Scott Gardner Stars as Vanya at Theatre Palisades

By Laurel Busby
Staff Writer

Scott Gardner has some intriguing similarities to Vanya, the character he plays in Theatre Palisades’ current production, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

Both grew up with two sisters and professors for parents. They are practically the same age. Gardner is 56, while Vanya is 57. Each has spent more than a decade caring for aging relatives. For Vanya, it was his parents; for Gardner, both his grandmother and mother have needed his assistance. And in perhaps the oddest parallel, each lived for many years in a home with a pond frequented by a blue heron.

“Those little similarities really helped in grounding me into the setting of the play,” said Gardner, a 1978 Palisades High School grad. “I’m hopefully not as hopeless as Vanya, but I do share his longing for things in the past . . . I grew up watching the same movies and television shows and share the same disconnect between that simpler time and the technology-driven world of today.”

Vanya (Scott Gardner) consoles his sisters Masha (Mia Christou, left) and Sonia (Wendy Taubin) in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photo: Joy Daunis

Vanya (Scott Gardner) consoles his sisters Masha (Mia Christou, left) and Sonia (Wendy Taubin) in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photo: Joy Daunis

He added,“It’s very rare that an actor gets to play a character the same age with such parallel life experience . . . The moment I read it, I knew I wanted to do this play.”

Gardner, who grew up in Pacific Palisades, has lucked out with his last two Theatre Palisades roles. Last year, he got the chance to star in “The Odd Couple” as Felix Unger, a part he had tried out for more than 20 years ago at Theatre Palisades. The first time he was too young for the role, and last year, he noted that he was a bit too old, “but that’s community theater. It allows us to bend those rules.”

He got the theater bug while at PaliHi, where he began acting under the tutelage of drama teacher Victoria Francis. In 1977, Francis took some students on a class trip to New York City, where they saw multiple Broadway shows.

“That’s what did it for me,” Gardner said. “I was really hooked.”

He was one of two actors who won the lead role, Jesus, in the senior musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and his performance caught the eye of a Theatre Palisades member, who suggested that he check out their next show, “The Fantasticks,” a musical which also happens to be Theatre Palisades’s next show this year. “It was fantastic,” he noted.

After working as a prop assistant and set decorator for television commercials for many years, he moved into event planning. Throughout this time, he also often performed in Los Angeles community theater, including his first TP show, Rebecca, in 1991. He landed a role in Mr. Roberts two years later, and then his life changed dramatically. He moved to a small farmhouse in New Hampshire built in the 1600s, and for two decades he helped care for his grandmother and mother there.

He also kept performing while in New England, including working with the New England Marionette Opera company and later starting his own marionette company after a fire burned down the other company’s theater.

“I loved it, but I’m very happy to be back in California,” Gardner said. “It’s hard when you were born and raised here to leave here. This is like paradise.”

After his grandmother died, both he and his mother, Elizabeth, now 85 and a retired Tufts and UCLA Extension archeology professor, moved to the San Diego area, where they still live, except when he is staying with friends while performing with Theatre Palisades. His father Gerald (Jed), a retired UCLA kinesiology professor, now lives in New Zealand, where he was born and raised.

Being back in the Palisades gives Gardner a little blast of home, even though most things have changed dramatically since he grew up here. For example, the House of Lee restaurant with its “beaded curtain, dark red walls and exotic food” is gone, as is the Hot Dog Show, his personal favorite, which used to feature a “little train that would go around the ceiling while you ate.”

Gelson’s used to be Mayfair Market, and he loved to enjoy a soda or chips while sitting on the Sunset-facing wall, which is still there. He remembers causing a sensation at Pali Elementary in the late ‘60s when he bought his first pair of bell-bottoms at Colvey’s, a clothing store that has since closed.

He also got his first job at the Union 76 gas station (now the Chase Bank building), with one sister, Krista, who was a whiz with oil changes and other car-related tasks.

“Everything I’m telling you is gone; it’s changed so much,” said Gardner, who also has three other siblings, Allan, Linnea and Greg.

He noted that the town felt more like a small town at that time, and the fun was the joy of small towns, ranging from going to see a movie at the Bay Theater, which is now Norris Hardware, or racing leaves down the gutters after a rain.

“We used to roam this neighborhood like we were a gang, but we were the most innocent gang you ever met,” Gardner said. “It was one of those childhoods right out of a TV show. Now it’s more upscale and very crowded, so it doesn’t have the same small-town feel to me, but it still is a small town. It will always be home.”

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” plays at the Pierson Playhouse through July 9. Tickets: (310) 454-1970.

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