Martin Magner has lived several lives in his almost 89 years. In his current incarnation, the Los Angeles-based director is prepping for the Friday opening of “La Ronde” at the Harman Avenue Theatre in Hollywood. From 1939 to 1965, he lived in New York, directing television at CBS. Before that, he’d built a reputation in Europe as one of the leading directors of modern theater.
Born in Germany, Magner discovered acting at 18. “I had no idea what a director is,” he admitted in his gently fractured English. “I thought it is someone who makes sure the actors don’t bump into each other. As an actor, I played a lot of ghosts, did many plays by Strindberg, Dr. Rank in ‘A Doll’s House,’ Mephisto. I think I was quite a good devil--a little devil.”
By 1930, he was working in an increasingly politicized theatrical community. “I hate to say leftist because it was just tremendously progressive, very aware--aware of the times, and completely opposed to the Nazi ideology,” Magner noted. The general director of the theater, who felt especially vulnerable because both of his parents were Jewish, feared the repercussions of his work and hurriedly left town.
Officials lost no time filling the post with the half-Jewish Magner. “There must be some mistake,” he told them. “You can’t make me general director; I am on both sides Jewish.” The visitors produced the 1904 death certificate of his father, Maximilian Magner--a Lutheran. “There was nothing I could say,” he recalled grimly. “They said, ‘You don’t know that?’ I said, ‘Well, my memory is sometimes foggy.’ ”
Magner held the uneasy position until the night of March 21, 1933, (he remembers the exact date of all the important events in his life), when he received orders to fire the seven Jewish actors in the company. Without waiting for the banks to open in the morning, he packed a suit and a tuxedo, gathered his hat, coat and briefcase, and took the night train to Vienna. Three years later, Magner sailed to America.
He holds tight to many cherished memories of his life in Europe.
Such as the time George Bernard Shaw paid an impromptu visit to a rehearsal of Magner’s radical production of Shaw’s “Too True to Be Good” and declared, “Sometimes youth is not wasted on the young” before he strode away. Or the time Sigmund Freud (amused by a show Magner was staging, in which a Freud look-alike psychiatrist fell asleep over his patient), invited the young director over for tea--and, several meetings later, suggested that Magner become a lay analyst.
Though he speaks proudly of his accomplishments--he was presented a special award from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle in 1975--there is, even in the grandest of statements, an endearing absence of hauteur.
“I have pioneered so much in my life,” he said of the early years in TV. “ ‘Studio One,’ ‘Montgomery Presents.’ It was a medium that was not yet developed. We had to do that. And we could experiment to our heart’s content. Nobody was looking over our shoulder saying, ‘Don’t do that'--because nobody knows anything. It was the most exciting direction because it was in your hands. In theater, you’re backstage biting your nails. But in live television, you are in control: You edit while you’re on the air.”
Mandatory retirement forced Magner out of CBS in 1965, and he resettled in California with his third wife, Marion Palfi, whom he lost to breast cancer in 1979. “We were two bachelors living together,” he said of their 27-year marriage. “She supported what I did; I supported what she did. She was a remarkable woman, a great photographer. Four Guggenheims.” He gestures to a volume of black-and-white photos, “Invisible in America,” Palfi’s bold and eloquent chronicle of poverty in the South in the 1940s and ‘50s.
“When she was marching in Selma with Martin Luther King, she turned to him and said, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ He said, ‘Aren’t you ?’ ”
Palfi, a former beauty queen and Ziegfeld star (Magner remembers her face adorning public kiosks when he was a young man) effected social change through her photos: Robert Kennedy used them in the Justice Department’s case against the anti-segregationists; they were also instrumental in changing many of the country’s child labor laws.
Locally, Palfi taught photography at the Inner City Cultural Center, while Magner directed several plays there. “He had an eye for detail,” said C. Bernard Jackson, ICCC executive director. “Most directors just go for the gusto. But I learned from Martin to look for the literary quality, to see things beyond their most superficial aspects. Also, at a time when other directors weren’t utilizing multiracial casts, he did a lot of non-traditional casting.”
Coincidentally, “La Ronde,” Schnitzler’s 19th-Century merry-go-round of love and sex, had been one of the plays Magner staged at ICCC; he felt that the time was right to visit the work again. “Not that the play is a challenge,” he admitted. “But it is a charming show, and I like Schnitzler very much. There is insight into people of both genders. It’s a knowing show, it’s smiling--and, I think, it’s a very funny play. Risque, yes.” (When he originally staged it in Europe, “the audience throws stink bombs on stage.”)
After a career steeped in heavy works--"Genet, Sartre, untold Shaws, Athol Fugard at a time when nobody knows of him"--Magner, whose theater work is supported by the local Goethe Institute, is relishing comedy.
“To me, light things is much more difficult than heavy,” the director said. “Even back in Germany, when I started, I never liked Teutonic acting. Every line was filled with unbelievable importance, as unnatural as you could be. I never acted this way. And when I directed, I always said to the actors, ‘Why don’t you talk to each other--talk and listen.’ But in Germany, they like major against minor, crashing all the time.”
A former mountain climber (“The desire is not to get to the top--anybody can do that--but to get higher and higher, into the lighter and lighter air”), Magner appears to be a man at peace with his life. “I came in with the century; I don’t expect to go out with it,” he said calmly.
“I had an operation a year ago, a blood clot next to my brain. Afterward, I crawled out of the bed, took one of the walkers and walked till the nurses caught me and brought me back. I wanted to live, and I wanted to be well.
“And I am.”