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In a world of change, dancing puppets still delight

By Nita Lelyveld

One day, maybe not so many days from now, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater will be gone.

Its debt will prove at last too much to bear. Its boxy white buildings will be sold.

And people will be sad, particularly those who talked for years about going without doing so.

“You better hurry up,” says Baker, 88, whose pain-plagued hands and feet make it hard for him to walk and to get his beloved creations to dance.

Outside his 53-year-old theater on a still scruffy edge of downtown, so much has changed in the world.

Baker’s handmade puppets used to land parts in movies and pitch products in television commercials.

He was known as “the butterfly man,” he says, because he used real butterfly wings to make lifelike butterfly puppets and stood on many a set on a crane waving a pole, manipulating strings to make them flutter.

“Now they can do that with CGI,” Baker says. Computer graphics came in and studios stopped calling. Families stayed at home too, staring at TV. Another prime source of income — schools — in recent years also all but dried up, as deep budget cuts axed many a field trip.

Still, inside the theater, the same old music from decades gone by continues to play under the same chandeliers. Puppeteers dressed in black still step out toward the audience, lit by lights from the long-gone Philharmonic Auditorium. (No one makes the bulbs anymore, says Baker. Recently, they tracked down two in Paris.)

And in this seemingly changeless place, something remarkable often happens — even at this time of the year, which is the slowest of the slow, when it’s only worth trying to draw a crowd for a few performances a week.

People come in who first came as children. They bring their children or even their grandchildren. They find a world extraordinarily close to the one they remember, not markedly altered by time. And they are startled.

How often in this fast-moving world does reality match distant memory?

We look back on childhood movies that were sweet and innocent. We go to ones made now and find that snark and innuendo snuck in.

Not so in Bob Baker’s annual “Halloween Hoop-de-Doo,” which plays Wednesday morning and closes on Sunday.

It is a Halloween vision far removed from the modern-day horror-movie graphic.

Yes, glowing skeletons dance, but a la vaudeville, in straw hats, swinging canes. Coffins creak, but they’re counterbalanced by a little boy in a red nightshirt and nightcap, singing, “You are my lucky star,” as stars surround him. Dracula woos Vampira, but there are ’50s-era spaceships too; they look like spinning tops, and cheerful green creatures pop out of them.

Here and there a moment is just scary enough to make a toddler squirm. When the show’s over, there’s free vanilla ice cream for all.

No such happy ending’s yet in view for the venerable theater, which is mortgaged to the hilt and in arrears on taxes.

Stop by when you can, Baker says. Lend a hand by showing up.

“Come,” he says. “Come and use your imagination. Come inside and let yourself believe.”

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