Let's put on a show | January 19, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - January 19, 2007

Let's put on a show

The energy of youth has fueled the Palo Alto Children's Theatre for 75 years

by Rebecca Wallace

Playing an elf changed Patty Hoagland's life. She was 10 years old, it was the early '30s, and suddenly the theater bug bit hard.

After this play — a fantasy called "The Land of Cards" — she spent nearly every free hour at the Palo Alto Children's Theatre until she graduated from high school. Today she still has her scrapbook packed with memories of footlights and wigs, helping smaller girls with their lipstick, watching a boy fly on a rope in "Peter Pan."

And Patty, who is now Patty McEwen, still sounds awed when she talks about being on stage.

"I had been dancing for a long time," the Palo Alto resident recalls. "That was different. Here, what I remember is the kind of wonderment I felt about being on the stage, being someone else."

It wasn't just about acting. Patty and the other kids got to try all aspects of the theater, thanks to the inclusive spirit of founding director Hazel Robertson, who ran the group for 20 years.

"She never made you feel being young or little was a disadvantage," McEwen said.

That attitude is still alive and kicking today, as the Palo Alto Children's Theatre celebrates its 75th anniversary (see separate story). Besides singing in the spotlight, young people still learn all the ropes of show biz. You'll see them running the light board, designing sets, serving as stage manager.

"That's the way they learn responsibility," said Michael Litfin, the organization's assistant director. "They know adults are there, but they learn to solve problems themselves."

Some 3,000 to 4,000 young people ages 8 to 24 are involved with the children's theater every year, Litfin estimates. There's a full season of productions and a host of other programs, including outreach performances in schools and a summer stock company.

To keep thriving, the Palo Alto Children's Theatre has a powerful asset: all of its budget — just under a million dollars annually — is covered by city taxes, Litfin said. The organization also has its own theater on Middlefield Road, thanks to the philanthropy of Lucie Stern back in the '30s. In addition, there's a Friends of the Palo Alto Children's Theatre group, and a corps of other volunteers.

All this puts the theater in a rare and enviable position, something Litfin is well aware of.

"The community is special. It is an arts-supportive community," he said.

It certainly is an incentive for management to stick around. Litfin has been with the company since 1976, and his boss, director Patricia Briggs, signed on in 1961.

Everything started with a group of seven children that Hazel Robertson gathered in December 1932, in the Community House that is now the MacArthur Park restaurant. The eternal theater cry "Let's put on a show" yielded a production of "The Perfect Gift," with a cast of 47 children, according to a theater history. Robertson was paid $10 to direct.

Later shows included "Peter Pan," and Patty McEwen remembers working backstage, pulling the Fourth of July sparkler that played Tinkerbell around the stage with wires.

"Of course the sparkler was going to go out," she said. "We had to time it, get her offstage and put a new sparkler in, on cue." One boy ended up burning his hand.

"That was the only accident," she said. "Now they use a laser. It's very effective, it's very pretty, but it doesn't have that magic, that glow."

Robertson took a grand view of theater. In 1935, she was quoted as saying: "Since drama is the lighted torch of man's experiences, silhouetted against the background of time, it should be incorporated into the educational life of every youngster. If properly done, it will correlate history, art and literature."

Before long, there was more space to pass the torch to new young people. The children began sharing the Community Theatre (now the Lucie Stern) with the Palo Alto Players. In 1937, they got their own digs when the adjacent Children's Theatre opened. Everyone celebrated with a production of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." (Patty Hoagland played the Wicked Queen.)

As the children's theater grew, it added more programs, and its actors even appeared on regular radio shows in the late '40s and early '50s. In the '90s, the company raised funds and expanded the theater, adding a rehearsal studio, outdoor stage and Dormouse Black Box Theatre, among other spaces.

In all these changes, though, sometimes people miss the old days.

"A few years ago they had to replace the stage," McEwen says. "I said I'd like to have a piece of the old stage. So Michael (Litfin) had some boards saved and cut them in pieces and put them on a plaque.

"I wondered if I put that on the floor and stepped on it, would I go through a time warp and find myself under the lights again?" She chuckles at herself, gently. "But it didn't work."


Posted by Marcia Temme Hardcastle, a resident of Duveneck School
on Jan 24, 2008 at 7:53 pm

I have very fond memories of Little Theater in Palo Alto. In the 50s I took a drama class and after many tryouts was cast in the part of the Duchess in the Christmas Candle. I was thrilled. My photo was in the Palo Alto Times, which was my first professional vehicle as a high school journalist (Paly Hi Times).
I will never forget Reggie, the theater wonder woman, who tirelessly worked with us, the smell of the greasepaint, the costumes, the presense I felt on stage. I was a very shy child, but on stage, I was the diva of the world. Of course I will never forget my peers, Sharon and Adele who elected me the Queen of Embarcadero Road one day.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 24, 2008 at 8:09 pm

It sounds as if you former thespians may be able to help out with the current need. Can you help sort out the problems for the current cast, do you have any contacts?

Posted by Sarah, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2008 at 8:13 pm

"To keep thriving, the Palo Alto Children's Theatre has a powerful asset: all of its budget — just under a million dollars annually — is covered by city taxes, Litfin said. The organization also has its own theater on Middlefield Road, thanks to the philanthropy of Lucie Stern back in the '30s. In addition, there's a Friends of the Palo Alto Children's Theatre group, and a corps of other volunteers."

All I can say is WOW!!!

Why on earth are we, the taxpayers supporting a childrens' activity, when so many other youth organizations do it without taxpayer monies? Think about Little Leage, AYSO soccer, etc. They don't get taxpayer money, except the use of the fields. If the "3000 to 4000 young people" each pay a fee equivalent to that required to participate in the other youth organizaitons, the annual cost would be covered. Maybe the easy money is behind this scandal. What is going on here?

I see an immediate way for PA to save $1M.

Posted by Art Loving Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2008 at 12:57 pm

I love the arts, but $1 million out of the city budget for something like this is insane.

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