Breathe Out, Tune In: Whisked into a musical puppet palooza

The Bob Baker Marionette Theater has been entertaining crowds since 1960. (Hannah Weaver • The Student Life)

It started at a Thai restaurant, as most life-changing nights do. The food and company were both wonderful, so, naturally, I was in a good mood as my friend Lily and I headed to our main event — a hybrid puppet show-concert. 

Based on the responses from others I told about this event, I’m guessing you have a lot of questions. I will address them all, but firstly — yes, it was a puppet show, and yes, I am an adult. Throughout my roughly three hours in the theater, I quickly came to realize I was experiencing the most unique concert of my life out of the 50-plus I have been to.

After a lovely dinner of drunken noodles, I headed on over to the historic Bob Baker Marionette Theatre (BBMT), which recently relocated to Los Angeles’ Highland Park neighborhood. To give a sense of its historicity: The theater has been around for almost 60 years, and in 2009 it was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. Bob Baker himself grew up in Los Angeles, with a passion for puppets from the age of seven until his passing in 2014.

Throughout the years, BBMT has expanded their programming beyond their traditional puppet shows to include a podcast, collaboration with other local non-profits, a museum exhibition and a live music series. 

The show I attended Saturday night was the latest iteration of the latter program, featuring artists Steady Holiday and Bonehenge. “School House Rocks,” as BBMT calls it, has combined their signature puppeteering with live music artists, for the past few years. It began around the same time BBMT moved from its original downtown LA location and transitioned to a non-profit. 

All of these ventures couldn’t have happened without the help of a 5C alum. 

An alum’s journey from Scripps to the puppet theater

Winona Bechtle SC ’14 has a January birthday, and even in LA where she grew up, that meant it was the rainy season. So, Bechtle had to have her birthday parties indoors, which drew her to having them at BBMT. After high school, she attended Scripps College, where she took media studies courses and worked for KSPC, leading her to find a passion for artwork, cultural preservation and LA history.

This love led her to a master’s program in Arts Management at Claremont Graduate University, where she started working with BBMT as a consulting project for her degree. 

Bechtle has been with BBMT for the six years since then and now serves as director of partnerships. In her new role, she looks for collaborations that “feel right for the space.” When it came to looking for musicians to work with for Saturday’s School House Rocks show, she and her colleagues found a good fit in Steady Holiday and Bonehenge.

The two artists are remarkably different. Steady Holiday is the dreampop solo act of Los Angeles-based musician Dre Babinski. Bonehenge is a newly formed traditional Irish music group, led by the number one Irish bones player in the world, James Yoshizawa. What both artists did share, however, was their willingness to embrace the playful atmosphere of BBMT.

“We really liked that they were both very unique artists with their own style,” Bechtle said of the two groups. “When they toured the theater, and we thought about how to use the puppets, they were just incredibly excited.”

Musicians play percussion, guitar, and violin as a female sings.
Bonehenge is a recently formed traditional Irish music group. They performed for the first time on Nov. 12. (Hannah Weaver • The Student Life)

Act I: Transported to Ireland

Going into the show, I didn’t know what to expect. I had told friends beforehand that the puppets and musicians were going to perform simultaneously. But when I arrived at the theater, I began to doubt this assumption. As I sat among a crowd of 100-some 30-somethings, I wondered if BBMT would really subject these hipster LA music nerds to an evening of puppets.

Indeed they did. 

Before the live music even started, the audience got a taste of what BBMT is all about with a few short numbers accompanied by classic circus-y tunes. My friend and I had scored a front-row, criss-cross-applesauce seat, so we had the privilege of puppets coming up and interacting with us. It was a little unnerving.

Then Bonehenge began with Yoshizawa demonstrating his prowess as a percussionist. After a couple solo songs, a puppet emerged from the sidestage. The crowd reacted with trepidation that quickly turned into excitement. This is always Bechtle’s favorite part of every School House Rocks show.

“It just works so shockingly well together, I can always tell from how people react and clap or just look really surprised that they’ve never seen anything like it,” she told me after the show. “It always just makes me feel really good that we can provide an experience that I know is really, really new and fresh for people … in a city where there’s so many options.”

Throughout the rest of Bonehenge’s set, they wove through Irish jigs, ballads, drinking songs and a cover of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Needless to say, it was very Irish. The lead singer’s accent shone through with every syllable and leprechaun puppets danced around all the while. I truly felt like I was transported to some fever-dream version of Dublin.

Just when I was beginning to really buy into this whole Irish thing, their set was over and it was time for a brief intermission.

Intermission with a puppeteer

As I waited in the bathroom line, I noticed a small door on the side of the wall. The door opened, revealing a storage room filled floor-to-ceiling with puppets. A puppeteer emerged, observing the bathroom line. Her name was Ginger Duncan, I came to find out, after stepping out of line and introducing myself.

