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."
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