In Memoriam:
Georgene "Gigi" Sandberg
February 13, 1926 - February 4, 2009

Compiled by Richard N. Côté and Glen Sandberg / revised April 21, 2009

 

On Wednesday, February 4, the world lost a treasure beyond price. Georgene V. ("Gigi") (Schreiner) (Marshall) (Raymond) Sandberg, of Diamondhead, Mississippi, lost her battle with cancer and died peacefully in her sleep about 10:30 p.m., with her loving husband, Glen, at hand. He wrote, "We all knew her in the context of her many different interests so I won't try to list them all. The many aspects of her life go on in the inspiration she brought to each of us. Our memories live with the goodness and grace she has left in her wake."

The Mississippi Coast Jazz Society, of which she was a member, honored Gigi during their meeting and monthly jam session on Sunday, March 1, 2009 in the usual jolly / sensational tradition that Gigi had enjoyed so many times in past years. This time she was represented by her picture on the table. About a dozen of her friends and neighbors were in the audience of about one hundred. Her friend, Gigi Hines, a professional jazz singer, participated in the program.

Our Gigi lived her active life to the very end, thanks to Herculean determination, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy for almost ten years after first diagnosis of metastatic cancer. The terminal stage was brief and painless. She died in her sleep after two very active days, a week short of her 83rd birthday. Those who knew Gigi will realize that "active" is always an understatement in her case. Two days before her death, she insisted that Glen let her be the one to drive them fifty miles and back to the hospital for her radiology consultation. She was nothing if not a hurricane of energy, creativity, inspiration, and positive change. Wherever Gigi went, she sprinkled her own form of magical Pixie dust: a combination of enthusiasm, positivity, intellectual energy, and knowledge--all in the service of making the world a better place to live. Most people who knew her saw only one or two facets of her rich repertoire of skills, abilities, and belief systems. The following is just a superficial sketch, with huge gaps, pulled together hastily. Your additional pictures, anecdotes, and comments are solicited. The most recent will be found at the end of this page.

Family life

Gigi was born February 13, 1926 in Kansas. "My father, Kenneth Issitt, was a professional musician until about a month before I was born," she told historian Richard N. Côté, "and then he decided he had better be working steady, so he took a job with the National Biscuit Company." Her mother, Ruth, was a stenographer for an oil field promotion company. Kenneth's promotions led to frequent moves for the family. Gigi earned her bachelor's degree in statistics from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and a master's degree in economics from the University of Maryland. Her first marriage, to Leon H. Schreiner, brought them four children: Lisa Wulf, Lindsay Schreiner, Leanne Schreiner, and a son, Mark Stanton Schreiner. "I had four children with Leon, a brilliant neurosurgeon, the only one in Wyoming at the time; he used a light plane to cover his huge territory. After marrying Jim Marshall, a man with three children, and raising a total of seven children in Colorado, I thought That's enough -- it's time to go do something else. From early on, Gigi was a social and environmental activist. Gigi organized a fund drive and a campaign to change Colorado law so that public resources could prevail over private development. They saved the Florissant Fossil Beds that was lake-bottom sediment with well-preserved insect fossils, and ranch land about to be commercially developed, which has now become a national monument. When it opened she was the one-person park staff. Both she and her second husband, Jim Marshall, were national park employees before they left Colorado.

"In 1978, with the children all grown, Jim wanted to join the Peace Corps. We wanted to go overseas, but because of the work we wanted to do, only two countries had jobs open: Nigeria and Nicaragua." Because her husband was diabetic and required insulin, they couldn't go to either place, as neither country could guarantee refrigeration for the insulin. Instead, they were offered positions in southern Louisiana. "That's another country anyway," Gigi said. "My husband was Canadian, and spoke French, but even that didn't help us much in Cajun country. We were stationed just outside Baton Rouge, working with the elderly poor, but also did a number of other projects. In the last one, we brought public radio to Baton Rouge in 1980 for the first time. I was the first one on the air, broadcasting a program, 'For Olde Tymes' Sake,' for the elderly at 6:00 a.m. on WRKF. I lived at the station, turned on the transmitters in the morning, took the readings for the FCC, and went on the air. But Jim had died just about six weeks before that. He was the station engineer, and knew all the technical things you have to do to run a radio station, so I had to quickly learn all that and get the show on the road anyway. After that, I left the Peace Corps and went to work for the State of Louisiana in Baton Rouge. My children in Colorado thought I was coming back, but I just could not turn around. I'm just not made that way."

