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UCI's first fine arts dean, Clayton Garrison, dies at 93

UCI's first fine arts dean, Clayton Garrison, dies at 93
Clayton Garrison instructs a student during a rehearsal in this undated photo. Garrison was dean of the UC Irvine School of Fine Arts for 17 years and taught theater to arts students. (Courtesy Special Collections & Archives,)

Clayton Garrison, stage director, theater professor and inaugural dean of the school of fine arts at UC Irvine, died July 27. He was 93.

The university's founding chancellor, Daniel G. Aldrich Jr., invited Garrison to create the school in 1964, luring him from his position teaching theater at UC Riverside.

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Garrison's vision for what is now known as the Claire Trevor School of the Arts was to create a conservatory specifically designed to instruct students in art, dance, drama and music.

"In those days, arts in universities tended to be very academic, meaning the students studied the plays rather than do them," said Robert Cohen, Claire Trevor professor emeritus of drama. "It was mainly conservatories in England or Europe that trained students to become artists. He wanted a program like that so the students could do productions and paint art, rather than just studying it."

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The school began with seven faculty members.

Garrison served as dean of the school during its first 17 years. He then spent nine more years teaching acting and running UCI's New York Satellite Program in Music Theatre, a month-long arrangement that allows students to attend dance and acting classes while living in Manhattan.

Cohen describes Garrison as a man who was "highly likable" and "sociable."

The two first met in 1960 while Cohen was an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley and Garrison was a temporary hire at the school. Garrison was directing a summer production of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew." Cohen, a double major in political science and theater, auditioned for the play and got the role of Grumio.

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"After rehearsals, he would go with us to this hamburger restaurant just a block or two from campus at 11 o'clock at night and just talk to us about plays and theater," Cohen said. "That had never happened to me before in my life with any other professors."

Before the UCI fine-arts school opened in fall of 1965, Garrison selected Cohen to be its chairman of drama. Cohen had received a full-time job offer to teach theater at UC Berkeley at the same time but said he turned it down because he "liked Clayton so much."

Garrison had a strong network of professional performers, having brought in dancer Eugene Loring as the school's first chairman of dance. He also secured guest instructors such as Austrian actress and singer Lotte Lenya and American playwrights William Inge and Edward Albee to visit the classrooms.

While serving as dean, Garrison directed productions at UC Irvine such as "My Fair Lady" and the American premiere of the English play "Oh! What a Lovely War."

His contributions to the school are a legacy that Daniel Gary Busby, current chairman of the department of drama at Claire Trevor, said will "live on well past most of us."

"In theater class, we still teach his physicalization techniques on how the body expresses itself," Busby said. "That's the mark of a great artist and that's what all of us dream about doing. To know that the world has changed because we were it in."

Garrison earned his bachelor's degree in English at the University of Southern California and his Ph.D. in dramatic theory and criticism at Stanford University. He has also taught at Stanford, Laguna College of Art + Design and UC Santa Barbara.

His wife, Hélène Garrison, is vice president of academic affairs at Laguna College of Art + Design. Together, they had two daughters, Christine and Morgane. Garrison also had three daughters from a previous marriage, Jacqueline Snyder, Michele Haller and Suzanne Hench. A son, Mike, preceded him in death.

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[For the record, Aug. 13, 5:33 p.m.: A previous version of this post omitted the name of Garrison's son, Mike.]

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