Marionette Square Project - Bob Baker Marionette Theater | Los Angeles Conservancy
Photo by Jessica Hodgdon/L.A. Conservancy

Marionette Square Project - Bob Baker Marionette Theater

In December 2018, the influential Bob Baker Marionette Theater, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, left its home of more than 50 years. In July 2016, the Central Area Planning Commission approved the Marionette Square Mixed-Use project, which paves the way for the construction of a new seven-story building on the same site as the historic Bob Baker Marionette Theater. The new development will contain 102 residential units and 3,400 square feet of commercial uses.

Developer Eli Melech first unveiled a preliminary plan in October 2014 to build an apartment complex at 1345 West First Street, the site of the long-running theatre. Designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #958 in 2009, Bob Baker Marionette Theater has been a testament to the art of puppetry and a beloved family institution since 1963. Since moving in 2018, the marionette nonprofit has found a new home on York Boulevard in Highland Park.

The new development will surround and form a bridge over the theatre building. The theatre will be truncated and converted into a residential lobby, with interpretive displays exploring the history of the site. The puppet studio and party room will be repurposed as a common area for residents.

Because the proposed project includes modifications to a designated structure, the City’s Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC) is required to review the project in order to ensure that all changes are sensitive to the theatre’s historic fabric and respect its cultural significance.

The CHC first heard an informational presentation on the project during its October 16, 2014 meeting. A second presentation to the CHC took place on December 18, 2014.

The City of Los Angeles released a proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration in February 2016, which was adopted in July.

The Bob Baker Marionette Theater is the longest-running live puppet theatre in the United States. Its founder, Bob Baker, was a renowned animator and puppeteer whose traveling marionette company delighted thousands of children over the years.

The theatre first opened in 1963 in a former movie scenery shop just outside of Downtown. In addition to staging live performances, Baker operated the Academy of Puppetry and Allied Arts from the building, a program for local high school students.

The building is also home to Baker’s collection of more than 4,000 handcrafted marionettes.

Despite several generations as a staple in family entertainment and a popular field trip destination, the theatre struggled financially in recent years due to school budget cuts, changing tastes, and the economic downturn.

In 2008, the Ahmanson Foundation and other private donors helped prevent the Bob Baker Marionette Theater’s closure after the building was listed for sale for $1.5 million. The following year, the Conservancy's Historic Theatre Committee successfully nominated the theatre for local landmark designation. In recognition of its association with the pioneering puppeteer and significant role in the development of the art form, the Los Angeles City Council designated the theatre as Historic-Cultural Monument #958 in June 2009. 

Despite these milestones, ongoing financial challenges forced Baker to put the property back on the market in 2012 with the hope of leasing the theatre space from the new owner.  The sale closed in 2013, securing a fixed lease for the marionette company until April 2015.

In October 2014, the developer revealed initial plans to build a housing complex on the site. Baker passed away in November, and his protégés have continued to stage regular performances. 

The impact of the proposed development on the historic Bob Baker Marionette Theater raises an important point about the preservation of culturally significant landmarks.

Questions have emerged publicly about whether or not the preservation of a building’s physical fabric is justified when its importance is cultural, not architectural. Some have suggested that a more appropriate tribute to the theatre’s legacy may be to incorporate new space for performing arts and an interpretive program into the proposed apartment complex, paving the way for the demolition of the historic theatre.

While architectural icons are vital to our history, they don’t tell the full story.

Modest buildings can also deserve recognition for the important roles they have played in defining our communities and cultural heritage.

The Conservancy does not take lightly any proposal to demolish a designated landmark. In the case of Bob Baker Marionette Theater, as with any designated property, the key is to design a sensitive, appropriately-scaled new development that does not overwhelm or marginalize the historic building. 

While interpretation certainly has a role to play in conveying our history, plaques and exhibits simply can’t replace the authenticity of bricks and mortar in telling the story of a place.