Treasures of the Sierra Madre Playhouse: Some Strings Attached

6 mins read
reverse of the sign atop a building
Photo: Victoria Thomas

The eleven vintage marquee letters spelling out S-I-E-R-R-A-M-A-D-R-E from the roof of the Sierra Madre Playhouse look out over a changed world. 

Much is different since 1908 when the building first opened its doors as a furniture store to serve the newly settled city of Sierra Madre, when the burg had just turned Sweet-16. But this spring, two Southland cultural icons — the Playhouse which just celebrated its centennial, and Bob Baker Marionette Theater at a spry 61 years old —team up for four performances in April and May, making Sierra Madre a prime venue for live family entertainment in 2024 and beyond.

A building with graffiti on the side of a road
Photo: Victoria Thomas

Setting out from the (free) parking lot behind the theater, the path leads down a narrow cement ramp and through a medieval-seeming alley where the walls pay tribute to past productions in roughly painted mural form, including “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

Once inside, the whine of power-tools signals change. Artistic and Executive Director Matt Cook explains that a new ventilation/HVAC system and electrical system are being installed. And, although mum’s the word, additional seating may be in the works for 2025. Cook says, “Our Playhouse became a silent movie theatre in 1924, and in its heyday in the 1930s when talkies first came out, we had 1,200 seats, reaching all the way out to the curb, There was no lobby, but there was a balcony.”

The thrilling and terrifying carbon arc lamp projectors of the era resulted in a fire, and over the ensuing years the Playhouse morphed several more times, including a brief incarnation showing first-run movies in the mid-late 1990s.

The Sierra Madre Playhouse is now a designated historic landmark. Silent movies are still shown here, but live entertainment is what’s breathing new life into the venue.

The menu ranges from drama to comedy, from swingin’ jazz standards drawn from the Disney Songbook presented by New Jet Set drummer Matt Johnson (March 22, 23, 24) to a post-green-beer St. Patrick’s Day celebration of the music of Ireland’s legendary blind harpist Turlough O’Carolan performed on harp and lute by the Tesserae Baroque Ensemble (March 30).

Cook, himself a Grammy-winning percussionist, accepted his post at The Sierra Madre Playhouse in September, 2023. He comments, “People often ask me whether I think live theatre is dead, and I’m happy to tell them that nothing could be further from the truth. Human beings have a primal urge to get together and gather around live performers. It’s one of the things that makes us human, and we can’t get that from TikTok. My only fear is that live theater will become too expensive for most people to enjoy it, which is why we keep our ticket prices so affordable.”

Where the Wild Things Are

And let the wild rumpus begin! Alex Evans, Co-Executive Director and Head Puppeteer for Bob Baker Marionette Theater, crimson-clad, sways and swoops his lanky body and long limbs with an antic sense of fun, as though he himself might be a giant marionette.

A man and a woman standing in a room
Alex Evans (in red), Misterio and the Sierra Madre Playhouse’s Matt Cook. Photo: Victoria Thomas

Y-E-E-E-E-A-A-A-AH!,” he exclaims with a broad, “A”-flattening English accent, “One of the things that’s really beautiful about live puppetry is how easily most people are willing to buy into the illusion. I love it when adults become children again, and so we see this very low-tech art form—some of the first puppets we know about were made in ancient Egypt— engage the imagination of the audience. So people use their own creativity to connect the dots, instead of having an algorithm or whatever do it for you.”

In 2007 when Evans was 19 years old and newly arrived in Los Angeles, a Google search led him to the original Bob Baker Marionette Theatre in Echo Park.

The marionettes, which now number into the thousands, had entertained generations of Angelenos, with hundreds of student and scouting field trips and thousands of birthday celebrations culminating with the single, simple gesture that became the Bob Baker Marionette Theatre signature to this day: At the end of every show, every audience member receives a small paper cup of plain ice cream, served with a small, flat wooden spoon.

Today, Evans and his team of approximately 30 people, expanded by 10 times since the company’s 1963 founding, are what he calls “flame-holders for a legacy,” noting that at least one member of the current puppet population delighted visitors to Disneyland on the park’s opening day.

