By Elis Estrada
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Volunteer firefighter, first responder, dancer, stagehand, actor, student; and occasionally, Spider Man. Each of these professions is characteristic of careers that children dream of and aspire to one day. For William Gardell, 22, they are his reality.
Unlike many Manhattanites who prefer discussing their trials and tribulations over coffee or a drink, Gardell, known to everyone as Gardell, insisted on talking over a hot, crispy chicken dinner at a KFC on the Upper East Side. On the outside, everything from Gardell’s name, his idealistic hometown of Middletown, New Jersey, his style and appearance—usually blue jeans and a T-shirt to complement his sparkling blue eyes and light brown hair—the way he talks, his family values, and his family’s heritage, embodies Americana.
However, Gardell’s incomparable character, humility, altruistic qualities, and perhaps even his traces of normalcy, makes him unique and separates him from many twenty-something-year-olds living in Manhattan trying to make something of themselves and often forgetting where they come from.
Ravenous and thrilled by the sight of his chicken dinner, Gardell says, “I don’t know how you cannot go for extra crispy!” It is with this child-like enthusiasm for the simple things and carefree attitude that Gardell talks about his experiences; from being a volunteer firefighter to performing at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
William Gardell before a performance at the New York Opera.
“My mom is an artist. She has been the director of the Performing Arts Ensemble, a non-profit dance organization, for about 27 years now,” Gardell.
Since he was four years old, Gardell participated in his mom’s Performing Arts Ensemble; playing roles and dancing in productions such as The Nutcracker and Cinderella, and performing throughout the East Coast for the general public as well as for children’s organizations—such as the Girl Scouts—and charitable causes, including fundraisers for the autoimmune condition multiple sclerosis.
After rinsing his palate by drinking a bottle of Dr. Pepper—his favorite soda—Gardell comments talks his mom’s influence. “I’ve taken an interest in the arts and dance due to my mom’s influence. I’ve always felt that if homosexuality was caused by nurture and not nature, I would definitely be gay—well, at least fulfilling a stereotype of being gay.” Grinning at the thought he states, “As an infant, my mom would dress me up in Victorian, girlish looking dresses. She thought it was cool, I guess.”
Gardell as the prince in the Nutcracker.
Gardell’s upbringing was the basis for his diverse understanding and appreciation for traditionally girl-oriented activities. “I have a sister and we’re only a year a part, so when my sister took an interest in things, that meant I pretty much had to try it out too. Among other things, I also did gymnastics, figure skating, horseback riding, and took piano lessons.”
At a young age Gardell also recognized his interest in firefighting. “I remember going to a Gymboree, you know, one of those after school, ‘bring your kids to’ things with my parents in a firehouse. I remember wanting to try on the kids’ firefighter outfits they had and wanting to ride the mini fire trucks that were there too,” Gardell said.
Since he was 18 years-old, Gardell has been a volunteer firefighter for the Middletown, New Jersey Township Fire Department. Of his fire department, he proudly proclaims, “It’s supposedly the world’s largest all-volunteer fire department.”
Gardell is a volunteer fireman in addition to his artistic interests.
Gardell attends Marymount Manhattan College in Manhattan, but when he goes home—regularly on weekends and sometimes during the week—he carries a pager radio that broadcasts incidents in need of response by his firehouse.
Now 22, as a firefighter Gardell has had to witness tragic accidents, including a deadly car crash that killed a fellow student when he was a senior in high school. Gardell takes great pride in being a Middletown firefighter, saying, “I think out of everything I do, firefighting is the most fulfilling. It’s exciting, helpful, and I like the camaraderie that comes with it.”
How did Gardell go from being a firefighter to acting and performing in venues, such as the Metropolitan Opera House?
Gardell’s sister was interested in pursuing an acting career, so eventually, his family found an opportunity for him to try acting as well. “I started doing extra work when my mom saw an ad in Backstage, Gardell said. “My sister was into trying to act, so like everything else in my life, my mom wanted me to try it out too. That’s when I started submitting to things.”
Working as an extra consists of background acting for television, theater and film. “It was fun, easy, and interesting. I never had a creative drive to act like a lot of people, but I liked the idea of being part of a creative process without investing too much time in being worried about it,” Gardell said.
In 2005, during his freshman year of college, Gardell was cast in a National Coca-Cola commercial featured during the Winter Olympics and even the Super Bowl. He has worked as an extra in movies including, Across the Universe, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, and Enchanted; hit television shows such as Life on Mars, 30 Rock, Law and Order, and One Life to Live; and most recently, he has appeared in opera productions such as La Bohème, Aida, Carmen, War and Peace, Dr. Atomic, and Damnation of Faust at the Metropolitan Opera House.
When asked about his experiences performing at Lincoln Center, Gardell simply says, “It’s fun to wear interesting costumes and work with interesting people. In the production of Aida, I was an Egyptian slave and in Carmen, I was a flag vendor. Not many people can say they’ve had those experiences.”
Gardell and the cast of a Performing Arts Ensemble production.
Gardell’s shear willingness to fit into fields characteristically defined by affluence and exclusivity reveals the sincerity of his character. Also, in his community, Gardell has been hired to play and dress for the role of Spiderman and Disney’s Little Mermaid’s Prince Eric at children’s birthday parties.
A quality of Gardell’s that slowly and unexpectedly appears once you get to know him is his undeniable sense of responsibility. “I was a pretty serious kid. I’ve been told this from my mom, but you know, moms say whatever. She says that since I was 6 or 7, I’ve had an adult attitude about things.”
Combing his hair with his fingers and looking at his shoes in contemplation, Gardell remembers a specific incident from his childhood. “When we were on our family vacation to Florida, I noticed how many suitcases my parents had to carry, so without my parents telling me what to do, I started carrying them for them. That’s when my mom said that I began to have a sense of what responsibility means and really began to have an impression of what the real world was like.”
Gardell says he is developing a
greater sense of responsibility.
Walking out of the KFC, Gardell mentions the importance of community. “Sometimes I think people forget that we’re here to help each other out, you know. Especially other people my age, they get too self-involved sometimes.”
As Gardell walks to class, he reaches into his pocket, takes out some spare change—mostly quarters and dimes—and gives it to a homeless woman sitting at the end of a street block. Through his acts of kindness and strong values about community, it’s as if Gardell was from another time; definitely not from the individualistic age of the 21st Century.
Despite accomplishments others may only fantasize about, Gardell remains humble and surprisingly good. A kind of good usually lost amid the pressures and anxieties of everyday life. He is a caretaker, humanitarian, and entertainer—a contemporary renaissance man. But right now, for the next hour-and-a-half in class, Gardell is just another college student.