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Ann Magnuson

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Basic Information

Ann Magnuson

Date of Birth: 4 January 1956
Place of Birth: Charleston, West Virginia, USA


Ann Magnuson (born January 4, 1956) is an American actress, performance artist, and nightclub performer who first gained prominence in the 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan. The New York Times described her as "An endearing theatrical chameleon who has as many characters at her fingertips as Lily Tomlin does".

Early life and career

Magnuson was born in Charleston, West Virginia to a journalist mother and a lawyer father. She had a brother, Bobby, who died in 1998 of complications from AIDS. She attended George Washington High School in Charleston. After graduating from Denison University in 1978, she moved to New York City, New York and was a DJ and performer at Club 57 and the Mudd Club in Manhattan circa 1979 through the early 1980s, while pursuing a performance career on varied fronts. She created such characters as "Anoushka", a Soviet lounge singer, wearing a wig backwards and singing mock-Russian lyrics to pop music standards, and separately sang in an all-girl percussion group, Pulsallama, whose 1982 single "The Devil Lives In My Husband's Body" was a housewife's lament of a spouse who appears to be possessed. Later, in the 1990s, Magnuson fronted the satirical faux-heavy metal band Vulcan Death Grip.

In an interview for the 2002 WETA-TV-PBS special Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family, Magnuson credited the idea of Loud — a member of an all-American family filmed day-in/day-out for the landmark PBS documentary An American Family, who came out as gay during the course of that documentary miniseries — with inspiring her to leave West Virginia for New York:

I watched An American Family alone in the kitchen and none of my other family members were interested in it, and I was fascinated, as everybody my age was, by Lance, and I really think that's what got me there. I immediately started hanging out at all the clubs that he hung out in, and I wanted to go to the places that I'd seen on television. ... I met him in 1978 when I got to New York City and was hanging out at CBGB. ... I honestly can't remember the exact moment but I know I was dazzled. I was just this little hick from West Virginia and I was meeting a celebrity, an icon, somebody who had made it"

Magnuson made her movie debut in the 1982 film Vortex.

In the late '70s and early '80s, Magnuson ran Club 57, in New York City's East Village. The club was located in the basement of the Polish National church. It became a center of a world that included Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and many others from New York's budding graffiti and downtown scenes. Club 57 was known for its theme nights such as Reggae Miniature Golf, or Model World of Glue Night.


A fixture of the Manhattan downtown club scene of the 1980s, Magnuson gained attention with her role as a snarky cigarette girl in director Susan Seidelman's low-budget independent film hit Desperately Seeking Susan, set in that milieu and which also helped launch the acting career of singer Madonna. Magnuson went on to star in Seidelman's Making Mr. Right (1987), a poorly received science-fiction romance about an android played by John Malkovich, leading to a film career as a character actor, often playing the funky, spunky, cute but smart and smart-mouthed friend or career woman.

Concurrently, Magnuson developed an underground following as lead vocalist of the band Bongwater, formed in 1985 with producer-musician Mark Kramer, a.k.a. Kramer. Bongwater released four avant garde albums and a debut EP before breaking up in 1992 with a contentious legal battle between Magnuson and Kramer that lasted through at least 1996 and ended with the bankruptcy of Kramer's independent-music label Shimmy-Disc.

Her 15-minute video performance piece "Made for Television", self-produced in 1981, ran on the WNET-PBS avant garde series Alive from Off-Center. Her satiric featurette found her playing close to 50 roles in a "channel-hopping" series of visual bites parodying television programming game shows to TV-movies to televangelists. As Art critic Sarah Valdez described it, "a bewigged Ann Magnuson consecutively inhabits, at a rate faster than any channel surfer could keep up with, an outlandish, uproariously unfortunate range of female stereotypes". It was later released by HBO Home Video together with the Cinemax cable-TV special Vandemonium Plus (1987), in which Magnuson starred in a mostly solo stage piece with appearances by actor-singer Meat Loaf and actor-monologist Eric Bogosian. Her 1995 CD The Luv Show (Geffen Records/MCA), her major-label debut, was commercially unsuccessful, but musically adventurous; one critic described it "an MGM musical as directed by Russ Meyer (which means the mambo 'Sex With The Devil'" and 'Miss Pussy Pants' sit comfortably next to Ethel Merman references in the same work)".

