"I'm really, really shocked," said actress Doreen Brownstone, on learning of her old friend's passing yesterday. "He played Tevye and I played Yentl in Fiddler on the Roof four times at Rainbow Stage. This has been a dreadful week."
Last Tuesday, Winnipeg media mogul Izzy Asper suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 71, a day after former Rainbow producer Jack Shapira died of heart failure at 77.
There was a time in the '60s when all three were involved at Rainbow -- Asper as a board member, Shapira as producer and Gardner as one of its best-known actors.
"Wherever they are now, those three could put on a hell of a show," said provincial court Judge Ron Meyers. "With Nick Hill's passing, Rainbow has lost four very important people since last March."
Gardner was diagnosed with colon cancer last January. A few weeks ago, he entered the Riverview Health Centre. His mother Elsie will turn 100 next month.
"We've been trying to count up all his roles, but it's impossible," said his son Ford Gardner. "He loved live theatre and Winnipeg. He had so many opportunities to leave, but he didn't."
Gardner's other passion was the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
His song, Hang Down Your Head Jim Trimble, helped rally support for the Bombers at the 1958 Grey Cup. He was later chairman of the Big Blue Booster Club.
"For me, he was Mr. Blue Bomber," Bomber great Ken Ploen said. "He was the biggest cheerleader we could ever have."
Born in Brandon, Gardner was 16 when he hosted the CKX morning show before arriving in Winnipeg in 1949 to be an announcer for CJOB. In 1955 he joined CKRC before returning in 1960 to 'OB as program director to begin a nine-year stint. He then quit to begin a freelance career. Most recently, he worked as program director/announcer for nostalgia radio station CHNR.
Most of his acting success happened at Rainbow, where he played Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Fagin in Oliver!, the Devil in Damn Yankees! and the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.
His theatrical roots reach all the way back to 1953 when he made his stage debut in a Winnipeg Little Theatre production of The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker. He also tread the boards of most of the city's seminal stage companies, including Shoestring Theatre and Theatre 77.
"It was Cliff at his kitchen table who talked Len Cariou into joining the chorus of Damn Yankees!," recalls friend Stan Lesk about Gardner's role in counselling Manitoba's only Tony Award winner. "He saw this raw talent in a guy who had never done a musical before."
Gardner played Tevye the Russian Jewish milkman in Rainbow's productions of Fiddler on the Roof in 1971, 1977, 1984 and 1993, the latter when he helped rescue Rainbow. Lesk said Gardner was one of the main forces behind the saving of the then financially-troubled organization.
"I have to do this as my part in helping to save Rainbow Stage," he said then. "I've worked out here and seen this edifice grow from a bandshell to what it is today."
"Cliff Gardner personified Tevye in Winnipeg," says Myers, who also serves as Rainbow's production chairman. "He was our first and greatest Tevye."
Those sentiments were echoed by his fellow actor Vic Pinchon.
"It's a terrible loss to the community, but I have great memories," he said. "There was no better actor when it comes to playing Alfie Doolittle (in My Fair Lady) or Tevye.
"He was a great Winnipegger even though he came from Brandon."
Gardner is survived by his wife June, sons Ford and Greg and brother Don. Funeral plans have not been finalized.