Talking over coffee with singer/actress/dancer Patti Gardner at a bagel shop in Boynton Beach is remarkably enjoyable – like chatting with a longtime friend. She speaks about her loving 43-year marriage to husband, Neal; their twin daughters who turned 40 years of age last November and the fact that after her interview, she planned on driving to Vero Beach to visit with her grandchildren.
At the table, she opts for a hot coffee and declines the bagel, wondering with a wry smile how “a Jewish girl from Long Island” could disdain such a crusty delight.
A popular performer in South Florida for more than 30 years, Patti also spent years performing locally and touring nationally with Menopause, the Musical, starting in 2001. During those decades, she racked up an inestimable roster of theatrical performances. Dramatic, comic, musical, she’s tried them all, earned raves — and has the honors to prove it.
Patti, right, with Elizabeth Dimon in Picnic at Palm Beach Dramaworks.
Ms. Gardner received a Carbonell Award for Best Supporting Actress as Sally in Lips Together, Teeth Apart at Palm Beach Dramaworks – an accolade that left her “stunned…grateful…. emotional.”
Recipient of both the Silver Palm and New Times Best Awards for work in regional productions, she has also been nominated for seven additional Carbonells, one for her portrayal of Roxie Hart in Chicago at Theater Guild; for Festrada and Berthe in Pippin and a recent portrayal of Maggie in Andy and the Orphans in late 2019 at Primal Forces (now Boca Stage) in Boca Raton.
That show gave her a unique opportunity to work with Edward Barbanell, the Coral Springs resident and trained actor with Down syndrome who originated the role of Andy off-Broadway. He recreated that portrayal for local audiences and won praise from theater goers and critics.
“After I read the script, I called Keith (Keith Garsson, the theater’s artistic director) and told him I don’t care if I’m in the show or not, you need to do this play. It’s so well written – and quirky.”
Our Town at Palm Beach Dramaworks
While working with Eddie, she said, “I was so impressed with his warmth and the things he was interested in. We talked a lot about what was going on in the world.”
Growing up in East Rockaway until age 4 and, later, Great Neck, N.Y., Patti “was always ‘performing’ in one way or another around the house. Why? Child of divorce, and it probably felt great to be someone else. I had a very vivid imagination, and I was seeking a safe world.”
The Gingerbread Lady at Primal Forces (now Boca Stage)
Before she turned 6, Patti began studying ballet with instructor Florence Bartova – “a woman who gave me confidence,” and was one of several “mentors” she would meet in her quest for a place in the spotlight.
She said her father, who worked in New York City’s Garment District, was also involved in community and professional theater, acting and directing. “My father brought me to theatrical venues,” she said, “but I was very young.”
Story of a Life at Broward Performing Arts Center
To this day, though, she recalls a memorable meeting with famed actor Theodore Bikel initiated by her dad. “I was all of 3 or 4 years old when my father who apparently knew him brought me backstage to meet Theodore Bikel, a large, imposing man,” said Patti. “He was sitting in a tiny dressing room after a performance of Sound of Music, soaking his feet. I was terrified and hid behind my father.”
“Many years later, Bikel came to see a production of Menopause the Musical” in which she was performing. “I was still a little terrified and tried to repeat the story to him… but I could barely get the words out.”
College was next for Patti. She found out about the University of Arizona through her stepsister, who preceded her as a student there. At the school, Patti got back into dance studies, but “I was exposed to other forms besides ballet – to jazz, tap and modern.”
Patti’s Carbonell-winning performance as Sally in Lips Together, Teeth Apart at Palm Beach Dramaworks.
At the same time, she started to take a greater interest in musical theatre, auditioning for her first production, Girl Crazy, and nailing a role in the ensemble. After graduation, she returned to New York, saw A Chorus Line and began to “sort of marry the two art forms,” dance and acting.
But this wasn’t the only “marriage” she took part in. “I met my future husband, Neal, in college. Actually, he was dating my roommate – and later, she broke up with him.” Neal Gardner initially went to medical school, then transferred to the University of Arizona.
He later joined his own father “in the hotel business in Miami. He managed hotels in South Beach.”
A Chorus Line at Hollywood Playhouse.
Neal and Patti married in 1978. “He was my best friend. And 43 years later, he still is.”
Coincidentally, both Gardners later found themselves involved in Menopause the Musical. “After working in the hotel business, Neal was asked to join G4 Productions as general manager.” That firm was about to take on production of the tune-filled tale of four women dealing with the “change of life.”
When Patti joined the cast of Menopause in the early 2000s, it was less because of the show and more about the showplace. “When they put out the casting notice, they were asking for women much older than I was. I had never been inside the Cuillo Theatre in West Palm Beach (now Palm Beach Dramaworks), and I wanted to visit theaters I had never been to before. So I went, and I was cast.”
In the role of Tessie Tura in Gypsy with Fort Lauderdale Players.
The show later moved on to Fort Lauderdale and Miami – and G4 assumed production. The musical skipped cross-country to Las Vegas where it played at several venues – and Patti was there for the experience.
Ms. Gardner counts many intriguing, touching and moving performances in her theatrical dossier. Portraying Tessie Tura, the stripper, in Gypsy with Fort Lauderdale Players was “a departure” from her usual style. “It probably wasn’t my best, but most people didn’t know it was me.” She admits to reveling in “surprising” her audiences.
Arthur Miller’s The Price; at Palm Beach Dramaworks (left) 16 years ago, at GableStage (right) in 2020
In Pippin with the Boca Raton Theatre Guild, Patti wore two “hats,” so to speak, portraying both Festrada and Berthe. She particularly coveted the latter role, having seen Irene Ryan – Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies” – perform it on Broadway.
Sons of the Prophet at GableStage
“I saw her sing that song, ‘No Time at All.’ Her song is still one of my favorites of all time. It’s actually an anthem for me.”
Oh, it’s time to start livin’
Time to take a little from this world we’re given
Time to take time, cause spring will turn to fall
In just no time at all….
Patti emphasized she is “proud of my work in Arthur Miller’s The Price at Palm Beach Dramaworks.” The March 2020 show was severely impacted both by COVID – which shut it down before it began — and the death of director Joe Adler, someone Patti had worked with in 11 shows “and I felt very close to him.”
“When Joe became ill, he changed his lineup that season so he could direct The Price,” she remembered. “When he called to ask if I would be available in that new slot, I pulled out of a commitment I had made just to work with Joe again. I knew the play meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to me to do it with him and for him.”
Pirates of Penzance at Wick Theatre