John Leland, Disneyland Designer and Founding Member of Bob Baker Marionette Theater, Dies at 91

John Leland
Courtesy of Bob Baker Marionette Theater

John Leland, designer for Disneyland and a founding member of Los Angeles’ Bob Baker Marionette Theater, died Thursday at a nursing home in Ventura, Calif., a spokesperson from the theater confirmed to Variety. He was 91.

The longtime visual artist collaborated with Baker on Main Street Emporium window displays at Disneyland and Disney World for properties including “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and “101 Dalmations,” and designed puppets and scenery for theatrical productions including “Sketchbook Revue” and “Holiday Spectacular.”

He also worked with Baker to develop a line of Disney-licensed marionettes in the 1990s. The Bob Baker Marionette Theater hosted a tribute to Leland in 2019.

Leland worked with other notable puppeteers including Jody Baron Productions, Richard Jones, Hazel Newsom, John Zweers and Jim Gamble on a wide array of design projects for cruise ships, television, commercials and interior displays.

In 2017, Puppet Life described Leland as “an older gentleman [who is] always telling jokes.” “You would know if you met him. He’s part of the atmosphere in here. He permeates into everything inside these walls,” the story read.

Leland shared during the interview that he would work with Baker in the middle of the night, when the puppeteer would bounce off ideas by him.

“Bob couldn’t draw. He could up to a point, but after that… he was wonderful in his ideas. I would do the original diagrams, back front side and a lot of conceptual drawings for the TV shows and Disney, doing the window animations,” Leland said of their collaboration. “I kind of miss Bob now, after a long time [of] 60 years. When we were alone together thinking up ideas, it was great.”

Born in Pasadena, Calif. in 1928, Leland studied motion picture illustration and landscape painting at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he received the John and Ana Lee Stacey Scholarship in painting. He launched his career as an illustrator for interior designer Robert Harold and worked as the display manager of a number of Broadway Department Stores, while designing puppets in his free time for over 45 years.