Former SF stage manager Milt Commons dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Friday November 17, 2023
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Milt Commons held one of his old acting headshots when he celebrated his 90th birthday while working backstage at San Francisco Opera. Photo: Tony Gorzycki
Milt Commons held one of his old acting headshots when he celebrated his 90th birthday while working backstage at San Francisco Opera. Photo: Tony Gorzycki

Longtime stage manager and actor Milt Commons made his final exit on November 6 in his longtime home of San Francisco, after an exceptionally long, useful, and colorful life, friends said. He was 96.

Mr. Commons, a gay man, moved to San Francisco in 1974, but it was at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles that he began his longest professional association, working with playwright and director Luis Valdez on his groundbreaking play (and subsequent film), "Zoot Suit." An obituary prepared by friends and family noted that Mr. Commons continued to stage-manage for Valdez's theater company, El Teatro Campesino, for its annual bilingual Christmas plays in San Juan Bautista, California. He led these immersive performances inside Mission San Juan Bautista for 25 years, finally calling his last show there in 2018.

Valdez paid tribute to his longtime friend and colleague, stating, "Milt instilled the highest level of professionalism as a stage manager and esteemed mentor in our company. He made it possible for all of our Chicano theater company to feel like it had a special place in the American Theatre. For this he will always have a special place in our heart."

Throughout those years Mr. Commons also stage-managed at many other professional theaters. When he was in his 80s and found stage management jobs increasingly hard to come by, he pivoted to a new career, studying for, and passing, the test to become a member of the theatrical wardrobe union. Mr. Commons dressed local and touring productions until he was 92, his final show being "A Christmas Carol" at the American Conservatory Theater. He officially retired in 2020 when the COVID pandemic closed theaters and there was no more work for him, the obituary noted.

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle by theater critic Lily Janiak, Mr. Commons took his enforced retirement in stride, commenting, "You never know when you've done your last show, and the reverse of that is that you've got to do every show like it's your last one."

Never one to sit idle, Mr. Commons loved to travel, collecting thousands of art postcards from museums around the world. In his late 80s he took a pile of books and hopped a tramp steamer to the South Seas, and was planning another voyage right before he was finally sidelined by a stroke at the age of 95, the obituary stated. As a serious and voracious reader, Mr. Commons was a valued participant in several reading groups, and also performed key liturgical and practical duties as a lay member at Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, including acting as stage director for the Old Cathedral Players.

The son of Milton and Katherine Commons, and brother of Carol, Mr. Commons was born and raised in tiny Macksville, Kansas (current population: 471) on June 17, 1927. Possessing a bright and curious mind, he set out to see the world beyond Kansas, attending UC Santa Barbara, then graduating from Kansas University with a B.S. in English education and an M.A. in drama.

Career started in 1950

His professional career in theater began in 1950 with the Imperial Players, a melodrama company in Cripple Creek, Colorado. From there he traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, working in shows with stars such as Kirk Douglas, Roddy McDowell, Mel Ferrer, and Cesar Romero. He worked his way around the country, from Hollywood to Maine, as both a stage manager and an actor, in summer stock, small regional theaters, off-Broadway and finally Broadway, where he worked with the likes of Charlton Heston, Gene Hackman, Jean Stapleton, and countless others. While in New York, he also acted as a supernumerary for the old Metropolitan Opera, and was featured reading the poems of Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. His skill and professionalism led him to other major stages, including the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, and the aforementioned Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, according to the obituary.

Friends noted that Mr. Commons was the consummate theater professional. He was also an artist and intellectual, a prolific writer, a rigorous scholar, a witty raconteur and charming bon vivant, and the most faithful and devoted of friends. He mentored generations of theater artists for over seven decades, and was a proud union man, being a 70-plus-year member of Actors' Equity, as well as SAG-AFTRA and the Theatrical Wardrobe Union.

Since a good stage manager is always prepared for whatever may happen, Mr. Commons made sure that his official last words were recorded for posterity weeks before his actual passing, the obituary stated. They were, of course, "Places, please."

Mr. Commons leaves behind a loving family, including his aforementioned sister, Carol (Ray) Ladbury; nephews Ray Ladbury Jr. (Michelle Chesnut), John (Ranelle) Ladbury, and Laurie (Scott) Biethan; grand-nieces and -nephews Sarah (Andy) Robinson, Michael Biethan (Marie Kapelke-Biethan,) Peter Biethan, Colton (Ashlee) Ladbury, Tony Ladbury, and Janelle (Beau) Kelley; and great-grandniece and -nephew Kira Biethan and Leonardo Robinson.

In addition to his biological family, Mr. Commons was blessed with the love and respect of his extensive chosen family of friends and colleagues, including legions of theater artists he mentored throughout his legendary career, the obituary stated.

Details of services are pending. The obituary noted that to honor Mr. Commons' life and legacy, people should go see a live theater performance and raise a glass to him.

In lieu of flowers, friends and family ask that people support human services for the theater community by donating to the Entertainment Community Fund at

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