Retro Rewind | Gardner's Purpose: 49 years of service with the Kitsap Forest Theater

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we learn the story of Gardener Hicks - a dedicated Mountaineers volunteer who spent countless hours working with the Kitsap Forest Theater.
Peter Dunau Peter Dunau
Former Mountaineers Communications Specialist
May 21, 2019

The Mountaineers’ Kitsap Forest Theater is one-of-a-kind. Attendees take a winding, quarter-mile path through lush woodlands sprinkled with wild rhododendrons. At the trail’s end, almost as though designed by the forest itself, the theater rises from the greenery. Giant firs surround terraced seating, moss-covered bark forms theater wings, verdant ferns serve as footlights, and sunlight shines through the tree canopy to create spotlights.

Behind the remarkable venue is an equally remarkable man: Gardener Hicks. He tirelessly stewarded the grounds for 49 years until he passed away in 2016.

Gardner’s introduction to the Kitsap Theater began rather modestly. Cast with a nonspeaking role, he was told he couldn’t wear his signature oversized glasses. His longtime partner Sharon Gustafson recalls with a laugh that he spent the whole time desperately trying to focus on the actor next to him so he could see where to stand. Afterwards, he declared, “I’m never doing that again!”

What Gardner could offer the theater turned out to be more valuable than any leading actor. An MIT graduate, with degrees in Civil and Structural Engineering, Gardner knew how to build things. During his career at Boeing, he helped design airplanes that could land on shorter landing strips, and later, while working at the firm KPFF, he helped engineer the Columbia Center. 

In 1970, Gardner stepped into a leadership role with the theater, applying his expertise to a long list of maintenance projects. In doing so, he joined a passionate group of volunteers called The Mountaineers Players. The crew has been putting on theater productions at the Kitsap property since 1923.

“I thought to myself, this a pretty good outfit,” said Gardner in an interview 35 years later. “It looked like the theater needed some help so I volunteered.”

Gardner holds his Mountaineers Service Award. Photo courtesy of Gala Lindvall.

Labor of Love

In order understand to Gardner’s contributions to the theater, you have to know a bit about the venue. The magical natural setting brings along a slew of issues most thespian enterprises would never need to consider.

Take rain, for example. Erosion and puddles pose a constant threat. Gardner tackled these obstacles with an engineer’s zeal. He rounded the stage, so that water would runoff the edges and into a drainage system, which (of course) he crafted himself. To secure the theater seating, he designed custom concretes blocks to hold the earth. He even experimented with different kinds of soil, taking samples home to study. Eventually, he landed on a permeable layering combination that allowed The Mountaineers Players to remedy pesky stage puddles. All they had to do was poke a hole in the ground with a digging bar, and the water would drain through.

Electricity and plumbing also posed a challenge. Gardner helped modernize the venue, digging trenches and installing ducts for underground electrical and water systems.

He also built a sound booth, aisle steps, a dressing room and storage complex, and an embankment to guard the theater from a nearby creek. Always thinking ahead, Gardner designed the backstage buildings so that a falling tree would only damage a portion of the structure, rather than wiping out the whole thing.

Gardner also helped steward the 460-acre Rhododendron Preserve surrounding The Mountaineers’ Kitsap property. He worked with the Mountaineers Foundation (now known as the Keta Legacy Foundation, and a separate entity from The Mountaineers) to clear invasive species, plant native trees, and rehabilitate salmon spawning streams.

Fellow volunteers helped Gardner along with his many endeavors. “We’d have work parties,” says Sharon, recalling one of their days shaping the stage. “He’d spread the dirt, and then we’d all pack it down with our feet.”

Gardner’s list of projects is too long to recount them here. But suffice it to say, if you visit the theater, his fingerprints are everywhere - from the trail benches to the handrails to the ground beneath the actors’ feet.

A Match Made in The Mountaineers

Sharon Gustafson was also a part of The Players’ leadership team, and she often worked alongside Gardner during his innumerable undertakings. The couple first met in 1969 through The Mountaineers Folk Dance group.

“We met in class and started going out,” says Sharon, “We went on to do dancing demonstrations at festivals and what not.”

The couple also enjoyed The Mountaineers’ outdoor programs, some of which Gardner helped instruct. Sharon recalls being one of his students as he taught ice ax arrest.

“From there, we started going on trips just the two of us,” Sharon recalls. “Hiking, snowshoeing, and skiing – we’d go way out into the backcountry.”

Since Gardner passed away, Sharon’s been busy sorting through his belongings. Amongst the boxes, she found an old Mountaineer bulletin from 1967, which listed new club members. She was amazed to see their names listed side by side – a sign of things to come.

In It Together

When asked why Gardner loved the theater so much, Sharon paused. “Because they were real people, they were family,” she said. “We were a part of that family, and each person did what they did to be a part of that family.”

Sharon holds an article from Mountaineer magazine, which honored Gardner as volunteer of the month. Photo by Peter Dunau.


This article originally appeared in our Summer 2018 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.