Today I went to Bob Baker's Marionette Theater.
Other people have detailed the history much more closely than I want to, but the important bits are this:
1) It's been around 50+ years.
2) The building is a historical landmark.
3) They literally just do marionette shows.
I hadn't really realized that I'd never seen a marionette except on tv until the opportunity to see a real one presented itself. The theater is under definite threat of "redevelopment" and may not be around much longer, so I prevented my future self's regret and went. Paul allowed himself to be dragged along.
Part of me just loves that there are people who are doing this really weird kind of performance and have been for 50+ years. The show we saw was called "Something to Crow About" and comes from their repertory. It's about...a farm. And all the characters are animals or plants or bugs. They sing songs, most of the words unintelligible due to terrible speakers. The puppets are beautiful--full of personality and charm, well made and clearly beloved. It feels like they are all the Velveteen Rabbit.
The puppeteering itself is done by a handful of people in overalls and red turtlenecks (for this show, at least). As a dancer, I am sensitive to transition moments, when a person is trying not to be seen. In competition dance, when there were no wings, we'd all line up on the sides of the stage, feet together, parallel, heads high, eyes forward. We entered in some truly ridiculous fashions. Other dancers will scurry, as if touching the ground with their feet more briefly will render them invisible. But sneaking is an auditory trick, not a visual one. There are a few ways to disappear visually, but skittering is not among them. The puppeteers take small, smooth steps, they don't bounce or nod to the music, they are utterly focused on the puppets. You can watch them, if you want, but it's way better to watch the puppets.
It's a weird experience. The building is nondescript, for all its historical designation, and inside it's a strange dusty time capsule from...I don't know when. Red velvet is everywhere, and dusty gold garlands hang from ornate, dusty middle bits. There are three chandeliers, and three disco balls. The stage is flanked by two puppet statues. The carpet is in two colors--red around the edges, where parents and kids can sit, and blue for the stage--so it's a thrust stage, mostly. The room isn't big--maybe 15x35 feet, and the crowd today was less than 50. Almost everyone was a family (parents and kids) but there were a few of us adults just here to see what's up.
The show begins with an overture, spotlight centered on the red curtain, to music from Oklahoma. The curtain swings open on a lovely set design, with stars in a night sky over a farm. It's cheesy, and simple, but it's also beautiful in the way that twinkly lights behind dark fabric are.
Then, for maybe an hour, dozens (literally! So many puppets!) come along and dance and sing for you. There is a bumblebee who is allergic to flowers, a female crow who does the Charleston, a pair of soft-shoeing bullfrogs, chickens at an egg factory, a time-obsessed skunk, scarecrows that fly to bits, a snake-oil salesbear, a group of dancing onions, animated laundry, and so on. I have no idea what the story is--the closest thing to a plot is the fox who creepily introduces himself to every lady-animal in town and then chases them everywhere. It doesn't make any sense, both internally and externally (why is this show being produced at all? Is there a great cultural need for old-fashioned animal-themed farm stories?)
It feels like maybe you should be watching it through an old-timey camera, or a dusty instagram filter at least. But it's not old: There are young people in front of you, who have dedicated themselves to making that goat puppet blink and sing and water the flowers. They are good--I'm not puppetry expert but there are some really great moments. The hen lays an egg at one point (a fun trick in itself), which then, it turns out, is a TINY CHICK PUPPET still in the shell, which is painfully adorable as it skitters under mother's wing and she pulls it close for safety. I don't know if it's puppeteering or if it's the way the puppets are made, but they move differently and have different personalities, which blows my mind. I would drop the puppets at least ten times in a show that length; meanwhile, these people are making me feel soft-hearted for a singing turnip.
The other part of the show is the kids, who are generally losing their minds over the puppets. This is the one time I've ever thought to myself, "I wish I had kids three years ago so they could see this". The puppets come up close, sit in their laps, flirt with them. It's ridiculous, it's sweet and it's a little magical, even for me, the notorious childless shrew.
Anyway, it wraps up and the star puppets come out for a bow, then the puppeteers bow, and eventually they invite you to eat ice cream in the party room. I sat through it wearing a big grin, waiting for the next trick, the next puppet, the next joke.
The party room is...I mean, the closest thing I can compare it to is House on the Rock. It's not as extreme, terrifying or insane as House on the Rock, but it's...weird. It has that same throwback-to-a-throwback quality, a shining Main Street seen through too many layers of glass. The Party Room is covered in really big bows (I mean, the foil ribbon is about 2 feet wide, so), and there are big fan-shaped displays of fake lollypops. It is something that Willy Wonka would make. You can have a little ice cream sundae of the type I would sometimes get in school--a small cup with a paper lid and a wooden spoon to eat it with. The furniture is pink and white, there are very bright lights, and you can buy a puppet of your own for $5.
The whole experience was amazing, and sad, and inevitable. The building was designated as a cultural landmark a few years ago, which...to say there is nothing remarkable about the building is an understatement. I've been in buildings like this that were used for manufacturing, for fixing cars, and for sand volleyball. It's utterly dull, except for what has been happening inside for 50+ years.
Their preservation status means that any developer who wants to use the building has to preserve the exterior. I'm sure becoming a cultural landmark gave the theater a few more years--the building isn't itself all that desirable, even though the neighborhood around it is, and I'm sure trying to work this square, white, concrete box into a trendy loft isn't working out quite as well as all those old factories with the nice wood floors and brick walls. It's so frustrating to me that somebody saw fit to protect the outside, but not the inside. That arts funding can't be here to keep this beautiful and unusual theater here; that the developers can't imagine a way to share the space, to leave this strangeness intact (though to be fair, it's so strange I'm not sure how it even exists in a world with lofts, much less cheek-to-cheek with a loft building).
Bob Baker himself is gone; I don't know anything about the current staff or what they will do. I don't know where the 3,000 puppets will go. I hope there is a good ending to the story. It's a good long life for a performing arts group, honestly--longer than most. But sometimes you stumble across a little nugget that is so ordinary and so strange, so beloved and so secret, that you know the world would be a sadder place without it.
If they do have to go, the building will be a ghost of itself, the plaque on the side of the door maybe causing a few scratched heads or Google searches. This building is home to 3,000 Velveteen Rabbits, hand-made and brought to life for much longer than I've been around. If ever a place were to be haunted, this would be a good one.