As Salon writer John Paczowski described her in 1997:

[A] celebrated icon in the more transgressive margins of culture, Ann Magnuson has been at once unknown and renowned for the past 15 years. She is infamous in more insular circles as the creative force behind the cultural mayhem of the East Village's Club 57, a breeding ground of experimentation and absurdity that spawned the work of Keith Haring, among others. (Under the auspices of a Club 57 project, Magnuson once performed a "Tribute to Muzak," singing for five hours straight in the elevator of the Whitney Museum.)

Later career

From 1989 to 1992, Magnuson played Catherine Hughes, the comically hip editor-in-chief of a Chicago magazine in the television sitcom Anything But Love, opposite Jamie Lee Curtis and comedian Richard Lewis, and played a liberal political commentator on comedian Wanda Sykes' 2003 Fox Broadcasting sitcom Wanda at Large.

Magnuson's film roles have included a snarly real estate agent in Panic Room, a madam in Tank Girl, Mel Gibson's "money junkie" ex-wife in Tequila Sunrise, Tom Berenger's estranged but horny ex-girlfriend in Love at Large, and a sexy victim of David Bowie's vampire in The Hunger. She also played a secretary in Clear and Present Danger and had a cameo in Cabin Boy.

Her TV guest appearances include an episode each of the Lifetime cable-network fiction-suspense anthology The Hidden Room; the cult-hit, surrealistic comedy-drama The Adventures of Pete and Pete and Salute Your Shorts on the children's cable television network Nickelodeon; the sitcoms The John Larroquette Show, The Drew Carey Show, Caroline in the City, and Frasier; and the police procedural drama CSI: Miami. In the 1996 telefilm The Munsters' Scary Little Christmas, Magnuson inherited Yvonne De Carlo's role of Lily Munster from the original 1960s TV series The Munsters. She appeared in the 1990 Redd Kross music video for the song "Annie's Gone", written about her. As Toronto, Canada writer Jason Anderson summarized her work through 1996, "She's been appearing in various states of undress for artistic purposes since her performance art daze in late-'70s New York [where s]he was indie rock's thinking vixen...."

In 2003, Magnuson began touring a one-woman stage show, Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories, that she mounted through at least July 2006. She played Sister Elizabeth Donderstock in the play The Book of Liz, written by Amy Sedaris and David Sedaris, in May 2005 at the 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood, California. Other theater work has included playwright John Patrick Shanley's Four Dogs and a Bone at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York City, the one-woman shows You Could Be Home Now (which opened the 1990 Serious Fun festival at New York City's Lincoln Center), and Rave Mom (opened in New York City October 2001), and in a neo-burlesque show The Velvet Hammer.

A Village Voice review described the autobiographical Rave Mom as Magnuson's "travels through 1999 — a year of Ecstasy-popping, bad romance-chasing and searching for escapism and meaning after her brother's death from AIDS. Magnuson has a thoroughly charming presence [but] her stories of celebrity-studded Oscar parties, kid-filled raves, a wealthy dotcom suitor, and so on, come off as utterly self-absorbed and trivial...."

She has performed at the Revlon/UCLA Breast Center benefit-show series What A Pair! in 2005, performing with Elaine Hendrix "Tips" from the musical Pump Boys & Dinettes, and 2006, performing with Samantha Shelton. She appeared in What's My Line? Live on Stage in Los Angeles on Sept 14, 2006.

For eight years Magnuson wrote a monthly column, "LA Woman", in the magazine Paper, as well as an accompanying blog.

In late 2006, Ann Magnuson released her second solo album, "Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories" on Asphodel Records. It was produced and cowritten by long-time musical director and accompanist, Kristian Hoffman, with whom Ann has had a creative relationship since meeting him when she directed "The New Wave Vaudeville Show" in 1976.

In 2007 and 2008, Magnuson performed in a cabaret act, "Dueling Harps", with Adam Dugas, Mia Theodoratus, and Alexander Rannie.

In 2009, Magnuson created a one-woman performance piece, "Back Home Again (Dreaming Of Charleston)", that was commissioned by Charleston, West Virginia's FestiVall.

Personal life

Magnuson married architect John Bertram in 2002. She has described the Eastside Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, where she lives in her Richard Neutra-designed house, as "a rainbow-coalition Mayberry ... You don't get a sense of anybody really flaunting how rich they are."