He’s an unlikely savior by his own description. “I was this painfully shy film kid, and I was looking for special effects. I was interested in stop-motion and animation, and I was definitely a behind-the-scenes sort of person.” He describes the original theater as “…this strange white building, under a bridge, very much tucked away at this crazy intersection of five huge streets. But when I walked inside, I was spellbound. Swept away. Inside was so much magic, and such a contrast to the stark reality outside.” He met Bob Baker, then in his mid-80s who he says “…was as much like Geppetto as anyone you can imagine.” Evans persuaded Baker to allow him to intern at the theater, although he had no puppetry experience. He immediately set to work digitizing music from cassette tapes to CDs. And he never left.

Evans began filling in voids created by Bob Baker’s advancing age until Baker died at age 90 in 2014, setting off what Evan calls “a confusing transition.” The future was hanging, as it were, by a tangled and fragile string. In the cross-hairs: the location. “Y-E-E-E-E-A-A-A-AH, when Bob bought the theatre in 1963, it was with the understanding that a huge arts complex was being built nearby, and that the puppets would eventually move there. But that never happened, so he found himself stuck in this frankly nowhere part of town.” The original venue’s unglamorous location had not prevented audiences from finding the place and returning again and again. Likewise, the unassuming address at the corner of 1st Street and Glendale Boulevard, a former cinder block movie scenery shop just west of DTLA, did not deter property-hungry buyers from taking an interest in the property.

Whipped Cream, Stardust and Homelessness

After Baker died, the theater was struggling. Headlines called upon Los Angeles to save the memory and the history, somehow, and Evans searched for a buyer for more than a year. For a hot minute, entertainer Jack Black seemed interested. Then a real estate developer bought the property and began construction in 2018. Evans recalls, “We were offered a small space, basically the size of a Starbucks, in this giant office building.” The Bob Baker Marionette Theater gave its final performance in its original space on the day after Thanksgiving, 2018, 55 years to the day from the company’s opening, and from that point on became officially unhoused: “It got dire many, many times. Nobody knew what to do.”

In 2019, the company qualified as a nonprofit and Evans assumed his current title and role. Although he gently deflects the kudos, his efforts paired with those of his partner Winona Bechtle, Director of Partnerships for the company (she first experienced the Bob Baker Marionette Theater at age 5), kept the magic alive, if not exactly intact. In February 2019, the company moved to what Evans calls “a cool old vaudeville theater” on York Street in Highland Park, where the community provided “gushing support” throughout the two-year renovation and construction.

The work was done entirely by more than 200 volunteers, who pored over decades-old sketches, swatches and photographs to reinterpret and recreate decor motifs from Baker’s beloved Echo Park setting. Whether sentiment, superstition or both, Evans collected and labeled jars of dust from the old theater, now displayed in the new space. They currently rent the building, with plans to purchase the former York Theater at 4949 York Street within a few years.

“Now we have this liberating, empowering new energy,” says Evans. “And we’re so very happy to continue what Bob Baker started. It’s truly an embarrassment of riches. Each of the puppets represents about 300 hours of work by a half-dozen fabricators, and we feel certain that the concentration of all that care, all that love is what creates the audience response.”

During the performance, 60 to 100 puppets are typically used, evoking squeals and shrieks of surprise and wonder from the crowd as they break the dramatic fourth wall and go one-on-one with guests, up-close and personal. After each performance, audience members are invited to meet the puppeteers, and to touch and play with puppets.

“They’re always amazed at how easily they can make something inanimate come to life with their own hands, and voices, feelings, and laughter,” says Evans, noting that the puppets used for these interactive sessions are simple, crafted from felt, to sustain the attentions of little hands and of course, the inevitable drips and drops of melted ice cream.

A MORNING AT THE THEATRE: Bob Baker Marionette Theater

SATURDAY, April 13, 11 AM
SATURDAY, April 20, 11 AM
SATURDAY, May 4, 11 AM
SATURDAY, May 11, 11 AM

Sierra Madre Playhouse
87 West Sierra Madre Boulevard

For tickets and information, visit

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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