The coronavirus pandemic has forced the entertainment industry to pivot and rethink how it does things. Like many venues, the iconic L.A. institution Bob Baker’s Marionette Theater had no idea how long lockdown would last.
“Once you realize you’re in it for the long haul, it [became about] figuring out how to translate this very personal performance that involves puppets sitting on your lap,” says Molly Cox, director of communications at the theater.
Founded in 1963 by Bob Baker and Alton Wood, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater and its marionettes have been entertaining children for decades. Before the pandemic, the theater was putting on shows including “The Nutcracker” and “Enchanted Toyshop.”
“Over the course of BBMT’s more than 50-year legacy in Los Angeles, over 1 million children have been entertained by Bob Baker’s particular style of puppetry during field trips, performances, and in appearances throughout Southern California,” Cox says.
But the theater company has always found ways to overcome obstacles and the global pandemic is not its first challenge.
“The organization is very nimble and very adaptable to whatever seems thrown in its direction,” she says.
When Baker died in 2014, the show went on. And in 2019, the theater transitioned from a for-profit to a nonprofit and moved across town from West 1st Street to L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood.
When the pandemic hit, the main question became how to bring joy, lightness, beauty and imagination to people in a way that was socially distanced.
The answer: transition to Zoom. One of the first things the Bob Baker theater company did was launch “At Home Happiness,” a collection of puppet videos and tutorials on puppet making. The company also launched a “Bob Baker’s Marionette Coloring Book” made available as a free download.
“It was a very visceral experience,” Cox says. “We realized our entire business model had to change.”
Pivoting to Zoom also had its perks, such as audience expansion.
“It’s become a nationwide experience and goes beyond L.A.,” says Cox.
Additionally, a grassroots fundraising campaign for the theater drew donations from people in 37 states.
The theater company also signed brand collaborations such as partnering with Reebok to launch a pair of sneakers. It organized Zoom birthday parties and created Instagram videos. In keeping with the spirit of Halloween, the company created an “Of the Night” event to bring the Dracula marionette into homes. Best of all, the theater’s Marionette Mobile has been upgraded, allowing the company to produce shows from a safe and social distance.
“All those things have been a huge part of how we coped,” says Cox.
This month, the theater company is also launching its own magazine called A La Mode!.
“Every time that we receive an email from a parent thanking us for bringing joy to their quarantine or see the extreme excitement of a child watching the Marionette Mobile pull up in front of their house, it gives us reason to keep going,” Cox says.