By Ann Brillhart, Special to the Independent
John Abbot Gardiner died of heart disease in Laguna Beach, Calif., on Nov. 24, 2017. He was 70.
John was born in Hawthorne, Calif., on March 10, 1947. The family lived in Manhattan Beach at the time. In 1952 the family moved to Huntington Palisades where John attended St. Matthews Episcopal Elementary School in Pacific Palisades and Paul Revere Junior High School in Brentwood. The family moved to Reno in 1961 where John attended Billinghurst Junior High School, Reno High School, and several years at the University of Nevada at Reno. He transferred to the University of California at Irvine where he received a BA in theatre arts.
Gardiner was an early cast member of the renowned South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa. He lived in New York for several years where he pursued his acting career. Gardiner loved acting in Shakespeare’s plays. He appreciated the complexity of the language and could recite passages and speeches from numerous plays from memory.
Gardiner was a long-time resident of Laguna Beach and was widely appreciated as a poet, actor, teacher and raconteur extraordinaire. He was working on his 13th collection of poems. He read at numerous venues throughout Southern California and was invited to read his poems in Prague, St. Petersburg, Rio de Janeiro and especially treasured the invitation to read in Ireland, home of the Gardiner clan.
Gardiner had been a teacher at the gifted student’s program at UC Irvine. He was on his way to teach a Shakespeare class on the morning he died.
Gardiner is survived by his former wife and dear friend, Michaela Craig of Laguna Beach; sister Katharine Hale of Reno, Nev.; sister and brother-in-law Ann and Tad Brillhart of Berkeley, Calif.; nieces Sierra Gardiner and Nicolle Bustamante both of Portland, Ore.; and numerous Foote, Grattan and Sherman cousins.
Gardiner was preceded in death by his mother, Evelyn Foote Gardiner; his father, James Francis Gardiner; brothers Arthur Foote Gardiner and James Robbins (Bob) Gardiner; and his sister and brother-in-law Janet and Robin Leland.
Gardiner was proud to be a fourth generation Californian on his mother’s side and a fifth generation Californian on his father’s side.
Friends through the years have known him as Jack, Jake and John. Whatever the name, his untimely death has left his family and friends saddened forever.
A memorial service to celebrate the life and legacy of John Gardiner will be held at Neighborhood Congregational Church, 340 St. Ann’s Dr., on Sunday, Nov. 12, at 2 p.m. in the church sanctuary. There will be a reception immediately following the service in Bridge Hall. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Laguna Beach Animal Shelter (www.puplagunabeach.org).
Friends of John Gardiner, who died unexpectedly from heart disease last week, shared their memories of him and often struggled to summon metaphors that sufficiently captured his charcter.
Alan Burnside described in a eulogy the many facets of his friend of 40 years. “Poet, actor, author, teacher, student, raconteur, revolutionary, beachcomber, nomad, coyote, psychedelic voice-in-the-wilderness, baseball fan, jazz-loving, pot-boiling, ever-loving, Howl-er.”
Burnside recalled his contribution, “Dear America,” at a recent reading at the BC Space Gallery, which also hosted solstice celebrations Gardiner helped orchestrate. “Jack was in his element, as always. Bottled rage against the machine. Righteous Brother. Jack could speak of ‘cosmic convergences’ with no smirk, no sarcasm, no irony, no condescension.”
Gardiner could fill a room with his baritone voice, often casting literary and musical references and embodying characters such as Brando’s Vito Corleone or a Brooklyn thug, Burnside remembered.
And he relished a prank. Burnside recalled meeting Gardiner for a cocktail at the Lumberyard restaurant. “I asked for two olives in my martini. With a completely straight face, Jack asked the waitress if they could sprinkle some ground psilocybine on top of his drink, and she trotted off. A minute later she returned to the table to tell Jack, sadly, they didn’t have any ground psilocybine.”
Gardiner’s death prompted Burnside to turn to his friend’s most recent work, “Rogue Waves.” “He wore his poems like an old pair of boots. Jack said that, not me. What I always loved about Jack’s writing was you never had to figure it out. He bored right into your soul.”
At least one audience, though, lacked appreciation for Gardiner’s poetry. Local singer-songwriter Jason Feddy recalled a gig playing background music at a private party where Gardiner borrowed a mic to recite his own poetry.
“No one’s paying attention to him,” Feddy recalled. Then Gardiner’s voice changed the room’s temperature with a soliloquy. “When he did Shakespeare, Orange County socialites fell silent,” said Feddy, who also felt completely upstaged, but went on to team up with Gardiner in 20 performances of “Shakespeare’s Fool.” They paired 10 original Feddy songs with Gardiner’s readings from the Bard’s plays in various venues, including schools. “He was very good at explaining language,” said Feddy, who noted Gardiner’s support for the spoken word in a community dominated by visual arts.
Local poet Ellen Kempler also admired Gardiner’s devotion to the written and spoken word. For years, Gardiner helped organize the library’s annual poetry contest, which welcomed entries from kindergartners through adults. Award recipients, among them Kempler, read their works at an awards ceremony. Gardiner would place a stool at the podium for young contestants or invite siblings to read for winners unnerved by public speaking.
