Denver theater producer Robert Garner was a man for all ages

 

Robert S. Garner

By John Moore

To ask Robert Garner, he was about in his mid-20s.

Garner was a legendary theater producer and bon vivant for whom the Garner-Galleria Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex is named. He died Thursday morning (July 19, 2012) at home, no doubt against his will, at the (chronological) age of 80.

“What’s my secret?” he said in a 2007 Denver Post interview: “Two things: Have a little passion about life – and keep your friends young.

“If you get to be 75, and you act 75, and you are only around people who are 75 … then you become 75.”

Denver Center president Randy Weeks described Garner as an entrepreneur and impresario. “Bob’s influence in Broadway touring theater at the Denver Center and around the country will not be forgotten,” Weeks said.

Garner was born on Oct. 29, 1931, in Massachusetts, and moved to Colorado when his Army dad retired here. The young Garner thought only Indians lived here at the time, he said. He graduated in chemistry from the University of Colorado and began his producing career when a 1961 production of “Fiorello” was basically handed to him – and he cleared $10,000.

Over the next 34 years, Garner booked almost everything that played at the Auditorium Theatre (now the Ellie Caulkins Opera House) and later, the Buell Theatre. He brought in acts as diverse as the Vienna Boys Choir, Marcel Marceau, Hal Holbrook and the African Ballet.

Those were star-system days, when big film names routinely performed on Los Angeles stages as well. Garner hooked up with the comparably sized Ahmanson Theatre there and arranged for the stars to test-run their plays here in Denver before friendlier audiences. That four-year arrangement brought Maggie Smith, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Carol Channing, Kate Hepburn and dozens more to Denver.

“That was a real boon to us because we got shows nobody else in the country ever saw,” Garner said.

Ray Roderick, who directed “The Taffetas” at the Garner-Galleria, in 2007, said of Garner: “He’s rubbed shoulders with Carol Channing and Kate Hepburn and all these other stars. He is show business.”

Garner joined forces with Denver Post publisher Donald R. Seawell in 1970 as Seawell began building the Denver Performing Arts Complex around the Auditorium Theatre.

“Don called me very early on and asked me to head up his Broadway division,” Garner said. “He was editor of The Post at the time and he had a lot of power, so you knew he was going to do it with or without you. So I thought, ‘What’s the point of being on my own fighting this big arts center when I can throw my weight into it, too? So that’s what I did.”

The only time Garner ever appeared on stage himself was in the ensemble of “Kiss Me, Kate,” a production that starred Marilyn Van Derbur at the old Bonfils Theatre. That was 1959, a year after Van Derbur was crowned Miss America.

“I never, ever had any desire to be on the stage,” he said. “I always wanted to be just  what I was, which was a producer.

Garner retired in 1985, before the theater that now bears his name was opened and independently operated by Rick Seeber as StageWest. A dozen years later, the Denver Center was running the now-Galleria Theater and renamed it for Garner in tribute to his career.

“I always wanted my name up in lights, but I never really thought it would happen,” Garner said.

In 2007, Roderick rallied Garner to participate in his staging of “The Taffetas” in the Garner-Galleria. In the lighthearted 1950s musical, Garner appeared in taped segments as the host of an Indiana  televised musical variety show.

Jenny Schiavone, now director of media relations for Denver International Airport, went to work for the Denver Center when she was 18. “I really found a family there in that group of people, and Bob was patriarch of that found family,” she said. “He loved the opening nights, the cast parties, and he was responsible for a lot of great, fun times.”

Garner grew up in the era of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Frankie Laine, but he loved whatever was new.

“My whole career was about passion.,” he said. “It’s true of anybody who wants to be successful: If you don’t have passion for anything, you have nothing.”

Garner served as an honorary DCTC trustee until his death. He is survived by a sister.

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts will host a celebration of Garner’s life at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, at the Seawell Grand Ballroom, 1011 13th St. The event is open to the public but your RSVP is requested at http://www.rememberingbobgarner.com/content/home.html

Note: Garner’s quotes above come from an interview conducted by John Moore in 2007 for a story in The Denver Post. 

 

Jason Henning played Robert Garner in a Curious Theatre tribute to Garner’s career in 2007. Photo by Michael Ensminger.