clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘He was full of life and exuberant’: Utah Shakespeare Festival founder Fred Adams dies at 89

A pioneer in Utah’s arts scene, Adams founded festival in 1961 with late wife Barbara Gaddie Adams

Fred Adams, organizer of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, talks about his version of the play “Peter Pan” with Jerry Crawford in Cedar City.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

CEDAR CITY — A 7-foot-2 bronze statue of Fred Adams stands in Cedar City. It shows Adams’ arms outstretched, welcoming people to a festival that transformed a tiny Utah town into a major arts destination.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival founder died Thursday morning at the age of 89, and people have started bringing flowers to that statue, paying their respects to the man who added so much to Utah’s arts community.

A pioneer in Utah’s arts scene, Adams founded the festival in 1961 with his late wife, Barbara Gaddie Adams. A big inspiration in creating the festival — aside from boosting Cedar City’s economy and providing activities for summer tourists — was to build upon the arts legacy that Utah’s earliest pioneers left behind.

“Right from the beginning, when it was the state of Deseret, Brigham Young was promoting quality theater,” Adams previously told the Deseret News. “I think probably as important as any (reason for founding the festival) was to keep alive this passion that the early settlers had in the arts, in classical music, in classical literature and especially in the writings of William Shakespeare.”

Beginning with a budget of $1,000 and 3,000 paid admissions, Adams substantially expanded the festival’s annual budget — today it sits at $8 million — and transformed the festival into a renowned event that 100,000 people from all over attend.

The festival received the Tony Award for outstanding regional theater in 2000 and has caught the attention of publications across the country, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.

“This is saying to the nation that the USF is worthy of national attention, and we’ve worked so long for that,” Adams told the said shortly after the festival received the Tony Award.

But the festival’s many successes aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when artistic director Brian Vaughn thinks of Adams.

“All of his achievements, as far as his theater accomplishments and the impact he’s made on the arts in Utah, they pale in comparison to his generosity and spirit as a human being,” Vaughn told the Deseret News Thursday. “I think that’s why he was so successful as a leader in the arts because he understood humanity, and it was evident in how he lived his life, which was with love and kindness and an open, welcoming spirit.”

Vaughn was a student of Adams at Southern Utah University (Adams taught at the school from 1959 to 1997). It didn’t take long for Vaughn to learn that Adams had a “wild wardrobe,” but from his teacher he also learned the importance of being creative and expressing individuality.

“He was full of life and exuberant. Much like he ran his seminars for the Shakespeare Festival, he ran his classroom the same way, which was sometimes full of what I call ‘Fred facts’ in that you never knew if it was true or false,” Vaughn said with a laugh. “But he was a showman … always supportive, always brought out the best in you.”

Beyond being the festival’s founder, Adams was a driving force who directed all three plays during the festival’s first season in 1962 — “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Hamlet” and “The Merchant of Venice.” He also acted in the festival. Vaughn, who played opposite Adams in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 1995, still laughs at how Adams would remove his hairpiece at the beginning of the show.

Adams was the primary fundraiser and producer for the festival, leading to the efforts to build the company’s first permanent building — the Adams Memorial Shakespeare Theatre that opened in 1977 and was the festival’s home every summer through 2015.

Fred Adams, a pioneer in Utah’s arts scene who founded the Utah Shakespeare Festival, died Thursday morning at the age of 89.
Provided by the Utah Shakespeare Festival

Adams also played a big role in building the Randall L. Jones Theatre in 1989 and the rest of the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts in 2016. Even after retiring from his leadership role in 2005, Adams could be seen on campus running seminars and mingling with the guests.

Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert, who presented the Governor’s Award in the Humanities to Adams in 2010, expressed his admiration for Adams following the news of his death.

“Fred was a genius,” he said in a statement. “He truly was the visionary behind the Utah Shakespeare Festival, which is beloved by both our state and our nation. Fred was one of a kind, and he will be sorely missed.”

Born on Jan. 30, 1931, in Cedar City, Adams earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brigham Young University in theater arts and Russian. During the Korean War, he served in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1954 and served a three-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Finland from 1955 to 1957.

He was named professor emeritus upon retiring from SUU. And although he retired from leading the festival, Adams remained active in directing, acting and fundraising. He still came to his office nearly every day, continuing to mentor countless students, artists and administrators.

“I got to know Fred not only as a mentor and an organizational leader, but as a friend who I’ll miss profoundly,” Frank Mack, the festival’s executive producer, said in a statement. “However, I’m dedicated, along with the entire festival community, to preserving and advancing his legacy and vision. His invention of the Utah Shakespeare Festival is a great innovation that forever changed the destiny of the state of Utah, Cedar City, and the country.”

The bronze replica of Adams, sculpted by Stanley J. Watts, was dedicated in 2006. Even the cold, snowy weather couldn’t keep people from visiting and paying their respects Thursday.

“Fred Adams is a true hero, not only to me personally but to the state of Utah as a whole,” said Evan J. Vickers, Utah Senate majority leader, in a statement. “He has done the work of 10 men and managed to accomplish it in just one lifetime. We are all indebted to him for the amazing things he has done for us. He will truly be missed, but his memory and legacy will last forever.”

Adams’ family has not yet announced funeral plans. A celebration of his life will be scheduled for sometime in the near future. Adams asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Utah Shakespeare Festival.