“I’m not ashamed of being from Wisconsin. Just of being from Kenosha. It’s a terrible place.” –Orson Welles
Orson Welles was one of the most multi-talented individuals in Hollywood history. As an actor, producer, writer, and director, Welles influenced American cinema through his innovation and artistry, with many of his works still being studied and revered to this day.
Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on May 6th, 1915, Welles lived with his parents until they separated four years later. Afterwards, both of his parents moved to Chicago, with Welles’ father making a fortune as the inventor of a bicycle lamp, and his mother playing piano at lectures hosted by the Art Institute of Chicago. Tragically, when Welles was nine, his mother died from hepatitis.
Afterwards, Welles lived in a Chicago apartment with both his father and Dr. Maurice Bernstein, a Chicago physician who had been a close friend of both his parents. Welles briefly attended public school before his alcoholic father left business altogether and took him along on his travels to Jamaica and the Far East. When they returned, they settled in a hotel in Grand Detour, Illinois, which was owned by his father. When the hotel burned down, Welles and his father were forced to relocate.
Welles briefly attended public school in Madison, Wisconsin, enrolled in the fourth grade. Later, he entered the Todd Seminary for Boys, an expensive independent school in Woodstock, Illinois, that his older brother, Richard Ives Welles, had attended ten years before but was expelled for misbehavior. At Todd School, Welles studied under Roger Hill, a teacher who was later Todd’s headmaster. Hill provided Welles with an educational environment that allowed him to concentrate on subjects that interested him. Welles performed and staged theatrical experiments and productions there.
“Todd provided Welles with many valuable experiences,” wrote critic Richard France. “He was able to explore and experiment in an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement. In addition to a theater the school’s own radio station was at his disposal.” Welles’s first radio performance was on the Todd station, an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes that he also wrote.
When Welles was 15, his father died of heart and kidney failure at the age of 58, alone in a hotel in Chicago. Shortly before this, Welles had announced to his father that he would stop seeing him, believing it would prompt his father to refrain from drinking. As a result, Orson felt guilty because he believed his father had drunk himself to death because of him.
Upon graduating from Todd in May 1931, Welles was awarded a scholarship to Harvard University, while Roger Hill advocated he attend Cornell College in Iowa. Instead of enrolling anywhere, he chose travel, studying painting for a few weeks at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Welles would occasionally return to Woodstock after his graduation. In fact, when he was asked, “Where is home?” in a 1960 interview, he replied, “I suppose it’s Woodstock, Illinois, if it’s anywhere. I went to school there for four years. If I try to think of a home, it’s that.”
After his father’s death, Welles traveled to Europe using a small portion of his inheritance. Welles said that while on a walking and painting trip through Ireland, he strode into the Gate Theatre in Dublin and claimed he was a Broadway star. The manager of Gate, Hilton Edwards, later said he had not believed him but was impressed by his brashness and an impassioned audition he gave. Welles made his stage debut at the Gate Theatre on October 13, 1931, appearing in Ashley Dukes’s adaptation of Jew Suss as Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg. He performed small supporting roles in subsequent Gate productions, and he produced and designed productions of his own in Dublin. In March 1932 Welles performed in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Circle at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and travelled to London to find additional work in the theatre. Unable to obtain a work permit, he returned to the U.S.
Welles began working on a writing project at Todd School which would become The Mercury Shakespeare. In 1933, Roger and Hortense Hill invited Welles to a party in Chicago, where Welles met Thornton Wilder. Wilder arranged for Welles to meet Alexander Woollcott in New York, in order that he be introduced to Katharine Cornell, who was assembling a repertory theatre company. Cornell’s husband, director Guthrie McClintic, immediately put Welles under contract and cast him in three plays.
In 1934, Welles got his first job on radio—on The American School of the Air—through actor-director Paul Stewart, who introduced him to director Knowles Entrikin. That summer Welles staged a drama festival with the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, inviting actors from Dublin’s Gate Theatre to appear along with New York stage actors. At the old firehouse in Woodstock he also shot his first film, an eight-minute short titled, The Hearts of Age. Welles would also perform on the stage of the Woodstock Opera House.
