Many things in Silicon Valley are older than Silicon Valley itself, but a theater company with that claim is pretty unusual. Rarer still is a local theater company in its 91st season, and the Palo Alto Players have not only marked that milestone but have also just announced the lineup for the company's 92nd season.
"We're the longest running community theater in Silicon Valley. I always like to say that before Silicon Valley, there was Palo Alto Players," said Elizabeth Santana, the company's managing director.
She has a point: The Palo Alto Players were founded in 1931, and William R. Hewlett and David Packard didn't start work in the valley's now most-famous garage, often called the birthplace of Silicon Valley, until the late 1930s.
In fact, the HP Garage is less than a mile from the Players' permanent home at 1305 Middlefield Road, where the company moved in 1933 and has performed ever since. Company patron Lucie Stern donated funds to build a theater and community center, which has since been named for her.
The new digs made a big difference, since the Palo Alto Community House, the Players' first performance space, was close enough to the train station that the action on stage had to pause whenever a train went by, according to company history that Santana shared.
The Players marked their 90th anniversary in 2021 mid-pandemic, an echo of the tough times that spurred the company's founding, Santana noted.
"The organization was started by a group of residents of Palo Alto who came together at another really challenging time in our history, during the Great Depression. They recognized the need to lift the community's spirits and to do that through the arts," she said.
The company celebrated the milestone anniversary last year with a hybrid gala, livestreamed and held in person for a limited-capacity crowd.
The past couple years saw the company, like most arts groups, move its programming online for the bulk of 2020 and 2021, with the return of in-person shows for the 2021-22 season. The company is now back to presenting in-person shows but is still offering a livestreaming option.
Over the years, the company has staged a variety of plays and musicals, including many now-classics when they were new, such Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" and George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's "You Can't Take it With You." The company's programming in recent years has focused on a combination of new works and classics.
In its time, the Players' stage also has featured some well-known talents, including Danny Glover, Jack Palance and screenwriter Waldo Salt ("Midnight Cowboy").
Santana attributes the company's longevity to its being part of the community — and to the support of local audiences.
"There's a sense of community. There's something really special about being able to come and see the people that live or work in your neighborhood on the stage or behind the scenes — and I think the artistic quality, to be able to see high-quality performing arts, right here in your backyard."
On April 1, the company announced its 92nd season, which kicks off in August with "School of Rock: The Musical" and includes "Beauty and the Beast" and the behind-the-scenes comedy "The Play That Goes Wrong."
In honor of the group's decades of local service, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and Palo Alto Weekly are giving Palo Alto Players an outstanding nonprofit Tall Trees award this year. An award ceremony is scheduled for Thursday, April 21.
"Over the last two years, to see our patrons really step forward in support of us has, has just been kind of overwhelming at times. To be given this kind of recognition, to be honored with a Tall Tree Award as we are emerging from the impacts of the pandemic — to recognize that there is value in the arts, and the arts are essential to our city's vitality — is incredibly meaningful," Santana said.
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