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Chico State

Fond Farewell: Retired Theatre Professor James “Marty” Gilbert

The sun sets amongst clouds, buildings, and trees
Jason Halley / University Photographer

Retired professor James “Marty” Gilbert, who taught theatre for 26 years, passed away on November 5. He was 86.

Born in the small town of Blodgett, Missouri, on March 5, 1936, Gilbert grew up in Missouri and Arkansas. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theatre from Ouachita Baptist University and the University of Arkansas, respectively. 

James "Marty" Gilbert stands with his arms crossed on a pier with the ocean in the background.

In a career spanning 45 years, Gilbert was a professor, director, and set designer at Wilmington College in Ohio, the School of the Ozarks, New Mexico State University, and Chico State, where he was hired as a faculty member in 1979. After his retirement in 2000, Gilbert continued to teach at Chico State as a retired annuitant until 2005.

Gilbert was a masterful set designer who created worlds and captivated audiences with his talent and later with his innovative use of technology and computer programs. He was one of the first to adopt computer-aided design technology in an academic program and created Chico State’s first theatre computer design lab. In addition to designing theatre and opera sets for University productions, Gilbert devoted long hours to teaching and mentoring his students and was chair of the theatre department for five years.

He fell in love with theatre at an early age according to his daughter, Katrin Gilbert (Music, ’87). His introduction to the stage was in fifth grade when he played the part of a tree—his branches were made of crepe paper and attached to his hair. He also took acting roles in high school productions. And, although he initially pursued civil engineering as an undergraduate student, his passion for theatre drew him back.

Gilbert, who was known as Marty, is remembered as a pillar of Chico State’s theatre department and for demonstrating an openness and excitement for the collaborative process. Emerita Professor of Theatre Gail Holbrook fondly recalls how Gilbert consistently created an environment on the stage and in the classroom where students and colleagues felt supported and encouraged.

Holbrook became friends with Gilbert and his wife, Mercedes Frontera Gilbert, who died in October 2012, when the three of them joined Chico State at the same time in 1979.

During his time as department chair, Gilbert taught Holbrook patience and tolerance, she said. And as a fellow director for the annual season productions and Court Theatre (Chico State’s summer theatre program), she enjoyed working with him and for him. Gilbert was knowledgeable and generously shared his ideas and showed respect for those he worked with, she said. 

“I also had the privilege of taking one of Marty’s classes—he introduced computer-assisted design to our department,” Holbrook said. “I learned firsthand what an incredibly patient and supportive teacher he was. His students loved him.”

Emeritus Professor of Theatre Bill Johnson described Gilbert as “a dedicated and indefatigable mentor to the design students.” He was an intelligent, generous, and kind man, and he carried those qualities into his professional life.

“When I arrived at Chico State in 1993, it was Marty I looked to for sage counsel on everything from class prep to navigating my way through the department,” Johnson said. “His door was always open, his advice kindly offered, and his purpose always my success.”

Gilbert was the type of person who gave everyone the benefit of the doubt, said Cynthia Lammel, theater professor emerita. “I am so grateful that this man was in my life and the lives of those around me—students, staff, and other faculty. He was a blessing to us all, not just because he was such a lovely designer, teacher, and mentor, but because he remained kind, humane, and decent.”

Gilbert was one of the hardest working, most dedicated, and best-respected members of the theatre faculty, said Emeritus Professor of Theatre Randy Wonzong, who knew Gilbert for more than 40 years.

“He was truly an artist in his design work,” Wonzong said. “But Marty’s first love was teaching and developing student designers. . . . During his long tenure at Chico State, he was truly one of the pillars holding up the quality of the theatre program.” 

In addition to his passion for theatre, Gilbert enjoyed traveling and attending concerts. He was a voracious reader with an interest in science and history. 

Gilbert is survived by his children James, Katrin, and Galen; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Services will be held in January.

The University flag will be lowered Thursday, Dec. 1, in his memory.