The Great Disney Puppet Mysteries: The Tale of Two Bobs

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

I have too many regrets in my life and one of them is that I didn't get to attend a presentation that legendary puppeteer Bob Baker made August 23, 2008 for the Carolwood Pacific organization out at the L.A. Steamers in Griffith Park.

If you are a Disney fan, you should check out their Web site (link) and seriously consider joining and supporting this fine organization that often hosts Disney history events at the Carolwood Barn in addition to presentations by its founder Michael Broggie.

I've always loved and admired puppeteers. As a kid, I remember loving watching Sooty, a little bear hand puppet operated by Harry Corbett, on the original Mickey Mouse Club television show. The mischievous and silent Sooty just tickled my fancy and when I went into the hospital briefly, my mom and dad got me a similar hand puppet to play with in bed and create my own shows.

Growing up in Glendale, Calif., meant that, as a kid, I got the chance to visit Disneyland a couple of times a year. One time, I purchased a simple, small Captain Hook marionette at the park. I have always loved the character of Captain Hook and quite frankly consider Peter Pan a juvenile delinquent who treated all the women in his life pretty badly. I quickly learned that manipulating a marionette effectively took quite a bit of skill.

My career as a young puppeteer was short-lived, although I did put on a few neighborhood, school and community group puppet shows with marionettes and hand puppets and my Jerry Mahoney ventriloquist doll. It didn't take long for me to realize that I was better at doing various funny voices and writing the comedic skits than manipulating the puppets.

However, years later I did get the chance to work with the sorely missed and largely unknown Disney Crew, an anti-drug puppet show that traveled to elementary schools.

Later in life, I dated too briefly a wonderful young lady named Tracy Barnes who did some work at Bob Baker's puppet theater so I ended up spending some time there.

Even though at the time I was interested in all things Disney, it never occurred to me that there was a connection between Bob Baker and Disney and that I missed a golden opportunity to talk to him about his memories of his long friendship with Walt. Baker had a Disney connection that lasted for decades.

Bob Baker was born in 1924. During his more than 75-year career, Baker's puppetry contributions in various media have entertained countless millions. The Bob Baker Marionette Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles may be the country's oldest continuously operating puppet theatre, but is certainly one of those "hidden treasures" sorely in need of some attention. Thousands of puppets hang backstage as I discovered."

"At age 6, my dad took me to see a penny puppet show down at Hal Roach Studios," Baker said in a recent interview. "It was the Depression, so people did shows with blankets as curtains. I fell in love with them and shortly after, I decided to put on my own puppet show. I drove everybody crazy and I finally got a puppet for one dollar from a novelty shop. Then I saved up to get a Mickey Mouse puppet,"

"At 8 years old I would walk to the Bullocks Wilshire department store on Saturdays and work the puppets. They thought it was cute, a little boy working the puppets," Baker said.

That exposure led to his first professional performance when the manager of the store arranged for Baker to perform a puppet show for a birthday party at director Mervyn Leroy's home. While attending Hollywood High School, Baker began building marionettes for sale at Bullocks Wilshire and other stores.

After graduation, he became an apprentice at George Pal Animation Studios and shortly became a head animator on Pal's "Puppetoons."

Bob Baker spent his days attending Disney film shorts to get ideas and doing window shows at department stores such as Bullocks Wilshire and J.W. Robinson Co.

In the late 1930s, Robinson's Department Store in downtown Los Angeles made it a yearly fall tradition for the holidays to clear out their outdoor furniture department and open a puppet theater. In fact, Downtown Los Angeles department stores like Bullocks and May Company also put on puppet shows to attract customers.

Wayne Barlow was responsible for the Robinsons shows which started with a long-running Three Little Pigs.

As he and Bob Baker were such fans of Walt Disney, the Disney animated features, Snow White and Dumbo, inspired productions.

The puppets for both Dumbo and Snow White were modeled after the Disney animation designs. Bob Bromley wrote additional material for the performance soundtracks that were transcriptions of the animated films. They played the large disks backstage while the puppets performed on stage.

Their production of Snow White preceded the film's premiere at the Los Angeles' Carthay Circle. The only part of Dumbo they could not use in their show was the Pink Elephant sequence. Mrs. Robinson felt the depiction of drunken elephants was inappropriate for her audience.

The puppeteers filmed a prologue with puppets for both Snow White and Dumbo down in Robinson's basement. Bob sat next to Walt Disney during the screening of the prologue before the Dumbo puppet show. Walt turned to his brother Roy Disney and asked when their studio filmed it. Roy had to admit that the Disney Studios had nothing to do with it at all.

"We were making film mock-ups of our puppet shows down in the basement of JW Robinson's department store," Baker remembered in a recent interview. "We did a rendition of Dumbo based on the movie and Walt came in one day and we showed it to him and he loved it. We had a couple of fade-outs and he wanted to know how we did that. So when I told him we just turned the lights away from the camera. He laughed and said, ‘We gotta remember to do that; we could save the studio a lot of money!' "

After the Dumbo theater was torn down for the return of the furniture department, Barlow felt he had had enough of the experience and decided to no longer participate in the annual tradition.

The puppets landed in various hands with Jack Shafton taking the dwarves from Snow White and including them in a nightclub act. Shafton created puppet characters for television shows (like the George Gobel Show), commercials and stage productions.

