The Bob Baker Marionette Theater has announced that it is moving from its original Westlake location to a new permanent residence at 4949 York Blvd., with shows slated to begin in the early summer. The move was prompted when the founder of the theater and owner of the original site, Bob Baker, sold the building. Winona Bechtle, director of development, said that the theater was then operating on a month-to-month lease and there are new apartment complexes being constructed at the location. The original theater is a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument — #958 — but according to Bechtle, that does not necessarily guarantee full protection of the entire building.
“Some of the building will be preserved, the courtyard, the marquee at our original spaces,” Bechtle said. “And there will also be a historic display but in terms of how we can use it, the theater, our offices, the storage is all where the seven stories of apartments are going up. So we were talking with the developer for a while about coming back in there to new space, something we’d have to rebuild but based on our company’s growth in the last few years, it just doesn’t make sense.”
Bechtle reported that in the past two years, the theater has experienced a 60-percent increase in financial growth, due largely to ticket sales but also annual fundraisers, grants and donors, and more traveling shows than ever before. She credits this to the effort made by the theater’s puppeteers and crew following Baker’s death in 2014 to transition the theater into a 501C3 nonprofit organization, allowing the theater to be more engaged in the surrounding community.
“There was a pivot in how we wanted the theater to function as much more as a museum, as an educational tool, as a resource for the community,” Bechtle said.
This has led to an increase in the theater’s community partnerships with organizations such as the Kidspace Children’s Museum. Bechtle believes that this helps draw in new audiences and remind people of the historic theater. The theater has been a mainstay of family-friendly entertainment, making the York Boulevard location, which is across the street from York Park — a children’s park with a rainbow-colored playground — an even more attractive option.
“We are primarily an organization that serves families and communities and [the York Boulevard location] was by schools, there were a lot of longtime residents nearby, there were businesses and other nearby nonprofits that we wanted to collaborate with,” Bechtle said. “It just made a lot of sense for us being able to get as many people in here as possible.”
When asked about any future plans and developments for the theater’s programming, Bechtle stressed a new emphasis on providing educational workshops.
“Something we’ve really wanted to do here is way more classes and educational activities, so everything from a summer camp for 5–year-olds to 3D-printing puppet-making workshops for adults,” Bechtle said. “So I think that that’s a big way for us to expand here, is just really using the space not just for a passive show but a really active resource.”
The theater will engage in a new community partnership this summer with Oxy Arts, a collaborative public arts space provided by Occidental College. Oxy Arts seeks to connect the college and the surrounding Eagle Rock community with regional and local artists. Beginning in late May the theater is set for a multi-month residency at the soon-to-open Oxy Arts building on York. According to the director of Oxy Arts, Meldia Yesayan, this residency will present free programs to foster community engagement with the theater.
“We both, together with them, will plan free public shows, weekly shows, workshops, interactive activities, interactive engagement-based exhibitions,” Yesayan said. “Really the goal is to recreate the founder, Bob Baker’s, earliest experiments with performance, fabrications and engagement and share some of the creative resources that they used to create their theater and their programming.”
The theater programs that will be available at the Oxy Arts building will differ from the theater’s regularly-scheduled programming. Bechtle hopes to take in feedback and suggestions from those who attend programs at the Oxy Arts building in order to tailor programs to fit the surrounding Eagle Rock community.
“Occidental is so established in this community, and Oxy Arts has done so much research about neighbors and programs that they want to see. It really is a chance to be more experimental there,” Bechtle said. “[At the theater itself] we’ll do classic Bob Baker shows you might have seen for 50 years, but at Oxy Arts, we really want to workshop new ways to do shows and really have a space for people to tell us what they want to see.”
“I think it’s really great. We have the kids‘ park and that’s awesome, but there aren’t a lot of kid options around,” Schodorf said. “It’d be nice to have a really kid- and family-friendly option on York.”
Bechtle said that the theater is capable of putting on a diverse range of programs for various audiences. They provide morning programs, geared towards a younger audience, in addition to evening programs and workshops that may be more suited for teenagers and adults.
“We feel that our content and the shows and the marionettes can be accessible for a 5-year-old, for a 50-year-old,” Bechtle said. “It’s a type of performance that’s designed to be multi-generational.”
Yesayan believes that the Bob Baker Marionette Theater will provide a one-of-a-kind entertainment experience on York Boulevard.
“It really is an experience that reflects a historical cultural tradition and highlights craft and hand-built puppetry,” Yesayan said. “So I think it’s a unique experience that humans and kids of all ages will enjoy.”