Magnuson on nihilistically violent movies such as Se7en and music videos such as Smashing Pumpkins' "Bullet with Butterfly Wings": "I hate these whiny, middle-class kids co-opting people's real suffering. Videos ripping off news photography of people in the Third World! I mean, we live like czars. ... When I see my friends lying in caskets and put in the ground, when you're really confronted with it, it's not cool, it's not Trent Reznor. I'd just like to make something beautiful. It's something to aspire to."

Solo albums

  • The Luv Show (1995)
  • Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories (2006)


  • Vortex (1982)
  • The Hunger (1983)
  • Perfect Strangers (1984)
  • Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
  • Sleepwalk (1986)
  • The Critical Years (1987)
  • Making Mr. Right (1987)
  • Macaroni & Me (1988 short)
  • A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988)
  • Mondo New York (1988 documentary)
  • Tequila Sunrise (1988)
  • Checking Out (1989)
  • Love at Large (1990)
  • Cabin Boy (1994)
  • Clear and Present Danger (1994)
  • Tank Girl (1995)
  • The Munsters' Scary Little Christmas (1996)
  • Before and After (1996)
  • Levitation (1997)
  • Still Breathing (1997)
  • Hugo Pool (1997)
  • From the Earth to the Moon (TV miniseries) (1998)
  • Small Soldiers (1998)
  • I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998)
  • Friends and Lovers (1999)
  • Love & Sex (2000)
  • Housebound (2000)
  • The Caveman's Valentine (2001)
  • Glitter (2001)
  • Panic Room (2002)
  • Night at the Golden Eagle (2002)
  • The United States of Leland (2003)
  • All Grown Up! (2003)
  • Ghostlight (2003)
  • Open House (2004)
  • Chasing Tchaikovsky (2007)
  • Woman's Picture (2010)
  • Small Pond (2011)


  • Anything But Love (50 episodes, 1989-1992)
  • The Hidden Room (1 episode, 1993)
  • The Adventures of Pete & Pete (1 episode, 1994)
  • The John Larroquette Show (1 episode, 1996)
  • Caroline in the City (1 episode, 1997)
  • The Drew Carey Show (1 episode, 1997)
  • From the Earth to the Moon (1 episode, 1998)
  • Wanda at Large (1 episode, 2003)
  • Frasier (1 episode, 2004)
  • Quintuplets (1 episode, 2004)
  • CSI: Miami (1 episode, 2004)
  • Unscripted (1 episode, 2005)
  • American Dad! (1 episode, 2007)
  • All Grown Up (6 episodes, 2003-2007)
  • Valentine (1 episode, 2009)
  • Head Case (1 episode, 2009)


  • Morning Becomes Ecletic (KCRW radio interview, Jan 25, 1996)

Further reading

  • (date n.a., 2006): "My J.T. LeRoy Story: Part 1" and "Part2", by Ann Magnuson. Reprinted, abridged, in Utne Reader (Feb 2007), pp. 96–98.
  • Interview (Sept 1995): Beverly D'Angelo interviews Ann Magnuson
  • Artforum (Oct, 1999): "The East Village 1979-1989 - A Chronology: Ann Magnuson on Club 57", by Ann Magnuson
  • The Village Voice (Aug 20, 1984): "Ann Magnuson: The High Priestess of Low Life", by Don Hewey
  • (July 9, 2002): "Ann Magnuson - Supernaut", by Thom Fowler
  • Playbill (March 30, 2005): "Ann Magnuson Stars in Los Angeles Debut of Amy and David Sedaris' The Book of Liz", by Ernio Hernandez


  • Had a Cinemax TV special (later released on HBO Home Video) co-starring Meat Loaf and actor/singer Eric Bogosian entitled Vandemonium in 1987. This was released on VHS including an earlier home video effort of Magnuson's called Made for Television (1981). This was a compilation of phony TV commercials advertising everything from laundry detergent to sitcoms in which Magnuson played all of the characters, ranging from battered housewives to overly ecstatic game show contestants.
  • Was singer/songwriter for underground experimental rock band Bongwater in the 1980s. The band broke up in 1991 after just six releases. She continued her music on a solo basis in the mid-90s with an album titled The Luv Show.
  • Graduate of Denison University, class of 1978.
  • Fronted the rock group Vulcan Death Grip which opened for the Jesus & Mary Chain on their first US tour. At the show at the Ritz in New York City a "fan" jumped on the stage and attempted to rip off her wig.
  • Was a DJ and Performer at Club 57 and The Mudd Club in New York City in the very early 1980's.