Duncan first came to see a Bob Baker Marionette show when she was about eight years old on a class field trip. 

“It amazed me, and there was just something about it that kept drawing me back,” she said. “I just love things that are tangible.”

From third through sixth grade, her class would make frequent field trips to BBMT. After sixth grade, though, those opportunities stopped and she went many years without seeing a show. 

Many years later, like a salmon to its home, she eventually found her way back to BBMT for their yearly Nutcracker show. Too embarrassed to sit criss-cross-applesauce on the floor, she instead sat hidden in the back row. As soon the show began, the emotions began to flow out.

“It was this place that had never changed, and that’s something I needed so much in my life at that time,” she told me. “I just cried through the whole show and the Earth moved with me.”

Duncan has been with BBMT ever since, even getting a chance to train alongside the theater’s namesake, Bob Baker himself. For her, puppeteering offered a creative outlet and way to escape.

“I didn’t like all the attention being on me, so picking up a marionette and performing for people with this puppet … was a great way for me to just not exist,” she said. 

A woman performs with a Humpty Dumpty puppet.
After years of field trips to the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as a child, Ginger Duncan came back to be a puppeteer. (Hannah Weaver • The Student Life)

Act II: Puppet-pocalypse with a side of indie pop

Though the first half of the show already exceeded my expectations, the headliner, Steady Holiday aka Dre Babinksi, brought it up a notch. Right from the beginning, she made the audience feel as though we were her close friends.

“Are you ready to get a little bit weirder tonight?” she asked us, laughing. “It’s possible.”

Babinski played the first few songs solo, with just the help of a guitar — and quite a few thematic puppets. In a program passed out before the show, a blurb explained that she wanted a more “intimate” performance to share songs from her forthcoming album, “Newfound Oxygen.”

“There’s something nice about having a relationship with the simplest version of an idea first,” she wrote. “[The songs will] sound more or less as they did when I was initially figuring them out. I think that’s kind of cool.”

With each song, a new layer was added to the beautiful chaos of a show. First, a disco ball and melodramatic blue lighting made an appearance; a black light, dancers and accompanying guitarist followed. 

I appreciated how the puppets were also coordinated with the lyrics or tone of the song. When she sang about rain, duck puppets came out with umbrellas, traipsing solemnly across the stage. For a more upbeat song, a bunch of dog puppets shook their yarn fur with glee, climbing up on the speakers.

One audience member that I talked to after the show, Cliff Webber, works closely with Steady Holiday on the distribution side of the music industry. He agreed with me about the atmosphere, and more importantly, about his favorite puppet. 

“I love how much work she put into the stage aspects while also keeping it quite minimal and solo,” he said. “The smaller the puppet, the cuter it is.”

During her song “Living Life,” a bunch of little ant puppets marched in a line across the stage. I paused for a moment, looking around at the rest of the audience. Not a soul was frowning, or even straight-faced. Everyone was laughing and smiling, soaking in this rare experience. 

For the last song, Babinski asked the audience to refer to the lyrics she had printed in the program for her upcoming song “The Balance.” Then, to test our reading and singing skills, she ran around the audience with a mic in hand. When she came up to my friend and I, we were ready. Our singing voices may not have been the best, but we kept on-beat enough to earn a round of applause after. 

“I really appreciate her printing out the lyrics and running through the crowd and doing all that,” Webber told me later. “I think that, like she said, it’s not easy to play in front of people. But when you involve everyone, it’s quite nice.”

When the song ended, my face muscles were legitimately sore from smiling. Sometimes life sucks. Other times, little ant puppets dance in front of me and life feels alright. 

After the show, mingling

Like Webber, many of the audience members I talked to had a connection with the performers. The same is true of Caleb McClain, a mutual friend of Babinski. I asked him to describe how the atmosphere made him feel.

“It felt like I went back in time, as if I was a kid… so [future audiences should] prepare for that,” he said. “[It was] very cozy and just warm and entertaining.”

After the show, I realized the audience wasn’t as millennial-dominant as I had initially thought. There were older people and even a baby to my right, in the front row. This, however, Bechtle explained, isn’t unusual.

“We get folks coming here on dates, coming with their friends, having their bachelorette party here … it really is for all ages.”

She also emphasized the opportunity for 5C students to get involved, just as she did many years ago.

“I just so value the people that I met out in Claremont and so many of them are involved here today; so many of our puppeteers and our staff are my friends that I made while I was out in school there.”

Her goal is to create an “open connection” for students to get involved.

“The Claremont Colleges [have] proximity to resources like this where people like you can attend as an audience member, you can volunteer and work in our archives, you can propose a film program idea that you have [or] you can propose a show idea — we just want to be open to anyone’s ideas here.”

Hannah Weaver SC ’24 is a music columnist for TSL. She is always on the lookout for her next concert.

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