In Memory: Arthur Wagner

The beloved San Diego theatrical professor got his start at Rollins College by agreeing to a job interview on his wedding day.

Arthur Wagner (Photo from the 1957 Tomokan) Arthur Wagner (Photo from the 1957 Tomokan)

Arthur Wagner, who directed the Rollins College Department of Theatre Arts and the Annie Russell Theatre from 1957 to 1965—and went on to become a major educational and philanthropic figure in San Diego’s stage scene—died of cancer September 21 in University City, California. He was 92.

(Photo from the 1958 Tomokan) (Photo from the 1958 Tomokan) As told by his nephew Joseph Sladkus ’57, Wagner’s big break came during an interview on his wedding day with Rollins’ 10th president, Hugh McKean. A few hours later, Wagner had a wife and a promising new career.

“I was going to be the best man at Arthur’s wedding, and he needed a job,” says Sladkus, who approached McKean with the idea of hiring his uncle. “The next thing you know, we’re all three sitting down for breakfast on the morning he got married.”

Wagner had studied medicine and worked in shoe sales before shifting his focus to acting. He had just completed coursework toward his doctorate at Stanford University in 1956 when Rollins hired him as an instructor in theatre arts. The following year, he was appointed director of the Annie.

Under Wagner’s eight-year leadership, theatre department majors doubled from 20 to 40. Subscribers to the Annie also increased from 850 to 1,800, turning it into a profitable enterprise.

In 1963, The Sandspur reported: “Certainly an indication of the excellence of the Rollins drama department is that the Yale Drama School has invited Rollins representatives to its Drama Festival for three consecutive years. For the last two springs Dr. Wagner has taken a group of about twenty students to the Festival, a three-day gathering of eleven other college drama groups, each of which presents a short play to the others.”

The article went on to describe Wagner, who served as president of the Florida Theatre Conference in 1964 – 65, as “one of the most energetic and interesting members of our Rollins Faculty.”

Impacting Generations of Students

After leaving Rollins, Wagner founded actor-training programs at Tulane, Ohio, and Temple universities. In 1972, according to the San Diego Union Tribune, he arrived at UC San Diego and became founding chairman of its acclaimed Department of Theatre and Dance until mandatory retirement forced him to step aside in 1991. In 2013, he and his wife, Molli, were awarded UC San Diego’s highest honor in recognition of their four decades of service to the local arts community.

Sladkus says his uncle’s legacy to Rollins is two-fold: He generated overwhelming support for the Annie and was always committed to his students.

“Even to the day he died,” Sladkus says, “his students always came back to see him. He saw everything and anything his students were in—whether they were on Broadway, Off Broadway or a soap opera.”

At Rollins, one of Wagner’s top-performing students was Dana Ivey ’63 ’08H, who has been nominated for five Tony Awards and is a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame. Later in his career, he taught Tony Award-winning actor Jefferson Mays, whose tribute in the San Diego Reader recalls Wagner’s “monumental” spirit and love.

“The man was amazing,” Sladkus says. “He was truly a legend in his own time.”