Hydroponic Gardening

Gigi, a Unitarian-Universalist by denomination and a devoted traditional Pagan by practice, had enormous respect for the Earth and lived in close alignment with all things natural. "That's one of the reasons I was so interested in hydroponics -- soilless gardening," she told Côté. "During World War II, when I was in my early twenties, I learned that was how they managed to feed the soldiers who were stationed at aircraft refueling bases on remote Pacific islands. I was fascinated that in a little ten-by-ten-foot vat, you can grow enough to feed a large number of people. The potatoes grow down, the corn grows up, and the tomatoes wind around everything. It was much more water-efficient than having each crop growing in a separate patch of ground -- and no weeds to worry about." For her own enjoyment, and to produce flowers and fresh vegetables for her table, she and Glen designed and built a super-efficient hydrogarden for her home. Constructed at minimum cost from plastic gutters, 2"x4" boards, some garden hose, a five-gallon plastic bucket, and a small pump controlled by a timer, they built it in only a few weeks. The picture at the left shows Gigi's home garden in full production. Jim made the original window-width gutter cascade for their elderly poor clients in the Peace Corps, with nutrient solution circulated from a pitcher by hand. Glen Sandberg built the one in the picture. Then Gigi bought a four by four-by-four foot greenhouse with recirculating pumps and sliding windows so one could reach in to care for the plants. They rebuilt that after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Water conservation had been a great interest to her for many years. "I'd drive across Kansas and Nebraska and see all that water being sprayed across all those fields, and most of it was wasted through evaporation. I was stunned that they were wasting all that." In Colorado Springs, she worked for Hydro-Gardens. There she learned large-scale agricultural hydroponic gardening and helped write a book on commercial hydroponic greenhouse operations. "Being an economist, I can see so many advantages of using it," she said. "They make extensive use of hydroponics in other countries, but this country has not disciplined itself to use it widely." In the 1970s, Iraq sought out the firm to build them hydroponic farms, so that they would have a sustainable food supply before the oil ran out. The owner of Hydro-Gardens supervised the installation of twenty-eight greenhouses. Saudi Arabia found out about the program and wanted their own. So Gigi duplicated the order and sent one there, too. Gigi also worked on developing hydroponic gardening units for use by NASA aboard future space stations.

Music

Gigi has always enjoyed music and she played in community orchestras wherever she lived. She played in the pit orchestra at the Biloxi Sanger Theater productions of Zorba the Greek and Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. She had a specially-made five-string instrument that could play either violin or viola parts, which she recently donated to a twelve-year-old boy who will appreciate it for a long time. Also she played with a seniors' band that visited retirement homes in Mobile. She boasted that they had twenty-six instruments at their house in Colorado and someone played every one but one.

Toy Theatre and Puppetry

Nearest and dearest to her heart was her love for toy theatres and puppetry. On their website, www.toytheatre.info, Gigi wrote "Toy Theatre is a unique form of puppetry; one which encompasses most of the known art forms in miniature. These tiny, but extremely elaborate, theatres are a delight to collect and display, and are completely absorbing when used for dramatic productions. The Toy Theatre originated in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century and played an important part in documenting the productions and theatres of the 1800s because it copied the actual theatres, productions, characters, and performances of the time and printed them on sheets of paper for reproduction in miniature in the home. The sheets were painted, pasted and cut out. The theatre itself was constructed of wood, or mounted on heavy cardboard. The play was rehearsed and finally performed for a living-room audience of family and friends. Many prominent individuals, including Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen, Winston Churchill, and Robert Louis Stevenson include a Toy Theatre in their childhood memories. The Sound of Music production featured such a theatre in the playroom shared by the von Trapp family children.

Interest in Toy Theatre prints waned during the early 1900s but in recent years has experienced a remarkable revival in Europe. In fact, the International Paper Theatre Festival is an annual event in Preetz, Germany. The gathering in 2008 was the 21st. In 1999, more than seventeen countries participated, including the USA. Clay Martin performed, as did Great Small Works of New York.

On June 20, 2008, Gigi and Glen's Toy Theatre Company hosted Robert Poulter performing his toy theatre show, "The Buccaneer's Bride" in June 2008 at the Diamondhead, Mississippi Community Center. The miniature theatre play was also performed at Playhouse in the Park, in Mobile, Alabama.

Gigi also took pride in serving as the national secretary for the Puppeteers of America in 1997-98. Diane and E. T. Houk wrote, "This photo (to the right) is of Gigi and Glen with a Danish Toy Theatre. They donated part of their Toy Theater collection to the Puppetry Arts Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. Gigi and I were often roommates at the Puppet Festivals and we were also members of the Hemlock Society. We first met because of the Hazelle puppets and hit it off immediately. She was such a free spirit and will be missed by many." Gigi was known worldwide for her generosity. Judith O'Hare, a puppeteer and toy theatre person, wrote, "I was sad to hear about Gigi. She was such a dynamic presence. She was so kind to my daughter. She sent her two small violins and urged her to start teaching Suzuki violin. My grandson, Michael, 2-1/2 , is learning to play the violin. As he plays that little violin, we will remember Gigi."

