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Bob Baker — the legendary puppeteer of stage and screen, and co-founder of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, the oldest and longest running children’s theater company in Los Angeles and in the world — died Friday of natural causes. He was 90.
Baker, who started the theater with his partner Alton Wood in 1963, had his performances featured in films including Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the 1954 version of A Star Is Born with Judy Garland, as well as many TV shows and commercials. He also served as governor of both the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and of the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences, in the animation division, and was an animation advisor to many film studios.
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The lifetime L.A. native first discovered marionettes at five years old, when his father brought him to a puppet show at Barker Brothers Department store downtown, and he met his first teacher, Henrie Gordon, a year later when she performed in the Bullock’s Wilshire toy department. After his first professional performance at eight years old for producer-director Mervyn Leroy, Baker then trained with several local companies during his youth and won the Orpheum Theater talent contest several times in 1939 and 1940. The Hollywood High School graduate later served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, but an early medical discharge due to a virus from chicken feathers pushed him into animation apprenticeship at the George Pal Studios. He became a top animator of Puppetoons a year later.
Baker left Pal during labor union disputes and began manufacturing toy marionettes that sold throughout Europe and the United States, complete with window displays in major L.A. department stores. His circus windows’ performance in the Millirons Department store downtown attracted so many attendees, the store built risers to accommodate them. Baker later created the now-famous window displays at Disneyland’s Main Street.
Baker turned to television in 1947 with KFI’s Adventures of Bobo, and he soon after used his Santa Monica studio as a hub for television animators like Bob Clampett, Daws Butler, Stan Freeburg and June Foray. And during a performance at the home of Ronald Reagan, he convinced the then-president of the Screen Actors Guild that puppeteers belonged in the performer’s union.
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Baker is survived by friends and loved ones, his devoted employees and his hand-crafted marionettes. In lieu of flowers, donations to support the Bob Baker Marionette Theater may be made here.
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