Update: Bille Garnick turned 100 on January 8! St. John’s Living Center is throwing her a party Sunday, January 13 from 2-4 p.m. Stop by to help her celebrate a new century!
JACKSON, WY— Performing arts is a family business for 99-year-old Billie Garnick. It’s part of her DNA, and the DNA of her children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
Garnick is St. John’s Living Center’s star choir member—she runs the show, and is a harsh critic. But she knows best. She should, after a brief career on Broadway and a lifetime making music.
Her mother was a dancer in St. Louis, Missouri, where Garnick grew up. Garnick said she was always expected to go into the family business.
Her “big break” didn’t take long. She was only 12 when a group of talent scouts from New York City came to town. She’d never even auditioned before, Garnick said, but she caught their eye. Garnick spent then next five years of her young life dancing and singing on Broadway.
“I didn’t like it at first,” Garnick admits of city life. “There was so much activity.” She was also the youngest and least experienced dancer—at least in the beginning.
But Garnick was tough—still is—and learned to love the theater’s cut-throat environment if it meant she got to perform. And it was, indeed, cut-throat. Garnick recalls the strict expectations placed on young dancers. They could not weigh more than 100 pounds, for example. By the time she left Broadway to go back to school, she was already considered too old. She was 17.
Garnick’s musical career didn’t end on Broadway. She carried it with her her whole life, and has passed it on to three generations.
Garnick went on to study music—”there was no such thing as ‘dance’ in those days,” she says, “just lots of good dancers.” She then taught music, and carried her love for performance to Jackson with her in the ’60s.
She and her late husband, Bill (yes, they were Bill and Billie Garnick) moved to Jackson with their kids and have since created quite the theatrical empire. Garnick’s late son, Cameron, and his wife Vicky, took over the Jackson Hole Playhouse Theater in 1978, where their eight children (Garnick’s grand kids) began their performing arts careers.
Garnick’s grandchildren have appeared on Broadway, studied at Juliard in New York, started production companies overseas, and had children of their own who sing and dance just as Billie once did. She encourages anyone with talent, but especially her family, to pursue the performing arts.
The only advice she offers those following in her footsteps? “They don’t need my advice.” But, she adds, sometimes it’s as much about grit and perseverance as it is about talent.
As for Billie? She still sings “all the time.” Her voice stands out in The Living Center’s choir—it is now deep and gravely, but always tonal and clear. She runs a tight ship in the choir, but knows “you can’t be too critical as you get older.”
Even at 99, it’s easy to look at Billie and see the young Broadway star she once was. Often the best dressed in the choir, she still carries an air of confidence and sophistication.
“Women in those days didn’t get as involved,” Garnick says, recalling her days as a Jackson pioneer. But it’s pretty clear that Garnick has captained her family’s ship for a very long time—or, perhaps more accurately, directed the show that is their lives.