12.02.2008

The Nonchalantdad: the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in LA

It is a story told very often over the years in my family. As a child I lived with my large family just south of Los Angeles. It is a story that has spanned something like 35 years now - and I am loath to admit it since I like to think of myself as youthful and trim still..... arghh! Anyway, the story goes something like this:

My mother, who was at the time a fairly recent immigrant from England, was the kind of mother who seemed to have her pulse on everything - far and wide. Timid she was not. She had found, and promoted on several occasions, a small theatre company of puppets somewhere near the 405 freeway if memory serves me right - perhaps near the Dodger stadium (am I correct... or is that the zoo?). The place didn't look anything special from the outside, but inside was a dream world. I certainly remember the lights coming down and first seeing these rather large puppets come to life - and they flowed just like people. It was no matter to a young eye that you could make out the puppeteers dressed covertly in black, nor that you could pretty clearly see the strings.... the damn things were ALIVE! And that was very very very exciting for a child of 6 or 7 years old (remember this was in the early 70's before all the stuff we have now to entertain us). The lights came down, the puppets came to life and the whole place became one BIG electrical current of pulsing energy..... which I guess would have been exciting on any other day, but on that particular day it was different.

As you apparently still do in this place there was a sort of ring of people on the floor next to the stage with another band of people sat behind you up a bit higher. My mother and I, and a small group of friends, were sitting there, down on the floor. Behind our group was another group. This group included several young people with mental disabilities. There was a boy directly behind my mother aged about 15. Now, my mother was in the habit in those days of wearing her hair in a sort of bun at the rear top of her head pinned ever so carefully into place. The lights came down, the puppets started their thing.... all of us got excited. The 15 year old boy started clapping wildly, slapping his legs like a drum, before he lurched up out of his seat. He jumped up behind my mother and starting screaming he was so damned excited (I couldn't blame him) and reached out and took my mother by her hair bun with a single grasp and lifted her a good 3 feet off the ground while she was still frozen in her sitting position. Now, the boy was screaming while he dangled my mother off the floor, my mother was definitely screaming something else, and she looked like another of the puppets going up and down, this way and that, while the boy became her personal puppeteer. The other kids started screaming and jumping up and the adults were pressed into action. As this boy hoisted her up and then down, here was this otherwise composed Englishwoman in 1972 saying all sorts of wonderful things very loudly and publicly that a young mind isn't supposed to hear.... you get the picture I'm sure.

This scenario went on for a good few minutes before the boy's assistants could untangle his large hand from my mother's now frazzled hair bun. Eventually, the performance went on with the boy posted elsewhere and my mother looking more like a red faced scarecrow perched on her knees trying to pretend she didn't exist. And, to us children, she didn't. We were soon immersed back into the fold of things and lost in our excitement again as the performance continued. Afterwards, we all got a snack of ice cream - apparently still served today the very same way after all these decades: a small pot of ice cream with a simple wooden spoon. How fun is that!
The reason I remembered this story is that in todays NY Times there is a large story, by Jennifer Steinhauer, on this very same place - the Bob Baker Marionette Theater and his roughly 3,000 personally created puppets. (the photos are from J. Emilio Flores for the NY Times). The place is in trouble and needs new assistance. Quite frankly, I am surprised to see it still going after so many years, given how many things from prior years disappear left, right and center these days - especially in LA. I left LA some 20 odd years ago, but when I read this story the place came right back into my memory - almost as clear as day. I can remember driving there, going through the doors, etc. It was that special.... aside from the story of my mother's inadvertent levitation!! Imagine how special it has been to so many others (maybe you?) over the years. It would be a shame that such a place was unable to find some kind of backing or support. This kind of magic is not easily found anymore and I wish very very much that I could take my 2 young kids at some point soon. I'll just be careful where I sit.

If you'd like to read the story you can go to this link:
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/02/theater/02pupp.html?_r=1

I'd be curious to hear of anyone else out there who remembers this theater as a child, or who has recently taken their own children to it. As well, does anyone know of any other similar theaters in other parts of the country or elsewhere? Let us know.

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