Ashland theater giant dies

Members of Southern Oregon's theater community are mourning the loss of mentor, director, teacher, fellow dancer and friend, Jim Giancarlo, who died unexpectedly early Wednesday at the age of 66.

Giancarlo was born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., earned a visual arts degree from SUNY College at Buffalo and, at the age of 25, moved to San Francisco where he founded Trenchmouth Musical Productions.

His dance and theater pursuits later took him to Ashland, then to Seattle and then back to Ashland.

In 1986, Giancarlo, together with Craig Hudson, founded Oregon Cabaret Theatre, where he worked as artistic director for the last 27 years. He also worked for Oregon Shakespeare Festival as an actor, dancer and choreographer for six seasons.

"Today, I've been fielding calls from people up and down the West Coast — actors, singers, dancers, gypsies, students and others whose lives he touched," said local actor and singer John Stadelman. "They all loved him. It's an incredible legacy he's left."

Stadelman, who met Giancarlo nearly 30 years ago, and Giancarlo co-wrote "The Holiday Broadcast of 1943," "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Kickin' the Clouds Away." Stadelman also performed in several of the shows Giancarlo choreographed and directed for OCT.

"Jimmy did what he loved — theater and dance," Stadelman said. "But what was unique to Jimmy was that he ran a business like (the Oregon Cabaret Theatre) with such an understated charm. People who are theatrical tend to be big. Big energy. Big personality. But Jimmy was as smooth as the surface of a pond. He was gracious, and he managed everything without flurry or drama. It was how he danced too. Smooth."

Giancarlo started teaching musical theater at Southern Oregon University in 1990 and also established the school's musical theater minor. (The minor was one of those recently eliminated as part of SOU's retrenchment plan.)

Suzanne Seiber also taught musical theater at SOU and was Giancarlo's "lifelong dance partner." At one point, they were even roommates.

"We met dancing for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1976," Seiber said. "We did dance concerts together. We taught tap classes together. We both taught dance, musical theater and tap at SOU. And then, when he started at the Cabaret, he hired me, and I got to be directed by him a lot. ... We've spent years on the boards together."

In addition to dancing, Seiber said Giancarlo was an excellent cook, enjoyed collage and drawing, loved traveling, and had an eye for color and a "wicked sense of humor."

"He also showed me that tofu can be good," she cracked.

Seiber said her favorite dance with Giancarlo was a Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire number, featured in "Fascinating Rhythm." "I really loved that," she said. "I'm disappointed that we won't get to dance together anymore."

In 1991, Giancarlo asked Livia Genise to codirect "The Mystery of Irma Vep." Genise, who is now the artistic director for Camelot Theatre Company, said it was her first directing job.

Since then, Giancarlo and Genise were friends and colleagues, but although they worked for different theaters, they were never competitors.

"He always said the theater community was one community and we were in it together," Genise said. "Oh God, he'll be missed."

Ashland singer and actress Priscilla Quinby described Giancarlo's passing as "the end of an era."

"He was a great dancer and a great choreographer and an all-around great person with a very relaxed manner and a great sense of humor," she said, laughing as she recalled Giancarlo and Richard Jessup chanting Hayes Code (also known as Motion Picture Production Code) as they rehearsed a tap number from "A day in Hollywood, a day in the Ukraine."

Quinby said she said studied jazz dance under Giancarlo in the late '70s.

"When he danced, it was as if the music was pulling him into different shapes and pulling him across the stage," she said. "And that's the way his choreography was."

Genise said Giancarlo would often cast his productions at Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, Calif.

"He found a lot of his actors in that program and would give them their first professional gigs," she said.

Quinby said Giancarlo kept a list of people who couldn't afford to attend shows. When there was a dress rehearsal or show with minimal attendance, he would contact them and give them free admission.

"He was the most gentle, kindest person I've ever worked with," said OCT General Manager Julie Gurwell. "He was truly a remarkable colleague. He listened to everybody and valued us as human beings."

OCT is now in its 29th season and currently staging its 138th production, "Ain't Misbehavin'." Two more shows — "Backwards In High Heels" and "It's A Wonderful Life — A Live Radio Play" — are scheduled for later this season.

"The show will go on," Gurwell said. "That's what he would have wanted."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Teresa Thomas at

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