“I think that, as they get older, all Jewish men look alike,” says Arthur Wagner, age 87. “These days, I look like Arthur Miller and Lee Strasberg,” he adds with a chuckle, comparing himself to other influential Men of the Theater — the prominent playwright and the distinguished director.
Wagner has been an actor, director, teacher and founder of four MFA programs in theater. He has two theaters named for him on the campus of UC San Diego, where he helped launch the Department of Theatre and Dance 38 years ago, and he remains an active and inspiring presence.
He’s come a long way from the Bronx.
Wagner was born at home, in 1923. He was “clearly a mistake,” his sisters being 11 and 13 years older than he. He was the darling boy, the brilliant hope of the family.
Wagner doesn’t sound like a Jewish name. His father came from Austria in 1900, sailing through Ellis Island on his brother’s passport. “The New York City phonebook had dozens of Wagners,” Arthur asserts. “And at least half of them were Jewish.”
He grew up in an Orthodox home in the Bronx, the son of a successful tailor who created custom suits and coats for the likes of Tallulah Bankhead. “We moved to a very elegant area,” he recalls, “but we never moved out of the Bronx.” So when he was accepted into the prestigious math/science-specializing Stuyvesant High School in downtown Manhattan, he had a long bus-ride to get there.
But he didn’t do very well at Stuyvesant. “I just managed to graduate,” Wagner confesses. “One teacher had introduced me to reading, and to jazz. I’d miss days of school at his apartment, listening to music.”
It was that way all through his life. Mentors, recommendations, suggestions and serendipity buffeted him about, from New York to Florida, Indiana to Virginia to New Orleans, finally landing him in California.
Wagner didn’t excel at New York University, where he was pushed into pre-med study. But that’s where he decided to go into drama.
“Then I got middle-class Jewish cold feet, worrying about how I’d make a living. My parents would’ve been okay with whatever I said I wanted to do, even if I said I wanted to be a serial killer,” he quips.
As it was, he was the first one in the family to graduate college, let alone earn a Ph.D.
He transferred to tiny Earlham College, “a Quaker school that’s one of the great colleges in the country,” he says. It was in Richmond, Ind.
“That sounded like Indian Country. I’d never been west of the Poconos,” Wagner admits, with a laugh. “Having grown up in a strictly kosher, Orthodox Jewish home, I thought I’d better learn about the outside world. So, in the food car of the overnight train to Indiana, I ordered bacon and eggs. I was 18 years old, and it was my first non-kosher meal.”
At Earlham, he played sports and studied philosophy. He attended a summer graduate seminar in metaphysics at Columbia University. But after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army reserves; in 1942, he was sent to Miami.
“We were put up in art deco hotels and told we were in the Army Air Corps. For eight weeks, we marched and sang. We were only at a firing range once!” He punctuates the story with a rousing chorus of “Into the air, Army Air Corps!”
Enrolled in the Army Specialized Training Program, ASTP, he studied engineering, and then he was assigned to pre-med training at Rutgers University in New Jersey and medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. He hated it.
“When the war ended, I had enough points for discharge. So I resigned from medical school — to the chagrin of many relatives. And I decided to teach theater.”
He wrote to Hallie Flanagan, director of the Federal Theatre Project, part of the WPA (Works Progress Administration). It was a New Deal program, intended to employ out-of-work theatermakers, entertain poor families and create relevant art.
When he was scheduled to meet the dynamic Flanagan, he was “expecting a giant of a woman,” Wagner recalls. “She had run the largest theater program in the history of America: 3,000 theaters across the country. And in came this 4-foot 11-inch woman with flaming red hair. It was love at first sight. She wanted me to be the first male student at Smith College, where she was teaching. By the time I arrived, five more men — all Jews — had been accepted. We six became the graduate program in Performance at Smith.
Footwear, Family and UCSD
After obtaining his master’s degree, Wagner became the Director of Dramatic Activity at the JCC in Springfield, Mass., and then the artistic director of the Springfield Civic Theatre. But assuring him of more money (he was only making $2,500/year), his brother-in-law sucked him into the family business, and he spent five years selling shoes in Elizabeth, NJ. He was miserable.
“Only two good things happened there,” Wagner recalls of those years, from age 27 to 32. “I became a horseman, which saved my sanity. And most important, I met Molli,” his wife of 54 years.
She was a stewardess (also a pharmacist). After their meeting on a ski vacation at Sun Valley, he decided to get serious, quit the shoe business and pursue a doctorate. He started at the University of Utah, but soon transferred to Stanford.
He and Molli were married in 1956; their kids were born in 1958 and 1961. He accepted a teaching position at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and by age 34, he’d become head of his department. During summers, he and his family returned to California, so he could finish his doctorate in theater.
He became a Master Teacher of Acting, and as such, a “hot property.” He was recruited by Tulane as a full professor, and off he went to New Orleans, to start his first of four MFA acting programs; he later went on to Ohio University, Temple U. and UCSD.
In 1971, he was asked to become the chair of theater at UC Riverside. “Okay, I said, California, here we come!” Molli, a California native, was ecstatic. A few weeks later, he got a similar call from UCSD.
“The decision was easy,” Wagner says. “Riverside was a going concern. There was nothing in San Diego. But our kids, age 8 and 10 at the time — and very opinionated — refused to go to Riverside.
“So I became the first chair of a nonexistent department. When I got here in 1972, I was told that maybe, over time, the department would grow to seven faculty. There are now 34 full-time faculty, the biggest in the UC system.”
Within four years, Wagner established an undergraduate and a graduate program. Now, with three theaters and the Dance Building, which is named for the Wagners, there’s a bona fide Theatre District on the campus. U.S. News and World Report ranked the undergrad acting program third in the nation. UCSD has the country’s only MFA in Dance Theatre. And of course, there’s the relationship with the La Jolla Playhouse.
In 1991, he had to call it quits; Wagner was “the last of the mandatory 70-year-old retirements.” After 10 years in San Francisco and a Semester at Sea, the Wagners moved back to San Diego to be near their granddaughter — and the university.
Making a Mark in San Diego
Now, Wagner and his family attend all departmental productions and enthusiastically support other local theaters large and small with donations and regular attendance. From time to time, Wagner still performs onstage; he’d love to act more.
Thanks to an early investment in Qualcomm, the Wagners have become “comfortable,” as they put it, and they happily “give away a lot of money.”
On the campus, in addition to the Dance Building and the Arthur Wagner Theatre in Galbraith Hall, there’s an Arthur and Molli Wagner Endowed Chair in Acting, unique in the nation.
In honor of their daughter, who died at age 42, they named the Michelle Wagner Center of Planned Parenthood downtown, the flagship clinic of Planned Parenthood in San Diego.
Wagner remains extremely active, with a weekly schedule that would unnerve someone half his age. The Wagners see a great deal of theater, travel broadly and still do a bit of ballroom dancing. He started dancing as a child, and at Smith, he took classes from Pearl Primus, who’d studied with Martha Graham. He even danced in Primus’ company.
In 2006, the Wagners led their sixth theater trip to London. He still plays tennis and works out regularly at the gym. He remains an avid reader, currently revisiting “all of Philip Roth.”
“I’m very fortunate to have gotten this far,” says the intellectually lively and highly amusing 87-year-old, who remembers details about almost every production he’s attended or directed. Of his many dramatic accomplishments, Wagner is most proud of the UCSD Department.
Arthur Wagner has made his mark in San Diego and beyond. He helped shape the theater educational system in America. As a Man of the Theater, he’s a local and national treasure.