Sky Highchief (also known as Ralph Emory) also ended up with some of the puppets. He was a well-known puppeteer who worked on the stop motion film Hansel and Gretel (1954) and operated the famous Howdy Doody marionette on an episode of Happy Days.

Where those Disney puppets are today as well as those films that impressed Walt and if they still exist at all is just one more Disney mystery. Another Disney puppet mystery was what happened to the reference marionette made for Disney's animated feature, Pinocchio.

Walt was aware of the story of Pinocchio but doesn't seem to have thought of it in terms of his next feature film after Snow White until it was suggested by Ben Sharpsteen. Certainly, there are letters in the Disney Archive as early as 1935 from people urging Walt to consider the tale.

Walt owned the original Italian edition of Collodi's book and several different English translations of the tale. In 1937, he had Bianca Majolie of the Disney story department make a new translation. While Walt recommended his artists see a local 1937 theatrical adaptation of the story, the first official story meetings for Pinocchio did not begin until March 1938. Story work on Bambi had already begun the previous year.

During Snow White, Walt created the Character Model Department with Joe Grant in charge. Many three-dimensional models were constructed for reference for the animators. Charles Christadoro (read more about him at the Disney Wiki here), Ted Kline (link), Lorna Soderstrom (link), and Duke Russell (link) were responsible for sculpting the clay models and then these models were fired in a kiln in Grant's own backyard, and painted by women from the Ink and Paint Department.

Obviously, for "Pinocchio" there was a need for a three-dimensional reference puppet and puppeteer to demonstrate its movement to help the artists. Walt Disney recruited Bob Jones, a well-known puppeteer (who started working in the Disney camera department in 1937) who along with his brother had done a popular puppet pre-show for films at Hollywood's famed Grauman's Chinese Theater to create and demonstrate a "Pinocchio" marionette. There is a reference photo of Jones made up using the original design of Gepetto (bald head and all) with the puppet.

Jones trained animator Frank Thomas in manipulating a marionette so he could properly animate the character of Pinocchio.

When Pinocchio premiered in 1940, the Pinocchio marionette finally found a permanent home in the Ink and Paint department. However, over time, the model was boxed and stored and forgotten in a cabinet that later became blocked by the installation of telephone equipment and wires.

In 2003, renovations on that part of the building that resulted in the removal of antiquated telephone equipment revealed that more than 65 years later, the little marionette survived in near-perfect condition. The puppet had been packed in a custom-made box.

Lella Smith, curator of the Walt Disney Studio's Animation Research Library (ARL) was alerted to the discovery and rescued the treasure that now resides in the ARL along with more than 60 million pieces of Disney animation art.

"We are able to almost fully articulate him despite all these years. I think being stuck away in that cabinet for decades helped to protect him. We should all be so lucky to look this good at 65," Smith stated at the time.

In addition, after the film debuted, the sculpted model of the marionette's head was presented to master puppeteer Bob Baker, "whose work Walt Disney knew and deeply admired" stated a recent publicity release. That same model, safeguarded for many years resulted in Baker recreating a Pinocchio marionette in 2007 in a limited edition of 1940 (the same year the film was released).

This was an authentic limited-edition replica of the original marionette used in the creation of the film. It was fully articulated for movements with airplane style handle, resin with hand-painted wood grain detail and hand-detailed costuming, and included a display stand with numbered plaque, story card and certificate of authenticity.

After World War II, Baker served as an animation advisor at many film studios, including Disney. Baker's signature collection of Disney Character Marionettes has been sold at Disneyland since 1955. The deal was sealed on a handshake with Walt Disney. Supposedly, Baker was also responsible for the creation of interior stage sets as part of the opening of Disneyland.

Baker's famous marionettes appear in a long list of television shows and movies including Bewitched, Star Trek, G.I. Blues with Elvis, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and such diverse Disney projects as Bedknobs and Broomsticks Escape to Witch Mountain and Drew Carey's version of Gepetto.

If you'd like to see the original Pinocchio marionette, there was an article in Popular Mechanics (Vol. 1, No. 73) in January 1940 right before the animated feature was released and you can see that article reprinted at Cartoon Brew (link). At the bottom of page seven is sculptor Bob Jones.

Here is an excerpt from that article: "Actual puppets were created by the model department for the use of the animators responsible for the live marionette hero. These animators took lessons from the fellow worker who created the puppet. A well known puppeteer before joining the studio, he showed them how to make Pinocchio go through all sorts of antics. This was necessary because although, in the story, the puppet is alive, he is still wooden, and therefore cannot move as a real boy would move."

I hope that someone taped Bob Baker's presentation for the Carolwood Pacific and will share it with the rest of us or will be inspired by this column to go and interview him so that his Disney memories can be preserved for future generations.

While puppeteers Bob Jones and Bob Baker brought Pinocchio to life for countless children of all ages, in the film that act was performed by the Blue Fairy. Marjorie Belcher who did the live-action reference modeling for the character of Snow White filled the same role for the Blue Fairy. However, the voice was supplied by popular film star Evelyn Venable who was also the woman holding the torch at the beginning of Columbia Pictures' movie releases from the 1930s to the 1970s.