Don Gardiner Will Drape It
Author’s note: Rehoboth Beach lost one of its most creative and loyal residents last month with the passing of Donald Gardiner. At his memorial celebration on June 8, lots of people learned things they didn’t know about Don—like he had a whole early career as a Broadway dancer, that he was also a talented knitter, and that each of the friends and family who spoke that day saw him from a different perspective. This was mine.
I first met Donald in 1973, 41 years ago. I was asked to direct a benefit show at the new Montgomery Playhouse located in Gaithersburg, MD. There was some incredibly ugly scenery on the stage, and I wondered how I could do a musical and comedy revue on the existing set. Somebody I don’t recall said “Don’t worry, Don Gardiner will drape it.”
In came this young, incredibly handsome guy, with a roll of bright red fabric, who proceeded to climb a ladder and artfully drape the material so I had a brand new backdrop. In the corner stood another good looking young man, watching Don work. I walked up to him, introduced myself and asked him who he was and what his role was on the playhouse team. ‘Oh,” he stammered, “I’m Lee Mills, and I’m associated with Don Gardiner.” Well, it was 1973 and nobody was really out of the closet yet.
From that moment on, I worked with Don and Lee on show after show. Don was my choreographer and lead dancer in Annie Get Your Gun, played the romantic lead (and boy was he!) in Philadelphia Story, and Bell, Book and Candle, and designed more sets for me than I can count. From the first time Don Gardiner “draped it” in ‘73, he was my scenic designer right through shows we did at the Rehoboth Art League through 2003 and with props and costumes and the almighty drapes for recent shows at CAMP Rehoboth.
During those early years we lurked in bad neighborhoods at the DC gay bars, and Donald refused to leave me behind one time when they wouldn’t let me into the old Lost and Found because I carried a purse. Seriously. Men and women didn’t mingle much back then. Pretty soon I gave up the purse and met Bonnie. Then the four of us walked in AIDS walks, shouted “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Used To It” in at least three gigantic marches on Washington for gay rights, colored Easter eggs, made masks and glued feathers, went to costume parties, went boating, traveled to P-Town, Palm Springs, Disneyworld, and LA. We watched the Oscars together, complete with programs and quizzes made up by Donald, almost every year from 1974 on.
In the late 80s, along with all the fun, Donald set designed our lives by designing a basement dental lab for Bonnie in our Maryland home. No slapped up walls and doors, it had architecturally brilliant lines and stylish fixtures in the blueprints. For ten weeks, the four of us, with help from other friends, worked every single weekend and many weeknights to put up the 2x4s, drywall, plumbing, electric, and paint, so that Bonnie could move her dental lab into the space. Alright, Don, Lee, and Bonnie did the actual building. I went to the hardware store four times a day like their Sherpa.
I can still see Donald’s face, when his gorgeously designed three-room, one-bathroom, basement condo became the plaster and metal dust-covered filthiness that is a working dental laboratory. He was horrified.
By the early ‘90s we were weekending in Rehoboth, having parties with frozen mud slides and martinis on a dock in Dewey and relaxing on our boat. And when Bonnie and I made the move to Reho full time we welcomed Don and Lee here shortly thereafter. Don got to work his design magic as he and Lee owned and operated the Coastal Gallery and Frame Shop for several years. In retirement, Don loved his time volunteering at the Art League’s Outdoor Show, and the RB Film Festival, enjoying Cloud 9, Big Sissies, and Aqua for happy hour.
But it was hard for Donald the last couple of years. He was on oxygen full time and pretty much homebound. As Lee became an extraordinary caregiver, Donald never complained, never said, “Why Me?”, never stopped living and enjoying. He never missed Dancing with the Stars. If it had been on TV in the ‘50s, Donald would have been one of those dancing stars.
Bonnie and I were so incredibly lucky to have dinner around Don and Lee’s dining room table the night before Donald left us. We laughed together, told silly old stories, and thoroughly enjoyed Lee’s cooking. It really was an especially lovely night.
So the evening of the memorial was the night of the Tony Awards Show. How appropriate. We watched in Donald’s honor. And raised a toast in celebration. I’m pretty sure, somewhere, maybe in heaven or another wonderful celestial place, somebody is already saying, “Don’t worry, Don Gardiner will drape it.”
Fay Jacobs is the author of As I Lay Frying—a Rehoboth Beach Memoir; Fried & True—Tales from Rehoboth Beach, For Frying Out Loud—Rehoboth Beach Diaries, and her newest book Time Fries—Aging Gracelessly in Rehoboth Beach.