Dr. David Magidson
Dr. David Magidson

Keeping his sense of humor, Dr. Magidson moved into serious realms, acting a bit but most often fulfilling behind-the-scenes responsibilities — whether as playwright, professor, founding director of the Lenore Marwil Detroit Jewish Film Festival or artistic director of the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET).

Before David Magidson established a longtime career in theater and film, he performed comedy routines at a Wisconsin resort. 

Keeping his sense of humor, Dr. Magidson moved into serious realms, acting a bit but most often fulfilling behind-the-scenes responsibilities — whether as playwright, professor, founding director of the Lenore Marwil Detroit Jewish Film Festival or artistic director of the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET).

Two days before he died, on Dec. 10, 2021, at age 80, Magidson, of Bloomfield Hills, leased a new car, an act in line with his Motor City passion for timely vehicles.

“Think not of his heart condition as the ultimate cause of his death but rather as the cause and purpose of his life,” said Rabbi Brent Gutmann, of Temple Kol Ami, where the Magidson family worshipped.

Both daughters, Adriane and Laura, pointed out their dad’s heartfelt commitments. During the memorial service, they told of ways he steered family closeness, reaching from a marriage of 53 years and continuing with grandchildren. 

Adriane voiced his lessons of surrounding oneself with the right people and being the best one can be. Laura told of how he advised having confidence in personal choices.

“I never missed one of his plays,” said wife, Leslee Magidson, former Jewish Community Center assistant executive director. “The one production [out of more than 100] that holds special memories occurred when he was writing and directing Benchley Inside Himself, which was about columnist and actor Robert Benchley.” 

Magidson, department chair at the University of New Hampshire for most of the 1970s-80s, visited the son of the columnist-actor who was the subject of his play, and to everyone’s surprise, Magidson shaved what seemed his ever-present beard to take on the title role when the main cast member had to drop out.

“David did whatever he had to do to make productions right and authentic,” Leslee said. 

Dr. Magidson, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Wisconsin and a doctoral degree at the University of Utah, handled his last directorial assignment at the Hilberry Theatre in 2017, when he worked on A Streetcar Named Desire.

Moving between the classics and new productions, Magidson directed the prizewinning My Name Is Asher Lev for JET. Christopher Bremer, now JET executive director and then managing director, remembered Magidson’s production intensity regarding the drama about a free-thinking artist at odds with an observant family.

“David was a wonderful director because he was very honest in his comments while offering a joke when the mood needed it,” Bremer recalled. “He added to JET’s repertoire by bringing in name performers to present one-person shows and collaborating productions with other local theater companies.

“David was optimistic in his pursuit of the arts, especially involving Jewish culture. He cared so much and encouraged everyone. He was a wonderful person to be around.”

Dr. Magidson served as dean of the College of Arts at the University of Colorado in Denver for two years before joining Wayne State University (WSU) in 1991 as dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts and later settling into the responsibilities of a theater professor. During the turbulent 1960s, he taught at Virginia’s Hampton University, a school serving the Black community.

“He won over his students because he thought it was important to break some barriers,” Leslee said. “It was something he felt very strongly about for his whole life.”

Mary Elizabeth Anderson, chair of the WSU Department of Theatre and Dance, described Magidson as a beloved teacher proud of the success attained by his students, most recently George Abud, a Drama Desk nominee for his role in the musical Emojiland.

“When I think of David, I think of his generous spirit,” Anderson said. “I worked with him for 13 years and knew him as a mentor and advocate for faculty. He valued the arts as communicating the power of a story to transform consciousness.” 

The family recalls Magidson pointing out TV appearances of former students, such as Thorston Kaye, a soap actor in The Bold and the Beautiful.

Seventeen years ago, Dr. Magidson launched the Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival, tapping into volunteer skills of people he knew. Accountant Terry Hollander, a member of the JCC executive committee, sold tickets and tracked funds.

“Each year, the festival got bigger and better, and I attribute that to David,” said Hollander, who estimates watching 90% of films shown over the years. 

Mark Chessler, co-chairman of that first festival, described how it affected his future.

“Through David, I learned the importance of helping creators with unique perspectives tell their stories,” Chessler said. “That led to my film and television post-production career at Dolby Technologies and my involvement with the ReelAbilities Film Festival, which focuses on films by and about people with disabilities.”

Ever the director, Dr. Magidson once told Rabbi Norman Roman to save a poem recited at a memorial service. Rabbi Roman got the message, and passed the poem along to Rabbi Gutmann. It defined what can bring greatness to life and included dreams, truths, worth earned and help given — qualities attributed to Magidson by those closest to him.

Dr. David Magidson is survived by wife, Leslee Magidson; daughters and daughter-in-law, Laura and Meredith Griffith and Adriane Magidson; grandchildren, Violet, Asher, Levi and Hazel Reeves; sisters and brothers, Isabel Magidson, Robert and Anne Magidson, Edward Magidson and Jessy Gonzales De Magidson; brothers-in-laws and sisters-in-law, Bruce Lustig and Cathy Marrs, and Gregg and Dr. Lili Lustig; nieces, Leah Brennan-Magidson, Mara Brennan-Magidson, Elisa Lustig and Mariel Lustig.

He was the loving brother of the late Judith Herman; the devoted son of the late Arthur and the late Lottie Magidson. 

Interment was at Beth El Memorial Park.  Contributions may be made to Temple Kol Ami, 5085 Walnut Lake Road, West Bloomfield, MI 48323, tkolami.org; or to a charity of one’s choice. Arrangements by Ira Kaufman Chapel. 

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