the garish colors and loud music (not to mention the clowns…I am not a big fan of the clowns). What I do remember being fascinated by was the tour of the workshop after the performance. Strong in my memory was a description of how they created puppet heads by casting them in a latex compound that was light but durable.

My second visit was in 1989 when I took my own daughter for her third birthday. Again, 14 years later, our group consisted of more adults than children. I remember thinking that little had changed in the performance, although the puppets themselves and the theater seemed a little bit shabbier. But mostly I watched the kids’ reactions to the show. My daughter has always been rapt spectator – not fidgety or squirmy like some kids. But it was difficult to tell whether she was delighted or frightened by what she was seeing. She seemed to be processing everything as it came into her brain. It was only later that she would comment on what she felt about what she had seen.

Fast forward to last night – another 16 years passed and I found myself re-entering the theater, this time completely surrounded by adults. I have always meant to attend one of Charles Phoenix’s famous slide shows, but the combination of Bob Baker and slide show was irresistible and compulsory for LATDA research.

Perhaps it was the transition of entering the theater at night or the excitement of the crowd, but suddenly I felt considerably less jaded and ready to enter another world to be entertained. I had never really heard what a Charles Phoenix slide show was like, so I was pleasantly unprepared for his stentorian delivery (reminded me of George Takei, whose voice I often hear echoing through the halls of the Japanese American National Museum). His video interview was short but spoke volumes about Bob Baker and his contributions and dedication to his craft. The slide show augmented the stories about his early career and added that home movie quality of anecdotal information. Sometimes the tone of Phoenix’s narration was a little arch, but I decided that was simply his style and that he honestly admired his subject matter.

One thing that struck me in the video was an interview with one of Baker’s apprentices. He was a young Hispanic man who spoke of how he felt when someone pointed out to him that his work was art, and that he must be proud of what he was doing. I noticed that over 50% of the people (puppeteers) working for Baker were of Hispanic descent, and I wondered if it was a reflection of the neighborhood he worked in or of a kinship between Mexico’s artistic tradition in the field. Or were these some of the many school children who witnessed the magic of Bob Baker’s shows and had returned to learn from him?

It seemed that the all-adult audience dictated the presentation of the actual puppet performances. The lighting and execution of the performances seemed more professional and polished than I remembered. Some of the brashness in sound and color were still there, but at times I was completely mesmerized by the acting. And unlike my well-behaved daughter, I was standing up at my seat, craning for a better view. My favorite puppets were the various dancing skeletons – my least favorite…still the clowns.

Anyone want to raise funds for a Bob Baker Retrospective at LATDA?

*There are still two performances left and a few tickets still available!