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Milt Commons, longtime stage manager and associate of San Juan Bautista’s El Teatro Campesino, died at the age of 96 on Nov. 7, surrounded by his family and friends. He was known and respected for his work in Teatro founder Luis Valdez’s landmark play “Zoot Suit,” as well as “La Pastorela” and “La Virgen de Tepeyac,” the two annual Teatro Christmas plays.
“He was my first professional stage manager, ever,” said Valdez. “He was very disciplined, and he taught all our young actors and theater workers what it means to abide by professional standards. He brought that to San Juan and was held in the highest regard by everyone.”
El Teatro General Manager Christy Sandoval began her career there as an actor working with Commons and said he had a major impact on the company that still lingers.
“Milt gave me and many others our first professional experiences of what it means to be a part of the theater,” said Sandoval. “He taught us many lessons that translated off the stage as well. He was a joy to work with and a generational link between generations of young actors and adults.”
Commons was born on June 17, 1927. His career as an actor began in 1950 and may have peaked in 1957 when he was working in the repertoire company of Bellport, New York’s Gateway Theatre. According to a short biography printed in that year’s programs, Commons played a “long series of roles ranging from the boy-next-door to a visitor from outer space” and reported that he had worked “from Maine to California,” with two years spent at the Pittsburgh Miniature Theatre.
He was already very experienced in the theater—the biography mentions he acted and produced the first play he worked on at Gateway, Abe Burrows’ “Solid Gold Cadillac.”
Commons was much more than a stock actor, as the credits at Gateway demonstrate. In that year alone, he acted in “A View from a Bridge,” billed above Gene Hackman, in “Thieves’ Carnival,” billed above Robert Duvall, and in “Witness for the Prosecution,” above the two, both of whom later won Academy Awards.
By 1964, Commons had made the transition from acting to stage manager, working on a bilingual off-Broadway production of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 17th-century drama, “La Vida es Sueno/:Life is a Dream” at the Astor Place Playhouse. It was a challenging task: the play alternated nightly between Spanish- and English-language productions.
“I really didn’t know what a stage manager was until I became one,” Commons said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle on the occasion of his retirement in 2020.
“Milt was a New York veteran himself,” Valdez said, “and had been on Broadway as an actor years ago. However, he worked most of his years as a stage manager in the professional theater in San Francisco as well as in the San Francisco Opera.”
In 1964, he also produced and directed his first record album, “William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for Folkways Records. Commons would go on to record two albums drawn from the work of Soviet dissident poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko: “The Poetry of Yevtushenko Read by Milt Commons”(1966) and “The Poetry of Yevtushenko: Zima Junction” (1967). All three albums are still available from the Smithsonian Institution, and the two albums of poetry can be streamed on Apple Music and iTunes.
In 1968, Commons made his Broadway debut as stage manager for an ambitious Billy Rose Theatre production of The House of Atreus trilogy (“Agamemnon,” “Eumenides” and “Choephori”) by the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus.
In 1976, Commons was stage manager for a production of the “Norman Conquests” trilogy at the Morosco Theatre, which ran for seven months. The play was included in the Backstage on Broadway tours program, which allowed people to see the inner workings of a production and a New York Times article, Tours Behind the Scene, described Commons taking a tour group visiting the set of “The Norman Conquests” backstage to show them the props and staging of the play:
“He disbursed a wealth of information, about money, about performers, about how a theater is rented. A woman looked at the somewhat dowdy set and remarked that the furniture looked as though it had come from a flea market. ‘I’m happy you said that,” replied Mr. Commons cheerfully. ‘That’s what the designer wanted.’’
A year later, Commons served as stage manager of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis for the world premiere of “Vincent,” a one-man play written by Leonard Nimoy, with the Star Trek actor playing Theo van Gogh.
Commons first worked with El Teatro during the February 1979 premiere of “Zoot Suit” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. He followed the production to its Broadway debut at the Winter Garden Theater in March 1979.
Longtime Teatro member and BenitoLink board member Phil Esparza was part of both of those productions and worked closely with Commons thereafter.
“He provided us with experience, wisdom, and professionality with regards to acting and how things are supposed to be done,” said Esparza. “He was an important member of Teatro, and he was always an elder—he was my Uncle Milt, just overall a gentleman scholar and a wonderful human being.”
When El Teatro moved their Christmas productions to Mission San Juan Bautista starting in 1971, Commons was asked to again act as stage manager, a role he maintained until 2018.
“He was a Catholic,” Valdez said, “so it was personal for him and part of his religion and his spiritual perspective. But more than that, I think that he found a family here.”
Kinan Valdez both acted and directed under Commons and worked with him in his first professional acting role when he was 16 years old. He credits working with Commons as important to his theatrical growth, saying Commons envisioned himself as a caretaker for the plays and was able to cultivate many special relationships with individuals in the company.
“I like to say that I have a Milt inside my head,” he said, “because he informed my sense of the values and the commitment to doing theater, and his love of theater was so immense that it was infectious. When I had a chance to finally work with him as a director, I was amazed to see him in action in terms of his mentorship and his ability to inform.”
When Commons was not working with El Teatro, he remained busy in theater around the country, most notably his work with San Francisco’s legendary Magic Theater on plays such as “Summertime” (2000), “Schrödinger’s Girlfriend” (2001) and “The Sex Habits of American Women” (2003). El Teatro’s David “Oso” Alvarez, who provided production support for Commons during the Christmas plays, stayed with Commons in San Francisco briefly while he was working with the Magic Theater.
“He always felt like someone who just kept me by his side,” Alvarez said. “He didn’t mind picking me up from my lumps and would say, ‘Come on, let’s go do this.’ You looked up to him, and you looked forward to what he was bringing to the table all the time.”
Commons officially retired as stage manager with El Teatro after the 2017 production of “La Pastorela,” but he returned briefly as “master stage manager” for “La Virgen de Tepeyac” in 2018, assisting stage manager Lupita Marisol Rodriguez for a few performances before returning permanently to San Francisco.
El Teatro actor Mauricio Samano became close friends with Commons during the Christmas shows and continued to visit him in San Francisco up until a few days before his death. Samano said that he first met Commons in 1998, and felt he had become kind of a grandson to him.
“He always encouraged me to step up on the stage,” he said. “When I took on the role of Juan Diego in 2010, he gave me an ornament of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and he told me that something he saw in me that made him think I could play the part, without me even knowing that I could do it.”
Samano thought that it was interesting that Commons, who did not speak Spanish, was stage managing a play that was almost exclusively in that language.
“He had that kind of brilliance,” he said, “and he had a great passion for the theater. Everybody was always looking forward to when Milt would be coming to join rehearsals, especially the new cast members whom Milt would tell the history of the mission and the do’s and don’ts of performing there.”
Samano visited Commons just before his death and said that despite his not being able to speak, Commons was in good spirits and was very engaged with his visitors.
“When I was there,” he said, “we ended up singing songs from the Virgen and the Pastorela.
I played him songs from the radio shows, too, and you could totally see his face reacting to the music like he wanted to sing along.”
Luis Valdez was able to visit with Commons just before he died. He said Commons spent his last days in a way that was consistent with his whole personality.
“He was aware,” he said, “and he was the same old Milt except that he was in bed. But between sleeping and waking he was still vibrant, charming, funny and conscious of everything that was happening around him. His transition was peaceful and he went out with music all around him.”
A memorial mass will be held for Commons at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco but, as of press time, no date has been set. According to Valdez, Commons requested that his ashes be returned to San Juan Bautista and spread there.
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