Utah Shakespeare Festival: A Remarkable Journey

Mar 27, 2014

This year, the Utah Shakespeare Festival will begin it's 53rd season. At StoryCorps, 82-year old Fred Adams told the Festival's executive director Scott Phillips about founding the Festival shortly after he moved to the small community of Cedar City.

Credit StoryCorps/Utah Public Radio

Scott Phillips:    Let's tell them a little bit about how this silly festival got started and what prompted us to do a Shakespeare Festival.

Fred Adams:    That's really probably one of the best stories of all. I had just come out from New York to this small community, Cedar City, Utah, back in 1959 when I arrived was a bustling community of 18,000 with a small Junior College with a couple of hundred of students is all. I was brought in, actually, to start a theater department on this Junior College. I met my wife there and as my finance, my wife and I decided that we really would like to live in Cedar City, not just spend winters teaching there. Actually, build a home there and raise our children there.

We started looking around. Cedar City at that time was just undergoing a terrible experience. Cedar City was built on the iron ore industry. The mines out west of the city were the main income for the community. Japanese steel had become so accessible and so inexpensive that the American steel industry just kind of crumbled. Within, it couldn't have been more than six months, over 700 families in Iron County and Cedar City ...

Scott Phillips:    Ahh. Iron County. That's iron ore.

Fred Adams:    Iron ore. They were forced to leave. Go to Wyoming to other iron areas, or just to stop. Ironically, too, when you consider Cedar City sits on one of the largest veins of iron ore known in the world, but it was cheaper to buy Japanese steel. The town was decimated. It was absolutely devastated. Of course, where Cedar City sits, right in the heart of the Utah parks, within an hour's drive of Bryce Canyon to the north. An hour and ten minutes' drive to the south to Zion National Park. Grand Canyon only a couple of hours away.
    It had become a real tourist Mecca. Tourism was the only industry left in that little community. When the governor of Utah announced that the Feds, the Federal government, were going to build I-15, an interstate band of asphalt all the way from Alaska, all the way to Mexico.

Scott Phillips:    It was a large initiative under President Eisenhower's administration.

Fred Adams:    It was a big initiative. Of course, when the map came out showing where it was going to go, it bypassed almost all the communities of Utah. It went way out on the Nevada and Utah boarder. Right along the desert, of course, the cheapest land. Our community was devastated. It would have put the freeway, the only access for us of the tourism. It would have put it some 20 miles to the west of the city, where it would have been of no use whatsoever to the community.
    Heartbroken, my wife and I were in a laundry called the Fluffy Bundle. We were doing our laundry together. I'd gotten there with my laundry, and there she was with hers. We were fiancés at the time. In my Welch manner I said, "Why don't we just conserve and put all of our laundry into one dryer." It took forever. We were putting nickel after nickel after nickel after nickel into the dryer. Nickel mind you, not quarters.

Fluffy Bundle laundromat newspaper ad in 1959
Fluffy Bundle laundromat newspaper ad in 1959

Scott Phillips:    Perhaps not the best move, conservative wise.

Fred Adams:    It was kind of stupid, but as a result, while we were killing time, we sat in my little T-Bird, outside under a big cottonwood tree. We started putting together what we would like to do in Cedar City. I had been to the Ashland, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and had gotten to know Angus Bowmer, the founder of that wonderful festival. It seemed what that festival had done for that little community of Ashland, which was very similar in size and in situation, hundreds of miles from anything, from big cities to either side.

    We decided we could do a Shakespeare festival. It would be something we would do in the summers. We'd put together a budget. We went to the president of the Junior College and he was very open to the idea and would help us all he could, but no funds. There was no money whatsoever. We were totally dependent on our mother institution, far to the north. I had to go out and raise the thousand dollars for the first summer's budget.

Scott Phillips:    This was back in 1959?

Fred and Barbara Adams in the early 1960s
Fred and Barbara Adams in the early 1960s

Fred Adams:    This was actually in 1961 by the time we had come to the grand ... when Barbara and I had become engaged and the announcement of the freeway had become permanent. We decided we could do it on $1,000. We would get students to volunteer. There would be no salaries. I wouldn't have to take a salary. I was a professor at the school in the winter, so I had a check coming in and so did Barbara.
    I went to the Elk Club. I went to the Kiwanis. I went to the Rotarians. I went to the Chamber of Commerce. I must say, the Chamber of Commerce, when I gave the idea of a Shakespeare Festival, the idea went over like a pregnant pole vaulter. It was dead silence in the room. When I went to the city fathers to ask them if there would be any chance of some subsidy, I was literally laughed out of chamber. They thought that was the dumbest thing.
    If I'd come up with a festival that had some merit to it, but Shakespeare, absolutely ridiculous. One of my students said, "My brother is the president of the Lions Club. I'm sure [inaudible 00:06:56]." We went to the Lions Club that morning. Six in the morning for breakfast. Why on earth anyone meets at 6:00 in the morning, I don't understand. One of the Lions, after I had done my spiel, one of the Lions raised his hand and he said, "Fred, how much of the $1,000 that you require do you think that you're going to raise in tickets?"
    I answered him very openly, "I figured that we could raise all of it." We had no problem with that, but we had to have up-front money in order to buy lumber and fabric, et cetera. He made a motion to the Lion's club that they underwrite the Utah Shakespeare festival for any amount up to $1,000 that we did not earn in ticket sales. It was unanimous. That gave us our nest egg. We brought in over $3,000 that summer.
    Didn't have to pay a thing to the Lions. They never had to pay a dime out. We had $2,000 left over to start season number 2. From that day on, we only spend the money that we had raised the year before. What it meant is rather an anomaly in the summer theater. We never went in to debt. Never had to borrow any money. We simply operated on whatever money we had made the year before.

Scott Phillips:    That's still very much how the festival operates today.

Fred Adams:    It is. It is.

Scott Phillips:    As executive director, I know that for the fact. We only budget on what we have available from the previous year.

Fred Adams:    ... from the previous year. As a result, we can't go bankrupt and nobody can close us down.

Scott Phillips:    It's been a remarkable journey.
 

Fred walking across campus at College of Southern Utah (now Southern Utah University) in the early 1960s.
Fred walking across campus at College of Southern Utah (now Southern Utah University) in the early 1960s.

Fred Adams:    Thanks. It's been fun. It's been fun doing it with you. It's been fun. We've had fabulous experiences with some of the nicest people on the planet.

Scott Phillips:    You think about all of the creative artists that walked through those doors and across the streets of Cedar City. It's like a different community when all 350 of those people descend upon our community. The energy changes. The spirit changes. The vitality changes. I think it makes us richer, stronger, more vital, because of it.

Fred Adams:    Better. Better. Yeah.

Scott Phillips:    The diversity is really encouraging and exciting to watch it happen.

Fred Adams:    Yeah, it is. It's a wonderful time.

Scott Phillips:    Once again we're in the throes of it. We'll be bringing more plays to the stage here very quickly. Hopefully, we'll have the opportunity for first timers that have not been with us before to 'Look up' and maybe share some of that excitement and some of the exhilaration that comes with enjoying the plays.

Fred Adams:    From your mouth to God's ears.