Pat Briggs, who guided and coached generations of Palo Alto children onto the stage as director of the Palo Alto Children's Theatre, died June 8 in her native Chicago after a period of failing health.
Briggs served as head of the Children's Theatre starting in 1961 and was credited with building the group's national reputation for excellence. She retired in 2008 following a complex police and city administrative investigation of her record-keeping practices that caused an explosion of community interest and fiercely conflicting online commentary for a year. She was initially fired but was reinstated after negotiations allowed her to return to work for a day and then retire with benefits. Her final role was as advising artistic director during the transition to a new administration.
Patricia Briggs. Courtesy photo.
In 2009, the City Council recognized her with a proclamation, and City Councilman Jack Morton commented, "There are some people in this world that walk into your life and leave you with a permanent memory of the good we can do when we put our hearts to it."
In August 2010, the Children's Theatre Foundation of America gave her a "Medallion" award for her nearly half-century of promoting "significant artistry and/or achievement impacting the imagination of children and youth."
On an obituary page hosted by the Chicago Tribune, former Children's Theatre participant Derek Wood paid tribute to Briggs: "Pat Briggs had no biological children, but she has thousands of us out in the world reaping the benefit of all she gave us through the Children's Theater. A Sondheim lyric says that all we leave behind after we're gone is children and art. Pat's children and her art are one and the same."
Briggs was born in Chicago on July 12, 1936, and experienced the stage from an early age: Her father was a professional entertainer who sang and danced, and her mother was a professional dancer who did a high-wire act. By her senior year in high school she was taking regular classes during the day and studying voice, diction and lessons at Goodman School of Drama in Chicago at night.
After high school, she continued at Goodman while enrolling in Loyola University, from which she graduated with a bachelor's degree, with a major in directing.
After college she was named director of the Children's Theatre Division of the Des Moines Community Playhouse.
In 1961 she was named director of the already venerable Palo Alto Children's Theatre, which was created in 1932.
During her 47 years there, she directed more than 500 productions and wrote more than 20 scripts, receiving numerous awards.
Briggs' longtime assistant director, Michael Litfin, died of cancer in 2008, after the police investigation into the theater operations began.
Cy Ashley Webb, who became head of the Friends of the Children's Theatre following the crisis of the investigations, said Briggs left a deep impression on many.
"More than anything else, Pat created a community," Webb said. "Several years ago, it seemed inconceivable that a generation of kids was going through those doors without knowing Pat and Michael. Yet sure enough, (there were) the mess of bicycles piled by the doors, folks queuing up the alley for "(Summer) Hot Dog shows."
"I like to think that so much of Pat and Michael's DNA is embedded in the organization that even the City of Palo Alto can't screw it up," Webb said.
Briggs also was active with the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Palo Alto, serving on three committees.
She enjoyed travel, especially to Hawaii, and celebrated her 80th birthday with an Alaska cruise with nieces Marie and Joanie.
She was preceded in death by a brother, Frank, and sister, Kathleen. She is survived by two nieces and nine great-nieces and great-nephews.
A visitation and funeral mass were held Monday and Tuesday in Chicago Heights with internment in Glenwood, Illinois.
In Palo Alto, a "celebration of life" has been tentatively scheduled for Aug. 5, to coincide with a Children's Theatre alumni reunion and the 85th anniversary of the theater group.