Rochester resident Jack Garner, who for decades served as the Gannett News Services film critic, died Sunday at the age of 75.
Known for reviews that brought both a critic’s eye and a movie lover’s tastes, Mr. Garner was a fixture in Rochester’s art circles for decades. A jazz aficionado, he often introduced some of the annual Jazz Festival’s top acts. A trustee at the Eastman Museum, he was the second recipient of the museum’s prestigious George Eastman Medal of Honor.
He also was very hard to miss in a crowd — standing 6-foot-9. His laugh, and he laughed often, resounded as if it had a life of its own.
“The glass was always half full with him,” his wife, Bonnie, said Sunday. “It was never half empty.”
She and Mr. Garner would have celebrated their 50th anniversary next month. A couple that loved to travel — a South African trip this year was cut short by COVID-19 — they were planning international trips after the end of the pandemic.
“We had a good good life together,” she said.
Even his movie reviews reflected Mr. Garner’s outlook on life, and his effervescent optimism. Mr. Garner would try to find a nugget of something refreshing even in films that were largely panned.
“When he was a movie critic, he always tried to find the good in anything he saw,” Bonnie said. “He was always very upbeat.
“He had 2,500 Facebook friends, for crying out loud. They appreciated his opinion.”
Those who knew Mr. Garner well were aware of his connections to Hollywood, though he was not quick to talk of the many hours he spent interviewing stars and the recognition he had in those circles. But occasionally it became obvious.
2013: Jack Garner is Rochester’s Hollywood connection
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Former Democrat and Chronicle editor Ellen Rosen remembered overhearing him check his telephone messages at the office.
“Before voicemail, he had an answering machine,” she said. “After lunch, he would always play back the messages he missed.”
One, she recalled, was “Jack, Bob Redford here, calling you back.”
“I can’t think of too many major stars he didn’t interview,” Rosen said.
While Mr. Garner was known for his ability to unearth something appealing in most films, there could be exceptions.
“Jack panned a movie called The Program, which in its initial release included a scene where high school athletes lay in the middle of a busy road on a dare,” remembered Democrat and Chronicle editor Len LaCara,
” ‘I dread the day I read about some real high school jocks who’ve been inspired to duplicate that irresponsible film sequence,’ he wrote in his review,” LaCara said. “Jack was the first national critic to criticize Disney for the scene, but it wasn’t until two kids were killed replicating it that the studio cut it from the film.”
Mr. Garner was interviewed by the BBC and CBS Evening News about the film’s impact. “He understood the art of cinema but always viewed it through the lens of our readers,” LaCara said. “No wonder he foresaw what others did not.”
Mr. Garner began reviewing films for the Democrat and Chronicle in 1977, starting with the original Star Wars. A decade later he was chosen the chief film critic for Gannett newspapers, and provided reviews for more than 100 newspapers.
Jack Garner’s first view:1977 review called ‘Star Wars’ epic, mentioned potential sequel
He retired in 2007, though continued writing freelance arts columns.
“His journalism resonated with young and old alike because of his engaging approach and his palpable love for the arts,” said former Democrat and Chronicle executive editor Karen Magnuson. “When I saw him out in the community, he embraced everyone around him with great gusto. He was beloved by all he touched through his journalism and many other contributions.”
His close friend, former Democrat and Chronicle sports columnist Scott Pitoniak, became friends through the Buffalo Bills. Mr. Garner was a season ticket holder and fan.
“I would tell him, ‘This is better than the movies, Jack,’ ” Pitoniak said. “It’s like a drama, but the Bills often have a sad ending.
“He was a journalistic giant and a prince of a man. He was as good a person as I have come across in the business. … You could talk about anything and everything with him and you would learn something you didn’t know before.”
Mr. Garner graduated from St. Bonaventure University and had a master’s from Syracuse University. He joined the Rochester Times-Union in 1970, working as a “rewrite” editor — a role in which an individual gathers up incoming reports from a single event and weaves them into a story. Mr. Garner handled rewrite for some of the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage from the Times-Union of the 1971 Attica uprising.
His 2013 book, From My Seat on the Aisle (he always needed an aisle seat because of his height), was published by RIT Press and includes some of his favorite reviews and tales of his interactions with Hollywood stars.
The Garners have three children: Matthew Garner, married to Sonia; Erica, married to Ben Tremble; and Mary, married to Whitney Christian. They have six grandchildren.
His children provided thoughts on their father for a High Falls Film Festival celebration once.
Among the memories from Erica were: “Every night while my siblings and I prepared the dining room table for dinner it was my dad’s job to pick out the music. We always had music playing in the background at dinnertime. Our meals were accompanied by a vast array of artists ranging from classical, jazz, blues, and rock and roll. …
“My birthday is only five days after my dad’s so several times in my lifetime my birthday party was held on my dad’s actual birthday. During these times after all my guests would arrive the first thing my dad would do was pop the Beatles White Album into the stereo and sing along real loud “You say it’s your birthday, well it’s my birthday too, yeah.” I always got such a kick out of the fact that it was true.”
Matthew, who is now an independent film editor, wrote: “In college I started off trying to get a degree in English literature, well I quickly learned that this wasn’t necessarily the best for me and therefore switched my focuses to fine art, photography and film. I began to realize how much schooling I had had right at home with all of those many years with my parents and dad specifically when it came to film. I not only had an immense film library to peruse, but also a plethora of books, many of which you could not have found in the college libraries.”
Mary wrote: “Christmastime especially, we would hear the same mix Christmas album on the way to cut down the tree and the same music Christmas morning. My brother, sister and I would wait at the top of the steps to await the song that was a signal to us that we were allowed to go downstairs and rip our stockings from the chimney. When I was sick my dad would always ask me what I wanted and would usually buy me a Mad magazine and my own package of Lorna Doone cookies, along with the cough drops, soup and juice my mom sent him to get for me.”
Local jazz saxophonist Jimmie Highsmith Jr. remembered how thrilled he was when Mr. Garner reviewed one of his CDs favorably. “The fact that Jack Garner wanted to write about me meant a lot to me,” he said.
“He was not just a writer. He was not just a reporter. He was part of this community in a big way.”