In 2019, Bob Baker Marionette Theater moved to York Boulevard after 55 years at its iconic location near Downtown LA. A few months after opening, the theater was forced to close due to the pandemic. The 18-month shutdown could have been the end for the historic theater. Instead, the theater, which reopened July 31, found a way to survive and eventually flourish, according to Missy Steele, the director of operations.
“We are a very small group of people who wouldn’t let the ship sink,” Steele said.
Because of the pandemic, the organization had to continually reorient itself, according to Kevin Beltz, the technical director and master puppet builder. This included the performance of the puppets, Steele said, as the shows have always been extremely hands on.
“[The pandemic] brought the puppets into this whole new format,” Steele said. “Because when you are on stage, and you have a house full of people, the puppets will run all over the place, sit on laps and do all this crazy stuff.”
Beltz said one of his favorite parts about working at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater is hearing the joy from audiences at live performances.
“If I am back here working while there is a show, I hear everything,” Beltz said. “Hearing the delight that [audience members] have when they see something that I have put my heart into is very rewarding, and something that I enjoy very deeply.”
Every year, on the last Saturday of February, the theater hosts Bob Baker Day, a festival created to honor the birthday of the theater’s founder, Bob Baker, who passed away in November 2014 at the age of 90. While the festival was virtual in 2021, the celebration drew 15,000 people in February 2020, according to Steele. Steele said it was a phenomenal day, but in hindsight, it felt like the theater’s last hurrah before the pandemic hit.
The theater began to provide this joyful energy in new and creative ways, according to Steele. They crafted online educational programs in partnership with LAUSD, with the character “Ms. Missy,” played by Steele, teaching kids how to build and communicate with a puppet. The theater designed printable lesson plans, and as the pandemic conditions improved, they utilized their traveling company to host small, outdoor and socially distanced puppet shows, Steele said.
The theater also shifted to virtual marionette puppet performances in the spring of 2020. According to Steele, these performances were an instant success, prompting the theater to upgrade their Zoom account in order to allow for more at-home audience members. Steele and two puppeteers performed within the theater, broadcasting the event all over the world.
By hosting 15 public Zoom performances each week from Spring 2020 to Summer 2021, the theater was able to stay connected with the community, Steele said.
“I could see, from the camera monitor, kids getting up and dancing with the puppets. And sometimes we would be able to hear their voices,” Steele said. “We would hear kids laughing.”
The theater also had a moment in the spotlight when it was featured in Elizabeth Ito’s “City of Ghosts,” an animated series that premiered on Netflix this spring.
The creative work the five full-time employees put in was instrumental, but in December 2020, the organization faced significant financial struggles, according to Steele. The theater furloughed their 10 contracted puppeteers at the beginning of the pandemic.
Steele said although the puppeteers were furloughed, they could reach out to find work if needed, whether that be for a special project or road show.
“We are all very tight-knit here so people had the opportunity to, if they were really struggling, reach out,” Steele said. “And we were like, ‘Yes. We are here. We are going to aid you.’”
But after nine months of limited to no income, the theater was in need of assistance, according to Steele.
“We got to the point where we knew we had one month of rent left in the bank account,” Steele said. “And none of us could get paid.”
The executive director of the theater, Alex Evans, decided to make an impassioned video asking the community to support the theater, according to Steele. Within a few months, they had raised $400,000 dollars, which was enough to tide the theater over until their July opening, Steele said.
Steele said the immediate support they received from people all over the country was incredibly moving.
“The support that we received during that, I still can’t wrap my head around it,” Steele said. “I know it happened, and we did a lot of crying out of gratitude.”
The theater is now almost back in full swing, currently hosting a Halloween show titled “Halloween Spooktacular.” The show is at reduced capacity — allowing 100 people rather than full capacity at 129 seats — but the live audience energy is just as strong, according to Daisy Hernandez, stage manager and puppeteer at the theater.
Hernandez said being back on the stage is an adrenaline rush that is also very rewarding.
“Right now in our Halloween show [the kids] get a little scared, and we get a little chuckle as puppeteers,” Hernandez said. “The people make it worth it.”
Halloween Spooktacular is now playing at the main theater, Knott’s Berry Farm, with the theater’s traveling company, according to Beltz. This multitude of shows requires certain puppets to be built again, Beltz said, a process that takes up to 300 hours.
Beltz said he recently made a new Frankenstein Monster puppet that is able to tap dance to the song “Puttin’ on the Ritz” for the Halloween show. He said building puppets that will last decades and that are made to bring people joy is really special.
“I love how uncynical the puppets are. The puppets that are here and used every single day, are made to make people happy,” Beltz said. “And that is something that we hold close to our hearts here.”