Strings attached for a hit TV show
When Joe Sachs set out to write episode No. 139 of one of broadcast television’s top-rated scripted shows, “NCIS: Los Angeles,” he asked himself: How do you merge a story about 21st century technology with marionettes from the 1950s and ’60s?
The episode aired last week, and a good bit of it took place inside the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, the oldest puppet theater in the United States.
“The theater is a giant vintage Christmas present from the 1960s with red velvet from floor to ceiling,” says Sachs, who took his kids, 9 and 4, to the theater to see a performance of “The Nutcracker” in November.
The theater was in turmoil. Baker was in hospice. (He died Nov. 28.) His beloved theater, which opened in 1962, was struggling financially. The property had been sold in 2013, and the theater’s lease was widely reported to be up this month.
That was where things stood when Sachs approached head puppeteer and stage manager Alex Evans about filming “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
The show filmed four scenes at the theater over a day and a half. “It has never happened that the theater has been a part of the story, at least not in my time here,” says Evans, who signed on as a volunteer in 2007.
He says the theater’s lease is not up this month and that it will continue operating for the next year or so until the property’s owners break ground on a mixed-use development.
What will happen to the theater at this point is murky. The Los Angeles City Council designated it a historic cultural landmark in 2009. The new developers will have to find a way to incorporate the theater into their plans.
“The architecture of the theater is nothing significant,” Evans says of the boxy white building perched at the corner of Glendale Boulevard and 1st Street. “It’s what Bob did on the inside — the shows and the cultural impact — that’s the landmark.”
The puppeteers were hired as part of the “NCIS” crew, and they took pride in teaching their art form to the cast. Olsen got to be so good, he used a goat puppet dressed like a frontier woman to deliver a five-minute monologue to Hunt.
“The actors were so thrilled to be there, no one had seen anything like it,” Sachs says. “I had electricians and grips in their 40s and 50s thanking me for filming there because it brought back childhood memories.”
THE LATE Bob Baker displays his skill in 2012.