“Our schools don’t teach creative writing,” said Kempler. The contest “gave teachers a way to work this into the curriculum.”
Gardiner “lived poetry,” Kempler said. “He wanted everyone to make a place in their lives for poetry and that it deserved to be celebrated. There’s not a lot of opportunity for it in this town.”
Michele McCormick remembered Gardiner’s ebullience sharing a date for a reading from his latest book of poetry. When she expressed her disappointment about being out of town, he volunteered to read to her on the spot. “With that rhythmic, lyrical resonant bass,” she said, Gardiner read a selection, the work he composed as a birthday gift to her a year earlier, which was included in “Rogue Waves.” McCormick cried. Gardiner did as well.
“It reflected his vulnerability and his love for connecting with others through verse,” she said.
McCormick reread the work again after Gardiner’s death, finding prescience in its final stanzas. “It was his way of reaching out, of saying we will resume our conversation.”
A Sampler of Gardiner Poetry
Man keeps a razor at his cheek, scissors to his scalp,
hangman’s tie around his throat,
runs on two legs plus four wheels, eats meat he hasn’t cooked
and doesn’t need, his belly’s more than full.
I pulled over in the canyon, traffic speeding by,
got out of my truck, hauled a dead coyote
off the road, people honked and screamed,
“Get out of the way!” Did they think I took its life?
I hope so — at least that would explain their hate.
“You can’t do that.” “Development might stop.” “We can’t care.”
“It’s just a mangy scavenger.”
When I tried to get back on the road
no one yielded, so I got out again and lay down next to coyote.
I played dead while autos whistled by, no one stopped.
I asked coyote who would hear his cries in the night and he said,
“Only the blazing moon.”
I pledged my love to him and to the animal world.
I dreamt coyote dreams, slipped into his skin, brother of wolf,
cousin of dog.
I have run with them on four legs in a wilderness of dreams ,
eaten what I needed, thinned out the mice, worshipped the moon ,
howled with the goddess of open space and water holes,
sniffed the ground and searched for my old friends, the Indians.
I wonder where they went—
they must have been hit by cars.
I am coyote, four legger, straw colored fur, survivor
“Coyote Blues,” Wind Flower Press, 2013.
“Things I Miss,” from “Rogue Waves,” 2016.
I miss the smell of the sea breeze and the sound of breaking waves from my baby carriage rattling along the boardwalks of Manhattan Beach a thousand years ago, the sound of baseballs cracking off the bats of my boyhood friends and my Marty Marion little league glove.
I miss Magnolia trees and their large flowers that seemed
to envelope my face like an oxygen mask when I’d smell them,
our neighborhood acorn fights gathered from the eucalyptus trees, all in fun and no one ever hurt. I miss day-dreaming about Atlantis and tidal waves while sitting idly by the sea lost in my child’s imagination. I miss my imaginary waking dream of seeing planes under the sea’s surface, entire nebulas thousands of fathoms down that only I knew about, battered alien ships with bug-eyed, long-drowned captains staring up in wonder past the leviathans all the way to the sputtering surface, astonished at how many nautical miles lay between them and the golden sunshine world, and I miss the certain feeling that the great blue cyclorama of sky was sewn to the great blue horizon of expanding space, and no one would ever be lost or forgotten, and I miss the feeling that every one of us is loved beyond our reckoning from above and below.
“One Day Soon,” written for Michele McCormick on her 50th birthday. From “Rogue Waves,” Wind Flower Press, 2016,
Do you remember, my friend, the delights we found in the evening ether when stars were thick as bees in the honeyed hives of heaven, and the constellations could be traced from end to end like finger paintings in the brilliant clarity of heaven’s blue vault? Do you remember when we were guided by stars and had no need for compass or map? Do you remember when stars weren’t so unfamiliar and mysterious? Do you remember the silent conversations we had with these ancient fireflies of the distant night? Do you remember when the mass of electric coils didn’t blind us from the majesty of above? Do you remember when we looked up instead of down? Soon, my friend, safely tucked in a wilderness of stars, we’ll resume our conversations, and there will be no fluorescence to disturb us. One day soon.
“Ode to Coyote”
By Sande Marie Robert
Oh, my little coyote
you left the party when you were having a good time
you tipped your hat
and grinned that bard of life grin
and shoved off
all the ass kissers
and lip lickers
didn’t know whether to wind their butts
or scratch their watches
tryin’ to figure out
how to slot you
was he nuts?!
was he a nobody?!
maybe he really was a somebody
munching meatless bones
and biting errant finger nails
slurping down drafts
of daily bile of smiling like a good time is being had
when really they’re being had by time
by workaholic blues
and home lives where there ain’t no home in it
you were the fresh breath
now on the Night Shift
with those poets of Beat
pulling our chairs up around your campfire
and watching the show: you
the orange sparks dancing above the flames
channeling Shakespeare’s ghost
a minstrel leading us to unlatch
the doors of our hearts
lift up the windowpanes of our minds
and follow you into the woods
of who we are
who we can be
The author is a member of Laguna Poets and Third Street Writers, literary groups John Gardiner helped establish.