The primary Stages Off-Broadway Oral history Project

Celebrating the visionaries who created New York's vibrant Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater.

Rita Gardner

Rita Gardner

Born on Tuesday, October 23, 1934

Interviewed on: Monday, July 18, 2016
Location: Primary Stages Offices
Interviewed by: Casey Childs
Interview #97
Photo Credit: Margery Gray Harnick
"You go into a small theater...and something awakens in you that…[deep intake of breath] ‘I didn’t know this [kind of theatre] existed’. If you can still say that, that’s important, and we need to keep that going."
Rita Gardner Highlights
Video Length: 6 Minutes
Rita Gardner Interview
Video Length: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York, she is a stage actress best known for originating the role of The Girl in the Off-Broadway production of THE FANTASTICKS (1960), the longest running musical of all time. Her other Off-Broadway credits include: THE CRADLE WILL ROCK (1964), JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS (1968), TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK (1969), STEEL MAGNOLIAS (1987), WINGS (1993), and a revival of THE FOREIGNER (2004). She most recently appeared in I REMEMBER MAMA (2014) at The Gym at Judson. In 2002, she debuted her one-woman show, TRY TO REMEMBER: A LOOK BACK AT OFF-BROADWAY, in which she shared anecdotes from her Off-Broadway career. In December 2016, she premiered a new one-woman show, MUCH MORE: A TOM JONES AND HARVEY SCHMIDT SONG BOOK.

Rita Gardner was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and began her career at five years old singing on the radio. On Broadway, she has appeared in: A Family Affair (1962), Pal Joey (1963), Ben Franklin in Paris (1964), On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965), Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969), Ari (1971), Morning’s at Seven (2002), and The Wedding Singer (2006). Her television credits include “Guiding Light” and “Law and Order,” and her film credits include Mr. Gibb, Super Heroes, and P.S. I Love You. She taught classes at Juilliard, Princeton, and New York University and the HB Studio. 

Mentioned in Interview

Charles “Word” Baker, Leonard Bernstein, Eric Blau, Mark Blitzstein, Jacques Brel, Matthew Broderick, Howard Da Silva, Graciela Daniele, A.R. Gurney, Lorraine Hansberry, Jerry Herman, Tom Jones, Kenneth Nelson, Lore Noto, Jack O’Brien, Jerry Orbach, Hal Prince, Charles Nelson Reilly, John Rando, Harvey Schmidt, Frances Sternhagen, Elly Stone, Cicely Tyson, Cherry Lane Theatre, The Gym at Judson, Laura Pels Theatre, Lucille Lortel Theatre, NYSF/The Public, Sullivan Street Playhouse, Theatre Four, The Village Gate, THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, THE FANTASTICKS, THE FOREIGNER, I REMEMBER MAMA, JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS, STEEL MAGNOLIAS, TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK, WINGS