Photo Walls: Bob Baker's Marionette Theater

Bob Baker with one of his marionettes.

hide captionBob Baker with a couple of his marionettes.

See the Photo Walls
Jennifer Sharpe

Father-daughter radio team Mal and Jennifer Sharpe continue their series on photo walls, those collections of pictures you often see displayed at small businesses. This time, they visit the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in Los Angeles.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Mr. MAL SHARPE (Producer): All right. Continuing our search for photo walls, we're in downtown Los Angeles, or the edge of downtown Los Angeles, underneath an overpass.

CHADWICK: That is producer Mal Sharpe. He and his daughter, Jennifer, have been documenting what they call photo walls, these displays of pictures that you see at small businesses. Today's stop? A puppet theater known to generations of Southern California kids.

Mr. SHARPE: Jennifer, where are we going today?

Ms. JENNIFER SHARPE: Well, we're going right over there, to Bob Baker's Marionette Theater. It's that kind of aging, 1950s building over there.

Mr. SHARPE: We're walking inside here now.

So you're Bob Baker?

Mr. BOB BAKER (Bob Baker's Marionette Theater): Yes, I am.

Mr. SHARPE: How you doing, Bob?

Mr. BAKER: Fine, thank you.

Mr. SHARPE: This is my daughter, Jennifer. Well, you met her before.

Ms. SHARPE: Oh, we've met.

(Soundbite of camera clicking)

Mr. SHARPE: She's going to shoot a few pictures, and...

Mr. BAKER: OK.

(Soundbite of camera clicking)

Mr. SHARPE: The photo wall has been up here for years, I take it, but how long has the Marionette Theater been here?

Mr. BAKER: Forty-four years.

Mr. SHARPE: Wow. This first picture of you painting the puppet over here, when was this, in the '50s or the...

Mr. BAKER: In the mid-'40s.

Mr. SHARPE: It looks like there was more time...

Mr. BAKER: Well...

Mr. SHARPE: ...in America to just sit there and concentrate on a puppet face the way you are.

Mr. BAKER: Well, yes, there was more time. I seem to have less time as I get older. That's...

Mr. SHARPE: This photo here...

Mr. BAKER: ...Dora the Dodo Bird(ph). We have two of them. They do the Charleston.

(Soundbite of camera clicking)

Ms. SHARPE: Is that actually Elvis Presley in a--is that a movie still with your puppets?

Mr. BAKER: Yeah, that's Elvis. We did "G.I. Blues" and we did a song called "The Wooden Heart." He had to go to his dressing room for an hour. He said, `I can't talk to--sing to that puppet. She's too alive.' He was very uncomfortable.

Mr. SHARPE: The puppet got Elvis uncomfortable?

Mr. BAKER: Yeah, he couldn't sing to it because she kept reacting to him and he just felt she was really alive.

Mr. SHARPE: What about these marshmallow-looking figures over here?

Mr. BAKER: They're the Money Cats?

Mr. SHARPE: The Money Cats, yeah. They do...

Mr. SHARPE: They're all furry and they have little bowler hats on.

Mr. BAKER: Believe it...

(Soundbite of camera clicking)

Mr. BAKER: Believe it or not, they have around 80 yards of marabou that's sewn on to a jump suit.

Mr. SHARPE: What's marabou?

Mr. BAKER: Marabou is chicken feathers that are on a string.

Mr. SHARPE: So where do you buy the feathers?

Mr. BAKER: At a feather company.

Mr. SHARPE: Really?

Ms. SHARPE: What's it called?

Mr. BAKER: Hollywood Feather.

Mr. SHARPE: Hollywood Feather.

Mr. BAKER: I've been going to them for 50 years.

Mr. SHARPE: So what's your favorite feather?

Mr. BAKER: Ostrich. Ostrich is good.

Mr. SHARPE: Yeah?

Mr. BAKER: Well, actually, I don't know. I've used all different kinds.

Mr. SHARPE: How did you get the bug for marionettes and puppets?

Mr. BAKER: Oh, I saw a puppet show when I was about five...

Mr. SHARPE: Yeah.

Mr. BAKER: ...down at Barker Brothers about...

Mr. SHARPE: The furniture store?

Mr. BAKER: A big furniture store. And then I drove everybody crazy till I got some puppets when I was seven.

(Soundbite of camera clicking)

Mr. SHARPE: OK. We're going to move back over to this other wall. There's so many pictures to look at here.

Ms. SHARPE: I was curious, actually, about this onion puppet over here.

Mr. BAKER: Oh, this was to get children to eat vegetables. We had onion, we had potato, we had celery.

Mr. SHARPE: So this one here says `Mrs. Broccoli.'

(Soundbite of camera clicking)

Mr. BAKER: Yeah.

Mr. SHARPE: Yeah, had Mrs.--that's a nice name. She almost looks like Lucille Ball.

(Soundbite of laughter; camera clicking)

Ms. SHARPE: How hard is it to keep a place like this open?

Mr. BAKER: It's very difficult. All the things for--the government wants and all the taxes and...

Mr. SHARPE: The government is taxing marionettes and puppets?

Mr. BAKER: Oh, tell me. They certainly do.

Mr. SHARPE: This is sad. I mean, really, this is sad.

Ms. SHARPE: It really is.

Mr. BAKER: Well, actually...

Mr. SHARPE: You know?

Mr. BAKER: ...to keep the theater going, we figured up a few years ago it was $30,000 a month. It's now 40 and going up.

Mr. SHARPE: Do they make you pay Social Security for puppets?

Mr. BAKER: Well, the puppets don't get Social Security, but the people do that work the puppets.

Mr. SHARPE: You look so happy in all these pictures, Bob. You look really happy when you're with these marionettes. Are you?

Mr. BAKER: Sure. Why not?

Mr. SHARPE: You're just aglow.

(Soundbite of camera clicking)

Mr. BAKER: Well, in a lot of the pictures they say `smile,' but...

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la...

CHADWICK: Puppet master Bob Baker talking with Jennifer Mal Sharpe. Pictures are at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...la, la, la, la, la, la...

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY returns in a moment.

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