“Arthur was a friend and longtime supporter of UC San Diego,” said school Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, “and it was my distinct privilege to honor him with the Chancellor's Medal. It is because of his leadership, creativity and zeal that UC San Diego is now home to one of the top three graduate theater programs in the nation. Arthur was an inspirational visionary whose impact will live on for generations, and he will be greatly missed."
Wagner earned his theater doctorate at Stanford University in 1962 and served as an actor and administrator at companies in Springfield, Mass., Winter Park, Fla. and New York City as well as at Tulane, Temple and Ohio universities. The New York City native was recruited to UCSD to become chair of the fledgling department of drama in 1972. Under his guidance, the department grew from an undergraduate program with a dozen students to one of the top three theater and dance programs in the nation.
Today, the Department of Theatre and Dance includes more than 300 students and offers Master of Fine Arts degrees in acting, dance theatre, design, directing, playwriting and stage management as well as a doctoral degree program.
The Arthur Wagner Theatre on campus is named in his honor. Additionally, in 2013, he and his wife Molli received the prestigious Chancellor’s Medal, the highest honor given by the campus to recognize exceptional service in support of UCSD’s mission. Wagner retired from teaching in 1991.
A gifted professional actor and director, Wagner had numerous directing and acting credits. He was still performing on stage at UCSD in 2012. Many of Wagner’s students went on to Hollywood and Broadway success, earning top accolades, including Tony and Emmy awards.
Jim Carmody, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance on campus, said Wagner was the department's greatest benefactor. “His most enduring gift is his vision of a department that provided training in all of the disciplines of the theater.”
Carmody added that Wagner's vision “helped bring the revived La Jolla Playhouse to the campus. He fostered a strong relationship between the department and the Playhouse that has grown, and he took great delight in seeing them both achieve stellar national reputations.”
La Jolla Playhouse is the area's second largest theater company and has mounted about 30 productions on Broadway.
In 2012, the Wagners established the Theatre and Dance Student Productions Endowed Fund with a gift of $2.2 million. The Wagners also served as co-chairs of the Student Production Fund Endowment, which seeks to provide continued funding for student productions despite state budget cuts. The campus renamed a signature spring theater program, the Wagner New Play Festival, in the Wagners' honor.
Wagner is survived by Molli, his wife of 59 years; their son, Wagner; daughter-in-law, Mary Kies Wagner; and granddaughter Kendra Wagner.
A memorial event is being planned for Oct. 12 at La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre, with reception to follow at the Molli and Arthur Wagner Dance Building. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions in Wagner's memory be made to the department's productions endowment. Donations can be made online by visiting theatre.ucsd.edu/SPF and clicking “Give Now.” Checks can also be made payable to the UC San Diego Foundation in Wagner’s honor, with “Theatre & Dance Student Productions Endowment (4640)” in the memo, and mailed to 9500 Gilman Drive, #0940, La Jolla, CA 92039.