Chanhassen Dinner Theatres patrons thought they recognized the sequined woman welcoming folks to the suburban Minneapolis playhouse.
“Did we go to high school together?” one asked Nancy Nelson as she stood in front of the fireplace in the theater lobby. Nelson shook her head.
“Church?” another asked.
Though Nelson’s face was familiar, the customers could not immediately place her. Then, a memory unlocked and one of them blurted out: “TV!”
Ding, ding, ding!
A Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductee, Nelson had a 50-year-plus TV and radio career that took her from being WCCO-TV’s Saturday night “weather girl” in the 1960s to producer and co-host of the “What’s New?” talk show on what is now KARE 11 in the 1970s to the news anchor desk at KTTV in Los Angeles to the queen of infomercials in the 1980s and ’90s.
Now the former Miss Minnesota USA, still charismatic and engaging, is making connections with the public in person instead of over the air. Nelson, 72, was hired last summer as a greeter at Chanhassen, one of four people who take turns welcoming the hundreds of thousands of patrons who regularly stream into the nation’s largest dinner theater.
Nelson is the first woman in a role pioneered in 1993 by actor, public relations executive and artist manager Dick Stanley. Chanhassen has had only a handful of greeters since then and theater officials said that Nelson is perfect casting.
“Nancy is natural with people and the epitome of class,” said Michael Brindisi, Chanhassen’s artistic director. “She’s a great fit for what we do here at Chanhassen.”
As she worked a recent evening show at the theater, she greeted hundreds of patrons in the lobby, inquiring about their special events and darting off to a counter to write notes. She was gathering information.
Just before a main stage show starts, the greeter does a five-minute spiel, announcing birthdays, anniversaries and other notable events that patrons may be marking.
On this evening, a group of emergency room nurses met up at the theater for a girls’ night at “Mamma Mia!” A teenager was celebrating her birthday. And a mother and daughter had met up for the former’s 78th birthday.
“People come to celebrate these special moments at Chanhassen, and it might seem kind of hokey, but this is a [big] deal to people,” Nelson said. “Some people walk through life without anybody saying their name out loud or feeling special. But this one time, everybody goes like that [she applauds]. I get to be part of that.”
A truck driver’s daughter
While Nelson gained fame early in life and always has been used to being in the limelight, most of the people she has met have not had opportunities to bask in applause or glory. She remembers her father, a World War II veteran who worked as a truck driver, as one of those people. (Her mother, Florence, was a secretary.)
Upon his 60th anniversary as a member of the American Legion post in Chanhassen, her father was honored at a dinner. Everyone stood and applauded.
“For the rest of his life, this humble truck driver said, ‘Nance, I’m so glad you were there to share that with me. They stood up for me. Nobody stood up for me my whole life,’ ” she said.
Nelson loves her greeter job. As she engages with patrons, it’s clear that she’s in her element, taking photos, cracking jokes and making everyone feel like they’ve come to a place of warmth and joy.
Still, Nelson wishes that she could still do TV, a medium she first appeared on at 3, and something that she says she was born for.
“I’ll take my last breath wishing I was in front of a microphone,” Nelson said. “In most professions, you get better as you get older. Not TV.”
Viewers write in about hair, makeup, clothing, Nelson said. They are especially hard on women, a mix of sexism and ageism. Nelson recalled that her husband — longtime news anchor Bill Carlson, who died in 2008 from prostate cancer — gained a little weight as he was battling health issues.
“And that flew,” Nelson said. “If I had gotten a little chubby, that would never have flown. The public would have come after me.”
‘A pragmatic person’
However, she’s thankful for progress. She said that many women in the news business today don’t know that there was a time when women weren’t able to do news. Nelson was a first at more than one anchor desk. That gives her hope for those who are coming after her.
“I’m a very pragmatic person, so I have seen the evolution, and all of this will continue to evolve,” she said.
A font of cheer, wryness and wit, Nelson admits that her life has been pretty charmed. She got her own show as a teenager, co-hosting the teen dance show “Date With Dino.”
Two weeks out of high school, she had her first professional theater role, playing a psychiatrist’s daughter in “The Impossible Years,” a comedy by Robert Fisher and Arthur Marx, at the Old Log Theatre. Her parents were in the audience on opening night.
“The show has a center spiral staircase, and the blocking called for me to come down in my bathing suit, stop and look down at the man who plays my father,” Nelson recalled. “So as I stop center stage in my tiny bikini, I hear this voice saying, at top volume, ‘Oh, my God, Florence!’ The audience starts to laugh because they weren’t sure if that was supposed to be part of the show.”
Nelson also was one-half of a broadcasting power couple with Carlson. The pair palled around with numerous celebrities, from Loni Anderson and Dolly Parton to Jane Fonda and Nick Nolte. Singer John Denver sang “Follow Me” at their wedding. Nelson had a small role in the 1970 film “Airport.”
She remembers taking her dad to meet his idol with whom he shared a name — the country star Willie Nelson.
“It was out at the State Fair and I had my cameraman with me,” Nelson said. “I knock on the door and ask Willie, ‘Would it be OK with you if my father came in?’ And Willie said absolutely. And I said, Willie, I would like you to meet my father, Willie Nelson.”
“It was so cute,” Nelson said. “My dad, who had been bald since he came home from the service, liked to tell people that he’s the Willie Nelson without the money or the hair.”
The Chanhassen gig isn’t just for fun. Nelson has a pension and Social Security, but she needs the extra money. “There are property taxes,” she said.
While she and Carlson earned a princely living, much of that money was spent on health care. Nelson cared not only for Carlson during his illness but also for Carlson’s mother and for her own father. The medical bills drained their savings.
“By the time Billy passed, I was broke and struggling to maintain the house,” she said. “Shortly after my father passed, the bank just took it.”
Every day Nelson wears a brooch or pin with a bumblebee theme. They’re mementos from her late husband.
“Billy would always give me a bumblebee and say, ‘That’s you,’ ” she said. “He would say that according to the laws of science, a bumblebee is not supposed to fly. But nobody told the bumblebee.”
Nelson said that has been a guide for her life. Two years ago, she donated a kidney to a friend.
“People of a certain age aren’t supposed to do that, but I checked it out and it’s something I can do, so I did it. One life is all we’re given. Got to make the most of it.”