The Palo Alto Children's Theatre, closed late Thursday afternoon because of a criminal investigation into its finances, will be reopened as soon as possible, Palo Alto City Manager Frank Benest said today.
"It is our goal to reopen the Children's Theatre as soon as we can," Benest said. "We have to figure out a way to do that."
Benest said that the city staff will be working through the weekend to develop a plan to reopen the theater. He said he hopes a plan will be ready by Monday.
Mayor Larry Klein, however, said he didn't understand why the theater has to be closed while the criminal investigation is conducted. He said he sent a message to Benest Thursday night to that affect.
"I think we have an obligation to the community to get the theater open as soon as we can," Klein said. Both of Klein's sons participated in theater productions and his son, Tony, served on the board of the Friends of the Children's Theatre several years ago.
The mayor also noted that the investigation seems to implicate the entire staff, which has been placed on administrative leave. "It's unfair for innocent people to be tarred with this brush," Klein said.
The theater has seven full-time employees and one part-time employee, according to the city budget.
Benest declined to say why the staff has been placed on leave. "I'm constrained because it is a criminal investigation," he said.
"It's a specialized staff that can't be easily replaced," Benest said of the theater staff.
Architect John Northway, who designed the outdoor stage and took part in productions when he was a child, said he is "extremely curious."
"My experience with at least the two directors (Patricia Briggs and Michael Litfin) is they are as dedicated to theater and kids and the public as I've ever seen," Northway said.
"I'm concerned for them and concerned about the theater," he said.
Briggs and Litfin could not be reached Friday.
Benest added that he understands how valued an asset the theater, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, is to the city.
Police Chief Lynne Johnson told the Weekly Thursday night that the investigation of financial crimes at the theater has been quietly ongoing for several months. (View the police press release.)
"It's a very complex investigation and we're sorting it all out," Johnson said.
"Because the theater is much beloved and longtime employees there are much beloved in the community we want to conclude the investigation as soon as possible," she said.
Around 3:30 p.m. Friday, at least five investigators wearing blue gloves flipped through folders and other materials in the cluttered theater office at the Lucie Stern Community Center at 1305 Middlefield Road.
The Children's Theatre has an annual budget of $1.23 million, although it only generates $293,000 due to ticket sales and program fees.
The next scheduled performance, "The Giver," a production based on the Newberry Award-winning children's book, is scheduled to open Feb. 1 and will almost certainly be delayed.
Ironically, the story "tells of a world with no poverty, no crime and no sickness, where everyone is happy," according to the performance-schedule blurb. But when 12-year-old Jonas is chosen to be the "Receiver of Memories" he discovers the truth about his "perfect" world, the blurb states.
Benest would not comment on the status of "The Giver."
"I would hate to speculate about that," Benest said.
Outside the theater Friday afternoon, the 13-year-old Jordan Middle School student who plays "Fiona" in "The Giver" -- who said she could not provide her name -- said she is disappointed and doesn't know what is going to happen.
"I want it to be as it was," she said.
Friends of the Palo Alto Children's Theatre board member Cy Ashley Webb said she hadn't known anything was wrong.
"We were surprised as much as you are," Webb said Friday.
A year ago, the theater observed its 75th anniversary with a major celebration, on which the Weekly based a cover story Jan. 19, 2007.