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Photo Walls: Bob Baker's Marionette Theater

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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