If you grew up in Los Angeles, chances are you celebrated at least one birthday at a magical little piece of history called The Bob Baker Marionette Theater.
The theater sits next to a bridge just west of downtown L.A., where 1st and 2nd streets merge with Glendale Blvd. Outside, the nondescript white building doesn't look like much, but inside it's almost like that moment in the "Wizard Of Oz," when everything shifts from black and white to beautiful Technicolor.
There are huge gold stars festooned with tinsel, a long red curtain with yellow fringe. There is no stage per se, just a big blue carpet where the stars of the show waltz around to classic tunes like this one by Cole Porter.
During the show, the marionettes sing, dance and delight audience members by sitting in their laps. There are all sorts of puppets: animals, aliens, vegetable, and vampires. Colorful flower marionettes sing, fluffy cats puppets dance, and then there's the blue velvet and satin Eskimo.
Bob Baker, 89, first opened this theater 51 years ago, but his love of puppets, goes back to the 1930s.
Baker got those puppets and soon he was taking puppetry lessons every day. It wasn't long before he became a marionette master, and by the time he was a teenager, he was producing his own puppet shows.
When he opened up this theater, Baker recalls only two people showed up to the first show. Luckily they loved it and word about Bob Baker quickly spread. Soon he was selling out performances and taking his show on the road.
For years, Baker and his puppets performed everywhere from private Beverly Hills parties to Navy ships on the high seas. But he says some of his favorite performances were those held at his little theater for local students and for kid's birthday parties.
Of course the highlight of the party is the puppet show, which changes over the seasons.
Each one is like a musical review, a collection of songs which all fall under a certain theme, like Halloween Hoop De Do, a farm themed show called Something to Crow about and a Mexican themed one called Fiesta.
For all of these shows, Bob Baker has crafted thousands of puppets using a wide range of materials from fine satin to marabou feathers. He says he gets inspiration from all sorts of sources.
His marionettes are also quite complex. He's rigged them up so the wooden bars and strings do more than just move arms and legs. Take for instance a mouse, who's rigged so even her eyelids move. But making the eyes of a mouse move while she's singing and dancing is no small feat.
These days, it's hard for Bob, too. Aches in his hands make it hard to for him to manipulate the marionettes. He's not as agile on his feet now that he's nearing 90 years old.
Over the years, the theater has seen it's share of hardship too. Though they used to produce a lot of puppets for sale at department stores, there's not much of a market for that anymore. The local schools have run out of money to pay for tickets, so the theater had to foot the bill for school kids to come see shows.
At one point, Bob even sold some of his most famous marionettes to keep the theater afloat, including a beautiful blonde girl puppet named Pequinita who was once serenaded by Elvis Presley in the 1960 film "GI Blues."
Recently, things have been looking a bit better for the theater. The charm of a theater, which has barely changed in more than half a century, is hitting home with nostalgic audiences and folks like Take Two contributor Charles Phoenix.
This Sunday, Charles Phoenix will be hosting a special tribute to the master of marionettes as Bob Baker turns 90 years old. There will be ice cream, and even though it won't be the same kind of ice cream in the little red and white cups Bob Baker used to dish out back in the day, some things haven't changed a bit.
Click here to get tickets to the celebration.
Like Bob's show. The songs are the same, the choreography hasn't changed, and the puppets act out the same sweet, simple stories they've been acting out for more than 70 years.
Bob Baker says he's not quite sure why the theater has been selling out shows once again like they one did. But he has a feeling it might have something to do with the stories they tell.