Wearing "I Love Children's Theatre" buttons, more than 100 people filled the Palo Alto City Council chambers Monday night.
About 30 speakers lavished praise on recently deceased Assistant Director Michael Litfin and chastised the city for its heavy-handed handling of a police investigation into "financial crimes" at the theater.
Litfin, who was undergoing treatment for stomach cancer, died Feb. 1 after suffering stomach pains during the week that hospitalized him twice.
At the outset of the council meeting, Mayor Larry Klein and Councilman Jack Morton, both approaching tears and with catches in their voices, praised Litfin.
"Several generations of Palo Alto children were enriched by Michael's enthusiasm for theater," Klein said.
Litfin's mother was invited to accept a resolution from the city, but was too upset to attend, Morton said.
"Michael's philosophy was encouraging self confidence and teamwork that allowed young people to be themselves," Morton said.
Rather than a traditional moment of silence, Morton said Litfin would have appreciated a round of applause, eliciting an enthusiastic response.
"Michael, after you get all the angels in line it will be a great production," Morton said.
Litfin was a "brilliant curmudgeon," Rick Saal, a member of the Friends of the Children's Theatre, said of Litfin's personal view of himself.
"He was a leader and a maker of leaders. We are forever grateful," Saal said.
Jeremy Erman, who said he grew up and worked at the theater, said he was "disappointed and appalled" at how the police investigation has been handled.
"I do not understand why they don't just call people in and ask them questions," Erman said.
"On the last week of his life (the city) took away from a man what was most important to him," he said.
The city's insensitive management of the investigation is troubling, several people agreed.
"What has gone on has raised very serious questions in the minds of many people in community about the judgment of the city manager and the police department," Suzan Stewart said.
"I want to add my voice to those requesting a very speedy resolution to this terrible (situation)," a woman said. "Imagine what it's like having the closest family member humiliated for unknown reasons. ... It's like a chapter out of Kafka."
The investigation and death of Litfin, coming together, have dealt a heavy emotional blow to dozens of children involved with the theater, several speakers said.
The city should consider providing counseling, one man suggested.
"We need to figure this out because these kids are asking what's going on," mother Anna Thayer said. She acted in the theater when she was young and was motivated to return to Palo Alto to give her children the same opportunity, she said.
The audience couldn't hold back its applause when Patty McEwen left the microphone.
McEwen joined the year-old theater as an elf in 1933, eventually becoming a member of the Friends of the Children's Theatre Board of Directors.
"I have seen the entire history of the Children's Theatre unfold," McEwen said. "I've seen it go through good times and bad times, and this is a very bad time."
She asked the city to finish the investigation quickly and restore theater programs.
"An irreplaceable resource is being destroyed," board member Ralph King said. Auditions have been canceled and productions delayed.
"Operations are in disarray," he said.
City leaders did work with the theater community to allow staff members Pat Briggs, Allison Williams and Richard Curtis -- currently on paid administrative leave and barred from talking to each other or outsiders -- into the theater for Litfin's memorial Feb. 17, Friends President Paula Collins said.
According to council protocols and public-meeting laws, council members cannot respond to public comments. After the meeting, however, Councilman Pat Burt asked city staff about the status of the theater's operations.
Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison said the city would release a plan for the theater by Friday.
As the investigation finishes its second week, members of the non-profit Friends of the Children's Theatre have begun declining comment and some have responded angrily to questions from the media.
Several members referred questions to Friends' President Collins, who said Monday she is not willing to meet with or answer questions from the Weekly.