By 1935, Welles was also earning money in the theater theater as a radio actor in Manhattan, working with many actors who would later form the core of his Mercury Theatre. Simultaneously with his work in the theatre, Welles worked extensively in radio as an actor, writer, director and producer, but often without credit.
After the theatrical successes of the Mercury Theatre, CBS Radio invited Orson Welles to create a summer show. His program was a success and he remained on the air with an hour-long weekly show. The Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells October 30, 1938, brought Welles instant fame. The combination of the news bulletin form of the performance with the between-breaks dial spinning habits of listeners was later reported to have created widespread confusion among listeners who failed to hear the introduction, although the extent of this confusion has come into question. Listeners reportedly became panicked, believing the fictional news reports of a Martian invasion.
Although he had attained success as a radio actor, offers from Hollywood began to pour in for Welles. As a result, he began commuting from Hollywood to New York after signing a film contract with RKO Pictures in August 1939. In November 1939, production of his radio show moved from New York to Los Angeles.
RKO Radio Pictures president George Schaefer eventually offered Welles what generally is considered the greatest contract offered to a filmmaker, much less to one who was untried. Engaging him to write, produce, direct and perform in two motion pictures, the contract subordinated the studio’s financial interests to Welles’s creative control, and broke all precedent by granting Welles the right of final cut.RKO rejected Welles’s first two movie proposals, but agreed on the third offer—Citizen Kane. Welles co-wrote, produced and directed the film, and performed the lead role. Citizen Kane was given a limited release and the film received overwhelming critical praise. It was voted the best picture of 1941 by the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle. The film garnered nine Academy Award nominations but won only for Best Original Screenplay, shared by Mankiewicz and Welles. Citizen Kane was followed by The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Journey into Fear (1943).
In early 1943, the two concurrent radio series (Ceiling Unlimited, Hello Americans) that Orson Welles created for CBS to support the war effort had ended. Filming also had wrapped on the 1943 film adaptation of Jane Eyre and that fee, in addition to the income from his regular guest-star roles in radio, made it possible for Welles to fulfill a lifelong dream: he approached the War Assistance League of Southern California and proposed a show that evolved into a big-top spectacle, part circus and part magic show. He offered his services as magician and director and invested some $40,000 of his own money in an extravaganza he co-produced with his friend Joseph Cotten: The Mercury Wonder Show for Service Men. Members of the U.S. armed forces were admitted free of charge, while the general public had to pay. The show entertained more than 1,000 service members each night, and proceeds went to the War Assistance League, a charity for military service personnel.
The development of the show coincided with the resolution of Welles’s oft-changing draft status in May 1943, when he was finally declared 4-F—unfit for military service—for a variety of medical reasons. “I felt guilty about the war,” Welles told biographer Barbara Leaming. “I was guilt-ridden about my civilian status.” He had been publicly hounded about his patriotism since Citizen Kane, when the Hearst press began persistent inquiries about why Welles had not been drafted.
At intermission September 7, 1943, KMPC radio interviewed audience and cast members of The Mercury Wonder Show—including Welles and Rita Hayworth, who were married earlier that day. Welles remarked that The Mercury Wonder Show had been performed for approximately 48,000 members of the U.S. armed forces.
Welles and Hayworth divorced on November 10, 1947. During his last interview, recorded for The Merv Griffin Show on the evening before his death, Welles called Hayworth “one of the dearest and sweetest women that ever lived … and we were a long time together—I was lucky enough to have been with her longer than any of the other men in her life.” Prior to his marriage to Hayworth, Welles was wedded to Virginia Nicolson for six years. After divorcing Hayworth, Welles would later be married to Paola Mori for thirty years. Each of his marriages produced one child. His children were Christopher Welles Feder, Rebecca Welles Manning, and Beatrice Welles.
