Act I: The Founding
In the late autumn of 1931 in Palo Alto, a young woman named Hazel Glaister Robertson assembled a cast of forty-seven children to present a Christmas play, The Perfect Gift. The play was performed in the Palo Alto High School Auditorium, and was met with such enthusiasm by the community that other plays followed, and the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre was born.Soon after, the Children’s Theatre was integrated into the City’s Recreation Department as the very first municipally operated and funded Children’s Theatre in the United States. It remains one of the United States’ oldest and longest continuously running Children’s Theatre, and is a community asset of tremendous value. From the start, children under adult supervision have not only been the actors, but also have learned to build sets, apply make-up, sew costumes, manage lighting, and assist in directing. Unlike many “Children’s Theatres” that produce plays for children, the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre has always emphasized the plays by children.
From the beginning, our Children’s Theatre has found its home in landmark buildings within Palo Alto. After the first performance in historic Palo Alto High School, the Theatre moved its performances to the historic Julia Morgan-designed building that currently houses MacArthur Park restaurant. This building had originally been built as a recreation facility in Menlo Park for WWI troops, and then was moved to its current location to become a municipally-owned Community House. The building was not ideal for a theatre, however, with the clamor of passing trains often silencing the actors’ dialog.One patron irritated with the inadequate facilities and noise, so the story goes, was local philanthropist Lucie Stern. Soon after the City’s sponsorship of the Children’s Theatre began, Lucie Stern, made a gift to the City of Palo Alto in the form of an Auditorium for civic purposes, designed by famous local architect Birge Clark. The Children’s Theatre moved into this new building (along with a local adult amateur theatre group), and the participants suddenly found themselves performing in a real theater, with a real stage, curtains, footlights, houselights, workshop and dressing room.
To provide a performance space dedicated to the Children’s Theatre, Lucie Stern commissioned Birge Clark to build a second theatre adjacent to the main auditorium. This new building, which remains the home of the Children’s Theatre to this day, opened in 1937 with an inaugural production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The cast ranged from five-year-olds in cotton beards as the dwarves to high school students in the adult roles. Under Hazel Robertson’s continued direction, the Children’s Theatre delighted audiences with performances from children’s literature classics, fairy tales, and some original works by local writers.
Act II: A Cultural Institution
Hazel Robertson retired from the Children’s Theatre in 1953, and was succeeded by her assistant Regine Bertling. Several acting directors followed after Ms. Bertling, until Patricia Briggs was appointed Director in 1961. Ms. Briggs had a formal education in theater, had taught drama and creative writing, and had been Director of the Children’s Theater program in the Des Moines Community Theater; so she came to Palo Alto well prepared to advance the art of performance at the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre.
Ms. Briggs, along with Assistant Director Michael Litfin who joined the Children’s Theatre in 1976, directed hundreds of productions, including such classics as The Importance of Being Earnest, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Alice in Wonderland, Fiddler on the Roof, The Phantom Tollbooth, Suessical, The Little Princess, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and many more. Briggs and Litfin brought in a number of other very talented staff to assist in costumes, choreography, set construction, technical direction, and administration, some of which remain with the Theatre today.In addition to regular performances, the Theatre began an Outreach Program to organize and perform productions within the Palo Alto schools under the direction of Children’s Theatre staff. A summer Conservatory Program was established to provide an intensive education in theater arts to children aged ten and up. A Wingspread Company was established for older participants into college age. And a summer program of “Hot-dog Shows” delights families who bring their children for an outdoor evening “dinner theater” show.
On a warm summer evening in 1984, Dr. Roy Ginsburg, a father of participating children and member of the Friends of the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre, emerged from the sweltering theater with a vigorous plea for air-conditioning in the building, and volunteered to head a fund-raising effort. In subsequent discussion with Theatre staff, it emerged that the need was much greater than just air conditioning: the number of children wanting to participate in the Theatre had significantly exceeded the capacity of the existing building. With the 50 year anniversary of the original building approaching, plans were hatched for a major building renovation and new additions to create rehearsal, class, and workshop space as well as a new outdoor performance stage.
Construction took place in two stages. The Wang Memorial Library and Studio, and the storage facility were completed in 1993. Fundraising then began for phase II, encompassing the Magic Castle building, the Roy Ginsburg stage, the Ira Kushland workshop, and a donor patio paved with named bricks. Groundbreaking took place in 1997, and the spectacular Magic Castle was dedicated in May of 1998.
While the Phase II construction was underway, a separate grant from the Packard Foundation was obtained by the Friends of the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre to refurbish the original Children’s Theatre auditorium and extend air-conditioning throughout the building. The handsomely refinished and repainted theater building, with re-upholstered seats, refinished floor and new carpeting, was dedicated in December 1998.
Director Briggs was presented the prestigious Campton Bell Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999 for her contributions to the field of theatre education, and in particular for her outstanding work with the children of Palo Alto and surrounding communities. The award was certainly well deserved, as Pat had directed over 400 plays, written over twenty scripts and dedicated much of her life to educating and inspiring our children.In 2007, Gala Celebration honored the 75th Anniversary of the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre building. The celebration included a new performance of Snow White, which was the first production staged in the new theater in 1937, and several of the original cast were present. Other events also celebrated the occasion. It was a special event, and an emotional event, and although not known at the time, a fitting climax to the long second act of the Theatre.
In early 2008, the community was greatly saddened by the death of Assistant Director Michael Litfin. Michael had served as Assistant Director under Pat for over 30 years, and had helped thousands of our children find new confidence on stage. In addition to directing over 250 shows, Michael had authored or co-authored more than twenty-five musicals, had helped develop the summer conservatory program and the Second Saturday program.
At the end of the summer of 2008, Patricia Briggs retired after forty-seven years as Director of the Children’s Theatre. Hazel Robertson founded the Theatre, but Patricia Briggs was no less important in making the Theatre a lasting cultural asset of tremendous value to the community.
Act III: New Directions
After her official retirement, Pat continued to provide support to the Theatre by assisting the City in the search for a new permanent Director. That search ended in January, 2009, with the appointment of Judge Luckey. Judge was previously the founding artistic director of the Youth Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia, and served for several years as the theater department chair for the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program, developing arts training for gifted high school students. Judge brings his own gifts, experience, and vision to our Theatre, and the results are already in evidence.Director Luckey worked with the Friends of the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre to transform the former Wang Library into a stunning new dance studio, and the Theatre now offers children’s dance classes. Director Luckey is also working to improve our Theatre’s outreach programs, to give more children a chance to experience theatre.
Thanks to consistent support from the City of Palo Alto and the ever-renewing support from the community, the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre remains as vibrant today as it was in 1931 when Hazel Robertson first captured the town’s imagination. The Children’s Theatre is a unique partnership between a city government that provides steady funding for staff salaries and operating expenses, and a community that has repeated stepped forward to fund facilities renovations and expansions. The performance is ongoing. Act III has just begun, and there is much more to come. With your help, the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre will be here for your children’s children, and their children as well.