Gary Gardner, a beloved UCLA theater professor for four decades, died June 15 of natural causes at his home, the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television announced. He was 69.
Gardner's students who went on to success in the entertainment business include screenwriters Shane Black and Ed Solomon, actors Tim Robbins, Nancy Cartwright, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mariska Hargitay and Susan Egan, writer-producer Diane Frolov and Disney Theatrical Group president Tom Schumacher.
Gardner, who earned a B.A. from the University of Illinois in 1966, moved to Los Angeles to attend the College of Fine Arts at UCLA, where he earned an MFA in Playwriting in 1968. That year, he was also awarded the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award for his play, August and Ice Cream.
He returned to UCLA in 1973 after accepting a job as an assistant professor in the theater department at the School of Theater, Film and Television and would remain at the university until he retired this year.
Gardner’s extraordinary popularity at UCLA convinced the estate of musical theater giant Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz) to launch The Ray Bolger Musical Theater Program, which trains students in acting, singing and dance. Gardner chaired the program since its inception in 1998.
Gardner wrote the book and lyrics for the off-Broadway musical The Matinee Kids with composer Brian Lasser, with whom he also collaborated to write cabaret and nightclub material for such performers as Carol Lawrence, Karen Mason and Donna Murphy.
As an actor, Gardner performed at several Equity waiver theaters throughout Los Angeles including the Buffalo Nights Theater, founded by UCLA graduates.
Gardner also directed productions of My Fair Lady and Peter Pan at the Thousand Oaks Civic Light Opera and penned original lyrics for Hollywood Live!, which played at the Flamingo in Las Vegas.
Gardner's student productions won the American College Theater Festival awards in 1977, 1981, 1984, 1989 and 2009. He was selected the No. 1 UCLA Instructor every year between 2001 and 2007, primarily because of his astoundingly popular class, History of the American Musical Theater, which he created in 1997.
Gardner sang Broadway songs as part of his fact-filled lectures on America’s best and most popular musicals. In fact, he did a resounding Ethel Merman.
Gardner always said that one of his proudest accomplishments was directing the student-written musical review Bruinhaha!, which played the Kennedy Center and won the ASCAP Award in 1985.
His last production at UCLA was Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, which opened in late May.
In response to many requests from his former students, the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television is creating two scholarships in his honor. Information about the scholarships will be available on the TFT website. The theater department will host a celebration of his life this fall.
Survivors include his sister Gloria, niece Tracy, nephews Timothy and Todd and great nephews and nieces Connor, Brook, Stephen, Rachel, Clarissa, Caitlin and Cassidy. He will be laid to rest in Danville, Ill.
A Facebook page has been set up in honor of his life.