Don Gardiner: The World Is His Stage
“Let me entertain you, let me make you smile!”
Now, what self-respecting Rehoboth Beach local (and at least 10% of the visitors) can’t recite—probably from memory—those timeless lyrics from Gypsy? Well, one talented Rehoboth resident, Don Gardiner, has actually lived those words; bringing smiles to countless faces as a professional dancer, choreographer, actor, director and theater owner.
Back in the good ol’ days, boys didn’t dare attend dancing school (or if they did, they didn’t tell anybody). But Don knew that he was destined to perform. Every day, he would secretly spy on the dance classes, and then hurry home to practice what he had learned. All that sneaking around paid off as he was cast in the lead of the school’s production of The Mikado, and as the son in the play, Life with Father. His secret was out, and the talented young man was tapped to direct and choreograph other shows—not to mention (surprise, surprise) heading up the decorating committees for every one of his high-school proms.
Don enrolled in Brown University, spending much of his time in the drama department choreographing and performing in plays and musicals. They say that luck happens when opportunity meets preparation, and luck smiled on this very prepared dancer and choreographer as he landed his first full-time gig just a few months after he finished school. Don was now a professional performer, doing Summer Stock and performing in different shows every week. He worked with such luminaries as Zero Mostel (Can Can and High Button Shoes), Gypsy Rose Lee (Happy Hunting) and was dance captain for Kiss Me Kate, starring Jane Morgan. Don even stepped in at the last minute to play one of the principal parts in Kate, drawing compliments from Bella Spewack, the Tony Award-winning creator of the book (dialogue) for the musical.
The grueling schedule of Summer Stock and “bus ‘n’ truck” tours (trekking to a different location every night) was truly a trial by fire. Don traveled for 18 months with Forrest Tucker in Music Man, and danced in West Side Story for a long-running stint in Chicago. He also toured with a production of Can Can, starring Denise Darcel, and with Dorothy Collins in Wizard of Oz.
There was no doubt that young Don Gardiner was Broadway-bound. He tells the story of working in a review at the legendary Roxy Theater with two boys who seemed to tap dance pretty well—they grew up to be the famous Maurice and Gregory Hines. Don’s time on Broadway also included performing alongside none other than Lucille Ball in Wildcat. His talents translated to the small screen as well, where on one occasion he shared the stage with a young upstart named Tony Bennett on the late ‘50s TV show, The Big Record starring Patti Page.
But Don was soon to star in an even longer-running performance. While sipping a cocktail in a Washington, D.C. bar (how many readers remember “The Chicken Hut?”), he met a young bank employee named Carl. After a while, when Don decided it was time to settle down a bit, Carl helped get him a job as a bank teller. Don’s high-achieving nature was not limited to dancing and choreography: He remained in the banking business for 38 years, finally retiring as a bank vice president!
In the early ‘70s, Gardiner met a handsome young artist, Lee Wayne Mills. Lee was assistant director of the Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel, MD and was also instrumental in establishing the Gaithersburg Arts Barn, which now houses studios, a gallery, an art shop and a theater. It was thirty-eight years ago when that spark of attraction ignited between the two, and they’re still together today.
Don continued to do Community Theater, occasionally dragging Mills (kicking and screaming) into productions with him. They still remember their performances together, particularly the groundbreaking play, Boys in the Band at Silver Spring Stage in Maryland. While acting, directing, set designing and performing for the Montgomery Players in suburban Maryland, Don worked alongside award-winning columnist, author (and director in her own right), Fay Jacobs. Their friendship endures as Fay J Productions continues to produce shows for audiences in the Rehoboth Beach area.
By the early ‘90s, the banking business was in a state of flux, and Gardiner began to feel that it was time for a change. Don and Lee already had a vacation home here in Rehoboth, and an opportunity arose for Mills to work at the Rehoboth Art League. Don eventually retired, the men bought a bigger house and finally settled down full-time. They acquired Coastal Frameshop and Gallery seven years ago, and now spend most of their time hosting art exhibits for local and regional artists, as well as providing custom framing services to the public.
Momma Rose’s immortal words, “Sing out, Louise!” pushed Gypsy to stardom. For years, veteran performer and Rehoboth Beach resident Don Gardiner has pushed himself to do what he loves best. And when he says, “Let me entertain you,” he really means it.
Bob Yesbek is a Rehoboth Beach resident. He can be reached at Bob@RehobothFoodie.com.