During the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the creative wizardry of John Gantert lured thousands of people to downtown Minneapolis for Dayton’s famed rock concerts, Christmas extravaganzas, and flower and fashion shows.
As the longtime special events director, Gantert was in charge of coordinating painters, artists and prop designers to bring the department store’s eighth floor auditorium to life.
“The creativity poured from that guy. He was brilliant,” said Gantert’s daughter, Jeanne Auron. “He thought he had the best job on the planet.”
Gantert died Jan. 15 from complications of dementia. He was 90.
Gantert, who grew up in south Minneapolis, was hit by a car when he was just 3 years old. During recovery, he passed the time in bed by drawing, honing his creativity that would later become the catalyst for his career.
After graduating from Cretin High School in St. Paul, Gantert enrolled at the University of Minnesota. A year later, he left school for a job as a window dresser at Dayton’s on Nicollet Mall, once ranked among the nation’s best shopping districts.
When Dayton’s was considering turning its eighth floor auditorium into a space for conventions and meetings, Gantert suggested something else: open the space to the public to enjoy arts and entertainment.
Under Gantert’s leadership as the department store’s special events director, Dayton’s began to host concerts, fashion shows and other special events. Gantert created and planned the annual Christmas and spring flower shows that were synonymous with Dayton’s and a fixture of the Minneapolis retail scene.
“He coordinated all the sights and sounds and smells of the flower show,” said Bachman’s CEO Dale Bachman, who served as head gardener of the flower show for decades. “He was an artist.”
Gantert traveled the world with Dayton’s and Bachman’s executives to track down just the right props and flowers for the annual Christmas exhibits and spring flower shows. Money was no object when it came to these exhibits, Auron said. But for Gantert, the eighth floor fantasies he created were priceless.
A chocolate waterfall brought a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory exhibit to life. Half a million blossoms transported visitors to Italy. A crying Velveteen Rabbit tugged at the emotions of children and parents alike.
“I remember we never had to stand in line for those events. We always got to go and we got the VIP treatment,” Auron said.
While working at Dayton’s, Gantert met his wife, Carolyn, who worked in the store’s interior design and fashion departments. The couple raised their family in New Brighton, and traveled together for work trips to places like England, New York and Milan.
“They never had a lot of money but he was able to take mom all over the world,” Auron said. “All because of work.”
After 42 years, Gantert retired from Dayton’s and filled his time with family, faith, painting, sculpting and golf.
“He obviously appreciated flowers and plants, Bachman said, “But I think he appreciated golf even a little more than gardening.”
Gantert never lost his passion for the annual events at Dayton’s. When he could no longer make it downtown to see the exhibits in person, he’d invite Bachman’s and Dayton’s (later Marshall Field’s and then Macy’s) executives and the flower show’s artists to his home for lunch.
Gantert was preceded in death by his wife. Besides his daughter, Gantert is survived by another daughter, Susan Hulbert; a son, Anthony Gantert, and two grandchildren. Services will be held at 11 a.m. Feb. 1 at St. Katharine Drexel in Ramsey, with visitation one hour before.