They call him Prop God.
That’s not just because Linus Vlatkovich has worked at the Guthrie Theater since the beginning of time — he’s been on staff for all but nine of the G’s 55 years — but he can create anything if you give him a couple of weeks, a pile of sheet metal and a screwdriver.
His last shift is Tuesday, 46 years to the day since he started. His final show is “Frankenstein — Playing With Fire,” which begins performances Saturday. He built Dr. Frankenstein’s lab table, an object he’s quite familiar with, since he made one when the Guthrie produced the play in 1988. The first production he recalls was 1972’s “Of Mice and Men,” for which he helped create a pool of water and some fake plants.
In between, Vlatkovich touched hundreds of shows. He’s mostly worked on furniture, including dozens of desks. A theatrical sofa gets as much wear and tear in eight weeks as yours might in 40 years, he said.
“Sometimes the designer says, ‘I want a 16-foot table that people can dance on, but it has to store upright because there isn’t enough room backstage, but it also has to be light enough for two people to carry,’ ” he said. “We work out problems like that all the time.”
His boss knows there’ll be no filling his shoes.
“No one could have that skill set and that institutional knowledge,” said props manager Sarah Gullickson. “There’s his fine carpentry and his attention to detail, but the other thing with Linus is his presence. He’s a kind and reserved person, but, as you get to know him, his humorous side comes out.”
Theater was not always his plan. In fact, Vlatkovich describes his stage appearances with the gusto of someone anticipating knee-replacement surgery.
“I had to do acting twice,” said the 69-year-old, chatting in the Guthrie’s prop shop. “I didn’t want to. I was the conductor in ‘Music Man’ in high school. And in ‘Baptism,’ in college, I was a messenger from God. To me, they felt like huge roles because I had to talk and I am not a person who talks very much.”
Conversation also would have been required in his parents’ dream for him. They wanted him to be a dentist, so he started a pre-med program.
But Tooth God was not to be. After flunking out, he shifted to the University of Minnesota Duluth, where buddies said the theater could use the construction skills that teenage Linus demonstrated when he built himself a bedroom in his family’s Hibbing basement.
“It was: ‘Boy, I like this.’ Theater was something I excelled at,” said Vlatkovich, whose first name is John, but who has gone by Linus since high school.
Now, it’s difficult to imagine dentistry working out for Vlatkovich, whose hands are so enormous that Gullickson must special-order gloves: “We get them as big as they’ll come. And we joke in the shop all the time about picturing those hands coming at you in the dentist chair.”
Vlatkovich’s Hulk hands get in the way if he has to pick up a pin on his workbench, but Gullickson said he’s adept at delicate tasks. Big hands have mostly been an asset since Vlatkovich came to the Guthrie as an intern from St. Cloud State University, where he transferred from UMD. An internship at the theater turned into a summer gig (“$30 a month!”) and then, on Sept. 11, 1972, he clocked in as a full-time employee.
“What do I like best?” he said. “I like looking at what we’ve been given and saying, ‘OK, where do we start? How can we make this work?’ ”
Vlatkovich generally begins with drawings created by the designer and discusses them with others in the prop shop. “I figure it out backwards: ‘This needs to be strong here and we’ll need to support it this way and it looks like it’s going to have to be on casters.’ Then, I work from there.”
His toughest project is also one of his favorites: A 1925 Rolls-Royce that was driven across the Guthrie’s thrust stage in the 2006 production “The Great Gatsby,” a piece he and 10 others collaborated on.
“Originally, they wanted me to build half a car because it was only going to drive across the stage one way,” said Vlatkovich, who then learned that both sides of the Rolls would be visible. “It ended up being so much easier to just build the whole thing. It turned out they wanted five people to ride in it, so it had to be very sturdy.”
Mid-rehearsal adjustments are not uncommon. The biggest disaster he recalls was “The Parchman Hour” in 2016. For the musical drama, Vlatkovich made six benches with metal frames and wooden slats, but no bracing.
“I knew that wasn’t a good idea, but the designer liked the look,” he said. “In rehearsal, they had 10 people sitting on the bench at the same time, and it just crashed. Went straight down. Luckily, no one was hurt. So I went back and put in braces.”
A warehouse full of work
The audience never knows about those problems. They’d likely be surprised to learn that last year’s “Native Gardens” required Vlatkovich to find a portable toilet, while this summer’s “West Side Story” literally involved dumpster diving. During rehearsals of the song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the shop added padding to a dumpster so performers could safely leap into it.
“It’s smart to do a little extra work so a piece can be adjusted the way I think [the designer] will want, to just build something so that it can be taken apart and rebuilt,” he said. “It’s easier to take out screws than nails.”
After Sept. 11, Vlatkovich won’t give up screws or nails. Over the years, he has rebuilt his and wife Gloria’s home in southwest Minneapolis, more than tripling its original size, so there’s always work to be done there. And the Guthrie will hang onto his XXL gloves.
“He enjoys hunting, and I think this is going to time out well for duck season,” Gullickson said. “When I asked him if he’s available [for projects] for us, he said, ‘Sure.’ So I asked about Sept. 12 and he did say, ‘No,’ but we’ll see if we can tempt him back.”
Even if he doesn’t return to the prop shop, audiences haven’t seen the last of his projects. Vlatkovich delightedly recalls attending History Theatre’s “Glensheen” a couple of years ago and realizing that it used chairs he had built for “A Christmas Carol.” And the now sturdy “Parchman Hour” benches have done a brisk rental business for the Guthrie, which maintains a prop warehouse filled with his work.
Yes, the Prop God may be leaving the building, but his creations will stick around for a long time.
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