The saddest puppet in L.A.
“I call him a G marionette,” creator and puppeteering veteran Cain Carias tells me of El Triste, the character he brands as “the saddest puppet in Los Angeles.” It’s November, and we’re smoking a bowl a block away from the Bob Baker Marionette Theater before the last nighttime show at the theater prior to its imminent, gentrification-induced closure after over 50 years. Carias is El Triste’s “manipulator,” as he puts it, a 17-year veteran of the theater, and a force of nature in the city’s puppeteering scene.
“Either we wear ‘masks’ or are puppets of our minds. Same thing. It’s all made up,” says one introspective Instagram caption from a local photographer, accompanied by a photo of El Triste peering sadly from the drivers’ seat window of a tricked-out sedan. His online persona is rooted in deep depression (his name translates to “the sad,” after all), but filtered through what everyone does on social media: pretending to be fine and posting through the agony. Triste’s pictures, taken by local photographers and shared on his Instagram page, capture the full range of the gangster marionette lifestyle, from drinking Modelos to posing in to-scale low riders.
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Carias is the exact opposite of his alter ego in demeanor. “I’m always stoned, I’m always happy, so I wanted to create something that I’m not,” he laughs, radiating enthusiasm for El Triste and Bob Baker’s legendary Los Angeles theater. A longtime resident of the area and of the theater, Carias has mostly managed to avoid the El Triste school of thought about the theater’s brick and mortar closure.
Still, there are notes of Carias within El Triste that extend beyond their many always-matching outfits. He’s not the depressed G of his marionette projects, but El Triste is a satirical reflection of his neighborhood and difficult early years in the U.S. after immigrating from Tijuana, Mexico, with his family as a young adolescent.
“I was kind of a troublemaker back then, a little bald gangster kind of guy,” explains Carias. “I grew up around gangs, big time, and the only reason I didn’t join them is because I wasn’t from here.”
Bob Baker, the lifelong puppeteer who founded the Los Angeles space in 1953 and maintained daily operations until his death in 2014, encouraged Carias to pursue puppeteering after Carias saw a Halloween marionette show at age 13. The young Carias had lived in the same neighborhood as the theater for some time, but it wasn’t common for the local community to drop into a puppet theater. In fact, he wasn’t even aware it existed until a friend from school dragged him to a show after school. He quickly became fascinated and began to volunteer at the theater.
“I started seeing shows those first few years, got hired, and now I’m the main teacher there,” he reflects. “It’s a big privilege. You don’t see something like this [theater] much.”
During his volunteering days, Carias was determined to use his face time with some of the best puppeteers in the nation to begin his own training.
“I didn’t know English at all when I started there,” Carias says of his 17 years and counting at Bob Baker’s. “Not even one bit. I was really scared.”
But Carias was meticulous and determined to perfect his craft, and worked through the language barrier with Baker as his mentor through his teen years, balancing his work at the theater with school and helping to raise his sisters.
“We would hardly communicate [with words],” he says of his time with Baker. “[Bob] would move the puppet and I would imitate him. We would be switching, and I’d learn by looking and watching his work.”
Creating the saddest puppet in Los Angeles was a happy accident. Carias had a chance meeting with local doll maker Moncerrat Reyes, whose hand-painted Lil G Dolls would comprise El Triste’s sad porcelain clown face and early prototypes of his body. Turning a small doll into a usable piece that can endure the wear and tear of a Baker marionette takes over 300 hours of careful craftsmanship, but Carias is well-trained to do so. Carias pulled from the despondent face of Reyes’s porcelain doll a little spark of inspiration from the devious clown Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses, and from people he knew from his Los Angeles upbringing to pull the sensitive gangster character together.
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El Triste is, in many ways, Carias’s way of balancing his upbringing with Baker’s training, resulting in a marionette that he’s modeled progressively closer to the intricate Baker models he’s worked with for so many years. The character’s popularity has not only impressed the community, but also serves as a kind of message to his family, helping to explain what Carias has been for nearly two decades.
“I’m not saying I was ashamed of the theater or anything like that, but–they just knew I worked,” he laughs, describing his hesitation to tell his friends that he was spending his spare time making puppets. “I kept it to myself, but in the past six or seven years, I’ve started talking.”
By the time Carias’s family knew about his work in detail, it had become a full-blown career. He has carved his place into the national puppeteering scene indelibly as a sought-out teacher and organizer at Bob Baker’s. These days, his four nieces and nephews rarely miss a show, and the family is always eager to see the new El Triste look.
That’s another critical piece of Triste’s image: Most marionettes wear one outfit for life, as they need to be completely restrung if any major alterations are made to the body. Carias figured out early on that that’s not his character’s style, and as the puppet continues to develop and grow in size to be a full-sized marionette, he’s sported four different outfits, mostly well-tailored baby clothes that are convincing on someone as hard as El Triste. There’s even been talk of making a second G marionette of the girl who broke his heart.
The night we spoke, Bob Baker’s Marionette Theater had less than a week since its longtime location shut its doors. Baker, like Carias, became obsessed by puppetry and how it can connect with people at a very young age, and Carias only finds positivity in the theater’s quest for a new space. He says keeping Baker’s dream alive and available to kids like he once was is now his main motivator. He’s now fighting for its continuation alongside creative director Alex Evans and a legion of longtime puppeteers who are raising funds to keep the theater in Los Angeles and to keep putting on shows at satellite locations. The day after the theater closed, he promises, their next puppet show would begin at another location. The company is by no means dead, and if Carias and his fellow puppeteers’ dogged determination is any indicator, losing a building is far from the extinction of the dream.
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“[The theater] kept me out of a lot of trouble and saved my life,” Carias said, as we headed toward the theater. “I’m spending mine serving Bob’s creation.”
El Triste and Carias performed a traditional Mexican clown dance during the late-night show. It doesn’t quite fit the character or the theater, but that’s their fascinating challenge. El Triste’s character, with his props (a small skeleton dog, a cigarette that blows real vape smoke) has a larger fan base and following than any of his counterparts at the theater. As tied as El Triste is to Carias’s longtime creative home, he is slowly finding a voice outside it as well.
“Triste is always going to represent the theater, but he’s too gangster to be in there,” Carias laughs. “He’s kind of like me: I’m not who you expect to be there, but I’m always gonna be there. I want to do this my whole life.”
El Triste did not answer a single question I asked him during the entire interview. He doesn’t have an operational mouth to go with his full porcelain head. He may be sad, but the little guy is cool.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian, writer and social media victim of the International Olympic Committee. She’s the creator and star of the Comedy Central online original series Irrational Fears. You can find her some of the time, most days at @jamieloftusHELP or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.