Production stage managers sometimes are likened to air traffic controllers because they sit at the nerve centers of shows, working discreetly to make sure all the elements come together seamlessly. And when they do their job well, they deliver a compelling production without drawing attention to themselves.
But if you've seen any shows at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres over the past four decades, you've probably experienced Susan Magnuson's work.
For 45 years, Magnuson served as the stage manager at the nation's largest dinner theater, calling shows in all four stages in the complex. The 225 productions that she stage-managed — from "Camelot" and "Fiddler on the Roof" to "Hello, Dolly!" and "The Sound of Music" — were seen by millions of patrons.
A persnickety Anglophile who liked to spin puns and was fastidious to a fault, Magnuson, 70, died Jan. 30 in St. Paul after a short battle with stomach cancer.
"She was a formidable personality who knew all the [union] rules and was intensely loyal to her craft," said Kris Howland, Chanhassen's longtime public relations director. "Susan wanted what was best for shows. And she was extremely loyal and protective of the actors and her friends."
One of those friends was Molly Sue McDonald, the veteran singing actor. "She was an authentic, original, one-of-a-kind person," said McDonald, who met Magnuson in 1979 when she did her first show at the theater, "The Robber Bridegroom." "She was so smart, challenging and also kinda prickly."
Born June 22, 1950, Magnuson was raised in Minneapolis and graduated from Hopkins High School and the University of Minnesota. She started in stage management at the Guthrie Theater during the tenure of Michael Langham. She also did short stints at the Hartford (Conn.) Stage and Chicago's Goodman Theatre before finding her forever theater home at Chanhassen, where she also created wigs and costumes and worked in dramaturgy.
"In our budget we never had a line for a dramaturge, but we could always count on Susan to know some of the strangest, most obscure things, especially about the British Isles," said artistic director Michael Brindisi. "She was a walking historian who knew everything about British history, which came in handy when we did shows like 'My Fair Lady' and 'Camelot.' She could tell you about all the different types of swords."
When Magnuson sat in on rehearsals, he looked to her as a guidepost.
"Every time she squinted her eyes, I knew I did something wrong," Brindisi said. "At the break, I would go straight to her and she would say, 'You mispronounced that' or 'You got that wrong' or 'You made an assumption that was inaccurate.' She was an amazing person."
Magnuson gave her life to her craft, forgoing marriage and children. "Theater was her family," McDonald said.
If she was buttoned-up in the theater, outside of it she sometimes lived on the edge. She loved to hike and kayak. She had a fondness for exploration and travel, with multiple visits each year to the British Isles.
"She was a game chick — if you called her up at three in the morning and said, 'Let's go play volleyball,' she would say, 'Where?' " said actor Peggy O'Connell, who became friends with Magnuson in 1980.
O'Connell recalled a visit the two made to Ireland.
"We had been drinking and the tour guide said something wrong," O'Connell recalled about a castle tour. "She knew more than that tour guide and she was very polite about it. But when she said ahem, I knew it was time for me to quietly walk away."
She leaves no survivors. Services have been held.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390