MERCED -- Chente Cervantes never met a stranger.
That was the sentiment shared by those who came to remember Cervantes, who died unexpectedly last week in his apartment, during an event at The Partisan in downtown Merced on Sunday night.
"He never met a stranger. You felt like you knew him forever. He was my angel," said Melissa Beckwith of Cervantes, who died of unknown causes.
Many from the arts and theater community came out to remember the many contributions he made to the performing arts in Merced, including an online talk show for which he was the host that was filmed at the Playhouse Merced Theatre.
Video clips of skits Cervantes performed with Playhouse artistic director Rob Hypes were shown during the gathering. Some people got on stage to sing show tunes such as "The Time Warp."
To the right of the stage, a monitor played a slide show, and there was a banner with his image, where messages to the late actor and choreographer could be written.
Many of those who spoke recalled his passion for teaching theater.
Atwater elementary school teacher Ronna Bonstein was part of the cast of "The Music Man," one of the last stage productions Cervantes directed and choreographed.
He also taught Bonstein's daughter theater and tap dance. "He was one of those people; everything he did was good. He never got frustrated. He trusted the process and knew things would work out," said Bonstein.
She also spoke about his ability to teach kids: "He inspired kids. He wrote out tap steps like music for the kids to learn -- it was inspiring. My daughter loved him ... we all loved him."
John Asenjo, whose daughter was taught theater and dance by Cervantes, thought of one particular thing he did that stood out.
"Hugs," he said. "Every time I saw that man, he'd give everyone a hug."
Asenjo's wife, Mikee-D Love-Asenjo, was also part of "The Music Man" cast and talked about the positive influence Cervantes had on Merced.
"He brought energy and attention to the arts in this town. Merced is a small town and he made it OK to be a part of the arts. Not very many people said no to him. You wanted to do good for him," said Love-Asenjo.
Beckwith said of her friend Cervantes, "He was the absolute love of my life. He makes me smile."
When asked about his legacy, she replied, "What people can take from his example is to live every day like it's your last, and always smile -- that's what he did."