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Final Curtain for Gary Gardner

Published Jun 25, 2013 3:44 PM

The popular, multi-talented professor taught in the UCLA Theater Department for 40 years. Among his students: Tim Robbins, Susan Egan, Nancy Cartwright and Michael Stuhlbarg.


The Midwesterner, who held his office hours on a bench under a coral tree by the Franklin Murphy Sculpture Garden, died Saturday, June 15, of natural causes. He was 69.

For four decades, Gardner, whose features and lithe vitality recalled Fred Astaire, taught theater and directed wildly successful student musical productions that entertained the entire campus. He excelled as a playwright, actor, director of both musicals and straight plays, a lyricist for Broadway and cabaret, and a teacher, scholar and theater historian.

He was a particularly gifted, highly popular teacher in the history of the American musical, a course he created in 1997, and playwriting. He influenced hundreds of budding playwrights. Among his students were Shane Black, Nancy Cartwright, Susan Egan, Diane Frolov, Mariska Hargitay, Tom Shumacher, Ed Solomon, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tim Robbins. (See Bruins on Broadway)

Gardner earned a B.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois and, in between, an M.F.A. in playwriting at UCLA’s College of Fine Arts. As a student at UCLA, he won the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award for his play, "August and Ice Cream." The play was produced in Los Angeles and garnered two Drama-Logue Awards.

On campus, Gardner directed students in sold-out musical productions that included "She Loves Me," "Carousel," "A Chorus Line," "Urinetown," and "Anything Goes." He also directed very successful runs of "My Fair Lady" and "Peter Pan" at the Thousand Oaks Civic Light Opera and wrote original lyrics for "Hollywood Live!" which played at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

Gardner’s presence at UCLA and the extraordinary popularity of his course on the history of the American musical theater convinced the estate of musical theater giant Ray Bolger (Scarecrow in 1939’s "The Wizard of Oz") to launch The Ray Bolger Musical Theater Program, which trains UCLA students in acting, singing and dance. Gardner had chaired the program since its inception.

As an actor, Gardner performed at several Equity waiver theaters throughout Los Angeles, including Buffalo Nights Theater, founded by UCLA graduates; The Actors Gang, founded by Tim Robbins; the CAST Theatre; and the 21st Street Theatre. He performed in "West Side Story" for the UCLA Music Department. He also performed in 17 award-winning student films, some of which have played on Showtime and PBS.

The Theater Department will host a music-, song- and dance-filled "Celebration of Gary Gardner’s Life as Friend, Artist and Teacher" in the fall. Specific dates will be posted on the school's website and a Facebook page created in Gardner’s memory.

In response to many requests from his former students, the School of Theater, Film and Television is creating two scholarships in his honor, The Gary Gardner Musical Theater Scholarship and the Gary Gardner Playwriting Scholarship. Information will be available on the TFT website.