Temmie Gilbert was an inspirational theater teacher, arts patron and civil rights activist who won three Emmys for TV work, one of them for producing one of Chicago’s longest-running children’s programs, “The Magic Door.”
The Jewish-themed show set in the fictional town of “Torahville,” aired on WBBM-TV on Sunday mornings from 1962 to late 1991. It starred “Tiny Tov,” who lived in an acorn and traveled on a magic feather back to biblical times to teach children about kindness, sharing and friendship. Sponsored by the Chicago Board of Rabbis, “The Magic Door” touched on the Old Testament and Jewish traditions.
Many Chicagoans of a certain age can still sing its opening song:
“Ah room zoom-zoom,
Ah room zoom-zoom,
Gilly, gilly, gilly, gilly, gilly ah sa sa.
Come through the Magic Door with me
Just say these words and wondrous things you’ll see.”
“It was teaching values, kind of like Mr. Rogers,” said Ted Okuda, co-author of the book “The Golden Age of Chicago Children’s Television.”
Whether in children’s TV, books, theater or opera, “She just loved stories,” said her son, Peter Gilbert. She also loved classic and arthouse movies such as “Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “The 400 Blows.”
“She was one of the main reasons I got into film,” said her son, a producer and director of photography for the acclaimed “Hoop Dreams.” He thanked his mother for “life support” in the 1994 documentary’s credits.
Mrs. Gilbert, who won an Emmy in 1987 for “The Magic Door,” died of multiple myeloma Sunday at her home in downtown Chicago. She was 92 and a fighter.
Twenty-five years ago, she suffered a stroke that put her in a coma for two months and damaged her memory. Before the stroke, she survived a car accident that shattered 11 bones.
She grew up Thelma Louise Davis in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Her father was a civil rights attorney who helped integrate Newark schools, her son said.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in theater at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she met her husband, Arnold Gilbert, on a blind date. They married in 1946 and moved to his hometown of Chicago.
“She was not your typical World War II housewife,” her son said. “She wanted her own life, her own jobs.”
Bohemian yet elegant, creative and intellectual, she earned a master’s degree in theater at Governors State University. She began teaching and wrote and directed more than 100 children’s plays, her son said.
Arnold Gilbert worked as a builder. A gifted photographer who also collected pictures by others, he amassed a stunning collection that he would donate to major museums in the United States and Japan. His favorite was a famous print of Greta Garbo, head in her hands, by Albert Steichen.
“They were friends with Ansel Adams,” their son said. “They’d go spend Christmas at his house in Carmel.”
They built two modernist homes in Flossmoor that buzzed with life. Arnold Gilbert worked in his darkroom while Temmie timed scripts in a study full of books, LPs, Thai puppets and Kabuki masks.
“We always had people coming and staying in our house,” Peter Gilbert said. “When I was a kid, Stokely Carmichael was there. Odetta used to sing me to sleep.” Carmichael, a civil rights leader, is credited with coining “Black Power.” Folk singer Odetta was called the voice of the civil rights movement.
“I can remember being a small child and going to see Dr. Martin Luther King speak in Chicago,” said an older son, Andrew.
Through the non-profit Urban Gateways, Mrs. Gilbert ran summer camps that brought inner-city kids to the suburbs and suburban kids to Lawndale, her son said.
“I would not be who I am if it weren’t for that woman,” said Ellie Carlson, who studied theater with her in the 1970s at Governors State. “She didn’t treat us like kids. She treated us like actors.”
Carlson, who does one-woman portrayals of figures from history, has never forgotten Mrs. Gilbert’s instructions to students: “In the audience tonight there is someone who is seeing theater for the first time and someone who is seeing theater for the last time. You play to those two people, and forget about everyone else.”
Mrs. Gilbert won a 1990 Emmy for a TV production of “The Odd Potato,” a children’s Hannukkah-themed drama, and in 1988 for “Nothing is Simple,” a program about interracial dating.
When “Hoop Dreams” premiered, she knew it was going to be important. “She really got it and got the potential for it to have an impact on people’s lives,” said executive producer Gordon Quinn of Kartemquin Films.
The Gilberts were a founding family of Temple Anshe Sholom in Olympia Fields.
She is also survived by another son, Jeffrey, and five grandchildren.
A February memorial service is planned.
Peter Gilbert’s 2006 short film “No Place Like Home” focused on her love of Turner Classic movies. They comforted her through memory problems and the death of her husband. “Every night,” she told her son, holding Arnold Gilbert’s framed photo, “I blow a kiss to his picture.”