Harry Oudekerk, of The Toy Theatre at Fishmarket, offered this moving tribute: "Gigi Sandberg is dead. We all knew it was coming. But then we have known it for so many years that we tended to forget it. Gigi was there, strong, supportive. Ill maybe, but indomitable. About 12 years ago, the roof of my house burned down because of a silly, stupid, cheap firecracker. And because of that fire I lost my whole, large, toy theatre collection. Until I met Gigi on the Internet I thought that this would be the end of a life-long passion. She however put me back on my feet, helped me with advice and severely reprimanded me if I was about to give up. We met in in the flesh in 2000 in Preetz, Germany and later she and Glen came to our home in Harderwijk in the Netherlands. Then, from time to time, when she and Glen came through Amsterdam Airport on one of their trips, my wife and I got the "Royal Command" to come up and visit them during their time between flights. Sometimes too, we talked on the phone. Always stimulating, always full of ideas. She arranged for us to come and perform at the 2003 International Festival of the Puppeteers of America and she was very frustrated that we did not get a better writeup, because toy theatre, to Gigi, was a most important part of puppetry. Hurricane Katrina got us all worried. Gigi had become an international institution and everybody knew her. That was also true here in Europe. From Scandinavia to Spain, and from Hungary to Ireland, everyone was asking, "Do you know anything, how are they doing?" I think that in our heart we all believed that a mere hurricane could not get Gigi down. Last week she sent me a long email full of plans, but it was also an email that had the ring of goodbye.

Don Abramson made contact with Gigi in 1999 and wrote, "Thirty years earlier I had discovered Pollock's museum and shop in London and had fallen in love with the designs of the toy theaters. I thought I had acquired about all there was available in the world until that fateful moment when, exploring the possibilities of the Internet, I stumbled on Gigi and Glen's website. When I saw the toy theater orchestra heading the site, I knew I had found an important home. "Not only was I able to buy more theaters from her, but her site introduced me to toy theater lovers all over the world. Not only were there lots and lots of people who were interested in toy theater, but toy theater itself was alive and well and still being performed! Through Gigi I met several extraordinary people-mostly puppeteers-a number of whom became close personal friends. "I only actually saw Gigi a few times: the Puppeteers of America conventions in Seattle-which she urged me to attend-and Madison and the visit she and Glen paid to Chicago. But we exchanged a huge volume of e-mail and numerous phone calls. Mostly on our favorite subject of toy theater. In the last couple of years we talked a great deal about publishing our own toy theaters and plays because there aren't a lot of people left in the world who are actually creating such materials, and Gigi felt strongly that America should have some representation in the world toy theater scene. I had actually written a few scripts for this 'American Stories' collection, and we had discussed whom we might get to do the artwork. Gigi's work on Ford's Theatre in Washington was an offshoot of that project. "I have so many fond memories of Gigi. But I think my favorite is the mental image I have of her, barefoot, holding up her skirt, splashing joyfully with the other children in the wading pool of the Crown Fountain in Chicago's Millennium Park. I shall miss her greatly." Don Abramson, April 21, 2009

The Right to Die

Gigi was intensely involved with the international right-to-die movement. As she said in a recent interview, "Years and years ago, my late husband, Jim Marshall, and I were members of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, a British right-to-die group. People in this movement believe that the right to die at the time, place, and under the circumstances of their own choosing is a fundamental civil right, not a privilege that depends on the whims of politicians, lawyers, or churches," she said. "After all, who owns your body? You, or somebody else? My mother was extremely ill, and in great pain, and when I went home to visit her she kept asking me, 'Help me out of here. I don't want to live any more. Help me, help me. Please, please.' I didn't know how, and it wasn't legal, so I couldn't. But I decided that when I came back to the South, I would become active in the Hemlock Society. It was founded in 1980 by Derek Humphry, and its motto was "Good Life, Good Death." The Hemlock Society was dedicated to making it possible for people to make their own own end-of-life decisions. I had remarried at this point -- about 1983 -- to Julian Raymond, and moved to Diamondhead, Mississippi. I didn't realize that there was no Hemlock Society chapter anywhere in the state -- or Louisiana or Alabama, either. I tried to start a chapter in Mississippi, but the social climate in the South is such that if people belong to it -- and Hemlock had members there -- they didn't let that be known. Hemlock did furnish me with a printout of the members, but we couldn't hold meetings. Nobody would admit they belonged. People could lose their jobs or their social standing if the word got out. It was not a point of view that was socially acceptable there. So I was on my own. I couldn't even find a place for us to meet. Nevertheless, I became -- sort of by default -- the regional volunteer for Hemlock, and when the Denver headquarters got a call from someone in one of these three states, they referred the person to me. I knew a person contemplating suicide needed a human voice to talk to, and that became me. At the time, that's all I could do for them -- offer them an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on -- but at least I could do that." Hemlock Society founder, Derek Humphry, praised Gigi's endless volunteer work to give aid and comfort to the terminally ill, and noted that she was a faithful supporter of The Hemlock Society for many years.

