December 4th, 2014 by Rosemead Reader
Bob Baker, along with his partner Alton Wood, founded the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in 1963, which has gone on to become the oldest and longest-running children’s theater company in Los Angeles and in the world. In June 2009, the theater was designated as a Los Angeles Historical -Cultural Monument.
Jennifer Steinhauer of The New York Times has described Baker’s shows as “a staple of a Los Angeleno childhood. It is the cultural equivalent of the annual march by the nation’s third graders to the neighborhood firehouse.”
In addition to his tireless work at the theater, Baker and his company performed puppet shows around the world. Baker’s puppetry was featured in several films including Disney’s “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (Academy Award), “Close Encounters of The Third Kind,” the 1954 version of “A Star Is Born” with Judy Garland and many television shows and commercials. Baker also served as Governors of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and of the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences, both in the animation division.
A Los Angeles native (he lived in the same house in Los Angeles his entire life), Baker discovered marionettes at the age of five when his father took him to a puppet show at Barker Brothers Department store downtown. He met his first puppet teacher, Henrie Gordon, a year later when she demonstrated marionettes in the Bullock’s Wilshire toy department. He put his skills to work for his first professional performance at the age of eight for producer/director Mervyn Leroy. He trained with several different local companies during his youth and won the Orpheum theater talent contest several times in 1939 and 1940 (Kay Starr and Frankie Lane were also multiple winners).
A graduate of Hollywood High School, Bob enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the beginning of WW2. He served in the camouflage unit in Southern California and worked on the camouflage of Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank. An early medical discharge due to a virus from chicken feathers propelled him into his early career in animation at the George Pal Studios. He began as an apprentice and became a top animator of “Puppetoons” a year later.
Leaving Pal during labor union disputes that made his job untenable (he sided with Pal), Baker began manufacturing toy marionettes that sold both in Europe and the United States. Fifty of the finest department stores in the country carried his line including Bullocks Wilshire, Saks Fifth Avenue, Niemen Marcus, FAO Schwarz, and Marshall Fields. Baker manufactured the toy marionettes that he remembered as a child, and created window displays for the major stores in Los Angeles as well. The performance of his circus windows in the Millirons Department store downtown brought so many people, the store had to build risers to accommodate them. Baker went on to create the now famous window displays on Main Street at Disneyland.
Baker is survived by friends and loved ones, his devoted employees over the years, and his hand crafted marionettes. In lieu of flowers, donations to support the Bob Baker Marionette Theater may be made by visiting http://www.gofundme.com/ho3Vo0.