Neither Allen Hamilton nor Susan Wagner was born in Minnesota, but they met at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Uptown Minneapolis and are current residents of St. Louis Park. They were friends for many years, says Wagner, before becoming partners, and what’s delightfully clear is that their friendship persists. Reveling in the haunts of other Park personalities—Thomas Friedman, Al Franken, the Coen brothers—they finish each other’s sentences on St. Louis Park favorites, among other things: his (Miracle Mile for Shuler Shoes and Half-Price Books, and Bruno at Bravo Jewelers); hers (Judith McGrann & Friends clothing and Ciel Loft and Home); and both (the West End movie theater).
In many ways, each appears to be more interested in recalling and promoting the other’s career than their own. We cycle through Hamilton’s 30-some “day-player” parts in movies, the most successful of which was The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford, and his long history of TV and radio commercial voice-overs (“ADM, supermarket for the world” is one of his more famous taglines) before Wagner directs the conversation to Hamilton’s stage career, which is lengthy. He was living in New York City when he auditioned for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. (One story of Hamilton’s—and there are many—is how Tyrone Guthrie himself “kicked me in the butt with his blue tennis shoe” because Hamilton, as part of a Greek chorus in The House of Atreus, hadn’t held a note long enough.) While working at the Guthrie in 1998, he got a call from a theater company in Chicago asking him to audition for the part of Uncle Ben in Death of a Salesman. What followed was nearly a decade of experience with the play (in which he co-starred with Brian Dennehy) in New York, Chicago, London and in a TV film as well. It was a particular honor, says Hamilton, to meet Death of a Salesman playwright Arthur Miller. Although not a man known for compliments, Hamilton says Miller told him, “I like what you’re doing with your part.”
But before the conversation becomes too much about Hamilton, he, in turn, tosses the ball into Wagner’s court. Wagner considers herself Midwestern: born in Illinois, a childhood including stints in St. Paul and Edina, and college at the University of Minnesota, where she majored in film because her family did not support her dream of art school. She feels lucky to have gotten, in New York City at age 25, her first job on a Bill Moyers series for PBS, primarily sound editing for features and documentaries. “I had that job for 13 years,” says Wagner, who subsequently worked with the likes of Mike Nichols (Working Girl), Milos Forman (Amadeus) and Sidney Lumet (Network, Serpico). Film editing, she says, “is about pacing, rhythm and timing.” She enjoyed the work, but in her free time pursued her first love, painting.
She was back in Minnesota for years, having chosen to finally pursue her painting and because “the lifestyle was easier and calmer than in New York City, the outdoors [which she loves] was more accessible, and, of course, family,” when she and Hamilton met. Her neat, light-filled art studio is in the Solar Arts building in Northeast Minneapolis. It’s filled with the kinds of paintings she finds herself currently drawn to: although she says she “comes from landscape,” she’s gone “from the horizontal line to breaking down the angles of nature.” She and Hamilton enjoy many aspects of the Northeast Minneapolis art scene.
It should be noted here that all references to stage and movie celebrities are nearly drooled over by Hamilton while generally eliciting little more than a shrug from Wagner. In recalling the stories of their early days, once again it’s Hamilton who makes the movie references: how Wagner responded “little sister” when he mentioned Tender Mercies; how they both loved Raising Arizona. Wagner may not be as enamored of movie stars, but of Hamilton, she says with affection, “Allen and I share a great love for the arts.”
(Painting by Susan Wagner)