At the inevitable end of a life that acomplished much more good than many others could possibly claim, she didn't need to take advantage of any of the end-of-life options she had learned from the Hemlock Society. As her good friend, Harry Oudekerk wrote, "To be permitted to die in your sleep, to go from slumber to sleep, to a peaceful end, is a gift that not many have received. She earned it." Gigi, who played the viola and paraded with her parasol in the second line of traditional New Orleans jazz funeral processions, will be honored in the near future by a gig in her honor at the Gulf Coast jazz club to which she belonged.


Notes from Gigi's Friends

Judy O'Hare wrote, "Thanks for the memorial. I was surprised to see the note about my grandson playing the violin. Here is his picture. Gigi sent my daughter two small violins and lots of Suzuki books, and me she sent Toy Theater sheets. "

Lew Carter wrote, "Thank you for letting me know. I'm terribly sorry she's gone. I'm one of the founders of WRKF and it was through WRKF that I met her. She did the first program of our broadcast day "For Olde Tyme's Sake," when we went on the air in January of 1980. I was able to help her because I had a large collection of big band records and furnished her with some of the music she used. 'For Olde Tyme's Sake' is still on the air. I do a two hour program by that name from 5 to 7 AM on Saturday mornings. I envy your for having had the privilege of having her as your wife and companion. Lew Carter / lewcarter78@gmail.com"

Peter Charlton wrote on February 10, 2009, "Gigi was a vibrant member of the British Puppet & Model Theatre Guiild for many years. When she made her occasional visits to the UK it was as if a hurricane hit our Toy Theatre community. She will be much missed. Our condolences to Glen, all her family and the Toy Theatre community of America." Peter Charlton, Chairman, British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild. Peter Charlton / peter@peterpuppet.co.uk

Stephen Langdale wrote in mid-February 2009: "Gigi left this world on February 4th, a few days before her 83rd birthday, after almost ten years of struggling against cancer. In the week or so before I received a flurry of emails and a letter from her; although they contained much of the “Gigi we all knew” about them I realised that she was making the effort to put everything that she could in the order she wished to leave them and that she did not expect to return home from her hospitalisation on the Monday. So much of what she set up in that last burst of correspondence with myself and a number of others was about making as certain as she could that the work she had done for years to encourage puppeteers, in the U.S. especially, and worldwide in toy theatre particularly is continued. One part of this was to ensure that a publishing project she had initiated and several of us are involved in is continued, funded and assured of being realised. I first met Gigi when she, with her husband, Glen, came to stay. We had corresponded for years but her dynamic personality was really only fully appreciated at close quarters. Within an hour of her arrival she was rooting through my studio and drawing up lists of what she wanted, organising trips to the copy shop, instructing Glen about essential photography and detailing scanning and printing which kept him busy on the computer for most of their visit. Even though she was more than a decade older than I, her energy was like a tornado.

Gigi and Glen lived in an area of the U.S. frequented by hurricanes and indeed many of her messages over the years have recorded these - not about the effects on themselves so much as the damage sustained by delicate toy theatre material. They traveled widely - almost to the end - and on these travels went out of their way to meet and mingle with anyone involved in puppetry or toy theatre. She was a friend and inspiration to many in numerous countries and pushed us all until we moved. Once, some years before I undertook my toy theatre version of the Mikado, she had been nagging me about starting on it and I remember replying, 'I'll finish my coffee and THEN I'll do it!' Generosity was one of Gigi' s greatest attributes. I know that for some years she had had the foresight to be distributing her substantial toy theatre collection to safe and worthy homes. In her last email to me she expressed her concern to me that I should both do the same and ensure that my plays continue to be available after my death. In her last letter to me was tucked $200 U.S., not as payment for stock but because I had moaned about the cold here in Casa Permafrost; I now sit comfortably beside the Gigi Sandberg memorial gas heater. Thank you Gigi! It is better that American members record Gigi's unstinting work for our crafts in their country because they will have a far better understanding, knowledge and appreciation of that than I. Of all the toy theatre enthusiasts that I have known during 70 years or so I can think of nobody who has contributed so much, so enthusiastically, to so many as Gigi. We have all been privileged to have known her and shared a small part of her life." Stephen Langdale / stephenlangdale@la-colmena.com


Gigi's friends who have additions, corrections, or photos to add here may send them to Richard N. Côté at dickcote@earthlink.net. Glen may be contacted at glens@ieee.org.

The photograph of Stonehenge by Ian Britton is used with the permission of FreeFoto.com.