By Patricia Freeman Margaret Nelson
May 01, 1989 12:00 PM

In 1971, 28-year-old Susan Goeppinger accepted a starring role at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre in the cornfields outside Minneapolis, thinking it would be a brief detour after the two small parts she had just played on Broadway. She had a six-week contract to play opposite David Anders, a minister-turned-actor, in the two-person musical I Do, I Do. There was no doubt in her mind that when the job ended she would return to New York. Her apartment was waiting, and after eight years of waitressing between auditions, she was finally making a living as an actress; she’d finished a national tour of Fiddler on the Roof and substantial Broadway roles seemed within reach.

Nearly two decades later Goeppinger is still appearing in I Do, I Do at Chanhassen, having exchanged an offstage “I do” with co-star Anders more than 16 years ago. They married after performance No. 500. Some 600 performances later their son, Kris, now 14, was born; daughter Erin came along in 1976. Except for those maternity leaves, David’s brief layoff for an injury, and a two-week vacation every year, Goeppinger and Anders have been exchanging vows onstage every night except Monday (plus a Sunday matinee) since 1971. With some 6,500 performances behind them, they hold an American record: No other play has run for as many years with its original cast.

In a profession where steady work is about as common as a total solar eclipse,

Anders, 52, and Goeppinger, 46, are grateful for theirs, and have even managed to establish a normal suburban existence. They’ve built a three-bedroom home overlooking a golf course near the theater—which is 20 miles outside Minneapolis—and moved in some of the furniture from the original stage set. Except for the hours they keep, they might be a pair of typical PTA parents, “running the kids all over town to lessons and getting home just in time for dinner,” as Goeppinger puts it. Six evenings a week they follow the schedule they’ve kept ever since the day they married: a light supper, a family chat and then off to the theater in time for an 8 P.M. curtain. “It’s a good life,” says Anders. The couple’s only real regret is that they’ve missed so many of the children’s school activities. “We arrange to go to the rehearsal and the kids understand,” says Goeppinger. “It’s the way our life is.”

Understudies are expensive, Goeppinger says, so she and David have gone onstage with every malady from laryngitis to the flu. “It’s stressful because your ego’s involved,” says Goeppinger, a Tulsa native who inherited a love of theater from her father, a businessman and amateur actor. “You don’t want the audience wondering how you kept the part all these years when you can’t sing!”

Over the years, says Anders, the couple’s changing perspectives on their husband-and-wife characters—who age 50 years in the course of the two-act play—have kept things interesting. “At each stage of our lives we see the play differently,” says Susan. Adds David, “Every time we go out there, it’s a new performance.” Some nights the parallels between life and art strike a particular nerve. “If we’ve had a disagreement during the day,” says David, “some of the fights in the play feel pretty close to home.”

But should boredom ever threaten, there’s always some offstage drama among the fans, who come to celebrate anniversaries or just pitch a little woo. Chanhassen is a romantic tradition in these parts, and over the years the actors have seen all sorts of emotional transactions taking place both during the show and over dinner beforehand. One man would bring each new girlfriend to the play and watch her reactions to see whether she was wife material. Another wrote a marriage proposal on a plate and had his date’s dinner served on it. “I was just hoping she’d make it through the gravy to the message,” Anders recalls.

All this may end soon. Chanhassen’s owners want to retire, and the theater is for sale. Anders, a Minneapolis native who quit his job as a minister when the footlights beckoned, is not looking for new roles. He plans to play golf until he needs another job. “I’ve had a casting director tell me I obviously can’t do anything else or I’d have done it,” he says, “but I’ve got talent, and I love this work. I’ll keep going.”

For Goeppinger, who is now auditioning for TV and radio commercials, 18 years may yet prove to be an extended side trip on the route back to Broadway. “Maybe when the kids are grown and we don’t have any responsibilities, we’ll move to New York and be character actors,” she tells her husband and co-star. “Wouldn’t that be a treat?”

—Patricia Freeman, Margaret Nelson in Chanhassen