Long before Laura Osnes would star in "Grease" on Broadway and years before she would earn two Tony nominations for her performances in "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Cinderella," Eagan theater director Dennis Swanson gave the third-grader her first break, in "The Music Man."
"I'm so grateful for the opportunity he gave me, the belief in me, even at a young age," Osnes said Thursday from New York. "I think of all the lives he touched and inspired as a teacher and director in high school and in the community. To hear this news was such a shock."
Osnes was among the many professional actors on Thursday who were devastated by the news that Swanson — a longtime teacher, director, mentor and community theater enthusiast — had died Wednesday when his car crashed into an oncoming truck in Dakota County. He was 70.
Swanson established theater programs at several Minnesota high schools, including Apple Valley and Eagan. Of the 25 one-act plays that he directed for the state One-Act festival, 21 earned the highest honors.
"So many of the professional actors who work here got their spark from Denny in high school," said Old Log Theater artistic director Kent Knutson, who headed theater programs in Blaine, Anoka and Minnetonka and knew Swanson for 43 years. "He was a bright, hardworking artist who spread that to his kids."
Caroline Innerbichler, who starred as Ariel in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' "The Little Mermaid," remembered Swanson as "the whole reason I got into this business." She described herself as a hyperactive fifth-grader who learned focus from Swanson in community theater productions.
"He had this very authoritative presence and told us that this is first and foremost hard work," Innerbichler said. "The last time he saw me perform was as Ariel. He was never sentimental, so when he told you something good, it packed a punch."
As much as Swanson meant to her personally, Innerbichler said, his greater gift was how he built a theater community at Eagan. "I was in shows with my whole family in those summer productions," she said. "He created this community single-handedly, and that was so powerful."
Bobby Gardner, a regular performer at Brave New Workshop, said Swanson was his inspiration to get into the business. Coincidentally, he was in the same "Music Man" production as Osnes, and Gardner remembered a director who expected the best from his students.
"He shaped me as a performer early on and when I went to college, I had a big step up on most of the other freshmen because of the training," Gardner said.
Swanson taught English and film studies in his high school career, in addition to running the drama departments. He won several awards for his work and was inducted into the Minnesota State High School League Hall of Fame in 2013.
Jared Oxborough, an actor at Chanhassen, the Guthrie and Theatre Latté Da, said Swanson "commanded respect, and you wanted to do good for him."
Oxborough recalled that after his first year of college, he was feeling aimless. That summer Swanson cast the actor in "Grease" at Eagan Community Theater.
"He took me by the arm one day and asked me, 'What are you doing with your life?' " Oxborough said. "I said I had no idea, and he pushed me and gave me the confidence. Honestly, without him, I don't know where I would be."
Interestingly, in that production of "Grease," Swanson passed on Osnes for "Sandy" — the role she would win in a nationally televised competition in 2007 and then play on Broadway. "Apparently it wasn't my time," Osnes said with a laugh Thursday. "It was always a little joke we shared."
Osnes said she kept up with Swanson regularly. "He would always start his e-mails, 'Hey kiddo,' " Osnes said, her voice breaking. "He kept in touch and cared how I was doing not only in my career but as the person I was. I just thought that was so nice."
Swanson is survived by his wife, Jan, children Andrea, Kelly and Jeremy and six grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 6:30 p.m. March 6, at Eagan High School.
Staff writer Tim Harlow contributed to this report. ,