‘Visionary’ Utah Shakespeare Festival founder Fred C. Adams dies at 89

(Suzanne Plunkett | AP photo) Fred C. Adams, of The Utah Shakespearean Festival, of Cedar City, Utah, accepts their award at the 54th annual Tony Awards ceremonies Sunday, June 4, 2000, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The group received the Regional Theatre Tony Award which is given to a regional theatre company that "has displayed a continuous level of artistic achievement" and includes a $25,000 grant.

Fred C. Adams, who co-founded the Utah Shakespeare Festival and grew it from a tiny Cedar City event into a globally recognized Tony Award-winning regional theater, died Thursday morning. He was 89.

Adams’ death was confirmed in a statement by Southern Utah University, the festival’s home.

Frank Mack, the festival’s executive producer, called Adams “a visionary leader, one of a handful of great artistic geniuses that helped create the regional nonprofit theater movement.”

“A great light has gone out,” said Brian Vaughn, the festival’s artistic director. “The achievements he made during his lifetime are monumental, and I am honored that I’ve been blessed to call him friend.”

In 1961, Fred Adams — then a theater professor with two years of experience at the College of Southern Utah (now SUU) — and Barbara Gaddie, his girlfriend (they married in 1963), were in a laundromat when they hatched the idea for a Shakespeare festival in Cedar City.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Fred C. Adams leaves a candle on the stage following the dedication of the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre, in Cedar City, Thursday, July 7, 2016.

Adams went to Ashland, Ore., to study how the Oregon Shakespeare Festival worked. He came back to Cedar City, and cajoled the Lions Club to donate $1,000 — the entirety of the first festival’s budget in 1962. Townspeople and students built sets, props and costumes.

He directed all three plays that were produced — “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Hamlet” and “The Merchant of Venice” — and was the main fundraiser, producer and public advocate for the company. Barbara ran the music programs and the popular Greenshow for the first several years.

The first Utah Shakespearean Festival (the name was shortened by two letters in 2016) cleared $2,000, selling 3,000 admissions. Compare that to the 2019 festival, when around 100,000 tickets were sold, and the budget surpassed $8 million.

Adams’ efforts to build a permanent home for the festival led to the Adams Memorial Shakespeare Theatre, completed in 1977. The theater, modeled after Shakespeare’s Globe, was not named after Fred, but after Thomas and Luella Adams, the parents of philanthropist Grace Tanner, the wife of jewelry magnate Obert C. Tanner. The Adams Theatre — which the BBC used in 1981 to film a Royal Shakespeare Company performance, because of its similarity to the Globe — was the festival’s home through 2015.

Adams is credited with getting the Randall L. Jones Theatre built. It opened in 1989, and was the first building in Adams’ dream project: A complex of theaters that was completed in 2016 and named the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts. The center encompasses the Jones Theatre, the outdoor Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre, the Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre and the Southern Utah Museum of Art.

“I’m so grateful I get to be here to see it. I’m actually here touching it, feeling it,” Adams said at the Engelstad’s opening. He also joked, “We’re the puppy that chased the truck and caught it. Now what do you do with it?”

Adams received national recognition in 2000, on the stage of New York’s Radio City Music Hall to accept the Tony Award — Broadway’s highest honor — for the festival, which was named outstanding regional theater.

“That a regional theater located in rural Southern Utah ... could be so honored dignifies the scope of our work and shows that dreams really do come true,” Adams said in his acceptance speech.

Backstage, Adams said the impact of the Tony was difficult to measure, though, he joked, “we're getting calls from festival alumni on Broadway who are putting the Utah Shakespearean Festival back on their resumés."

The Tony Award had a downside; ticket sales for that season’s festival dropped, apparently because people assumed the performances had sold out because of the Tony honor. “I’m not going to give it back!” Adams joked at the time.

The Tony was one of many awards and accolades Adams and the festival received over the years, including carrying the torch through Cedar City during the relay to the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Adams retired from his teaching job at SUU in 1997. He retired as the festival’s leader in 2005 but continued to work as director, actor and fundraiser — and kept coming into the office nearly every day.

Prominent Utahns heaped praise on Adams upon news of his death.

“Fred was a genius,” Gov. Gary Herbert said in a statement. “He truly was the visionary behind the Utah Shakespeare Festival, which is beloved by both our state and our nation.”

Scott L. Wyatt, SUU’s president, said in a statement that Adams was “the most creative, passionate and tireless person I have ever known. … No one elevated the reputation of Southern Utah University and Cedar City more than him.”

State Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, posting on Twitter, said “today our state lost a treasure.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, also on Twitter, called Adams “an unparalleled innovator, leader, mentor and role model.”

Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said in a statement that Adams was “a true hero” who “has done the work of 10 men and managed to accomplish it in just one lifetime.”

Born Jan. 30, 1931 — he had celebrated his 89th birthday with friends a week ago — in Cedar City, Adams moved with his family to Delta, where he graduated from Delta High School. He served in the U.S. Army in Washington, D.C., from 1952 to 1954, during and after the Korean War. He served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Finland from 1955 to 1957.

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brigham Young University in theater arts and Russian, and did his pre-doctoral studies at Catholic University in Washington and at the University of Utah.

Adams married Barbara Gaddie on May 29, 1963, in the St. George LDS Temple. Barbara Adams died Oct. 22, 2008, at age 76.

Fred Adams is survived by his brother, James; four children: Dorcas (Gene) Woodward, Glynis (Alan) Neves, Addison (Dana) Adams, and Josh (Jamie) Adams; 14 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. His sister, Martha Henstrom, also died previously.

Funeral plans are pending, and the family will schedule a celebration of Adams’ life. In lieu of flowers, Adams had asked that donations be made to the Utah Shakespeare Festival.