In addition to launching a massively successful career in film, Orson later took on several television projects. One series was Orson Welles’ Sketch Book, a series of six 15-minute shows featuring Welles drawing in a sketchbook to illustrate his reminiscences for the camera, and the second was Around the World with Orson Welles, which showcased his travels throughout Europe. Welles returned to Hollywood, where he continued to self-finance his film and television projects. While offers to act, narrate and host continued, Welles also found himself in great demand on television talk shows. He made frequent appearances for Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Dean Martin and Merv Griffin.
On the evening of October 9, 1985, Welles recorded his final interview on the syndicated TV program, The Merv Griffin Show, appearing with biographer Barbara Leaming. “Both Welles and Leaming talked of Welles’s life and the segment was a nostalgic interlude,” wrote biographer Frank Brady. Welles returned to his house in Hollywood and worked into the early hours typing stage directions for the project he and Gary Graver were planning to shoot at UCLA the following day. Welles died sometime on the morning of October 10, following a heart attack.
Orson Welles’ centennial occurred in May of 2015, and his hometowns featured many Welles-related events. Since I reside in the Chicago area and Welles did not live horribly far away, I was able to attend several of his centennial events without any inconvenience. Despite the fact that his centennial events have all occurred, many places of relevance to Welles still remain.
Orson Welles lived with Dr. Maurice A. Bernstein at 1850 Kincaid Street in the Ravinia neighborhood of Highland Park during the late 1920s and 1930s. The present number of the home is 610 Kincaid Street.
After the death of his mother in 1924, Orson was taken in by Dr. Dudley Crafts Watson and lived with the family at Dr. Watson’s family home, “Trillium Dell.” The home still remains in the Ravinia neighborhood at 291 Marshman Avenue in Highland Park, Illinois. It is privately owned, so please be respectful.
While residing here, Orson Welles reviewed opera performances at Ravinia for The Highland Park News when he was 13. The Ravinia Music Festival is still a beloved outdoor music festival for Chicagoans to this day. I contacted a Ravinia representative who shared that Orson Welles’ first performance on a stage was at Ravinia in a production of Our Town when he was three years old.
During July and August of 1928, Welles wrote a column for the weekly local newspaper, the Highland Park News, called, “Hitting the High Notes.” The columns reviewed musical performances at Ravinia Park, an outdoor musical venue for classical music and opera at the time. From June through September of 1930, Welles wrote a column called “Inklings” in the same newspaper.
Woodstock, Illinois, had its fair share of centennial events in honor of Welles. Banners with Orson’s image hung throughout the downtown area, and several exhibits were put together in Woodstock’s Opera House and the Woodstock Public Library.
The Woodstock Opera House stands at 121 W Van Buren St. in Woodstock’s main square. It continues to host performances and features a rotating display of its history. In 2013, the stage was dedicated to Orson Welles.
While the Todd School for Boys no longer exists, one last building does remain–Rogers Hall. It was built in 1910 and used primarily as a classroom building. Today, it is an apartment building located at 730 N. Seminary Avenue in Woodstock, Illinois.
Kenosha, Wisconsin, also organized several events to celebrate the life of the prolific Orson Welles, including cemetery walks, movie screenings, dramatic readings, trivia nights, and more.
Orson’s parents are buried in Green Ridge Cemetery in Kenosha. Orson attended both funerals. He vividly recollected that it was pouring rain at his mother’s funeral, which added to the sadness of the event and unfortunately colored his impression of Kenosha with melancholy.
Interestingly, it was also pouring rain when I visited Kenosha. Luckily, I planned on attending a screening of The Magnificent Ambersons at the Kenosha Woman’s Club and hearing a lecture by film historian Joseph McBride. This was my first time seeing the film, and McBride’s discussion supplemented the viewing substantially.
Once the screening ended, I took a short walk to the birthplace of Orson Welles, following a Historic Kenosha Walking Tour map. The home still stands at 6116 Seventh Avenue and is a vibrant shade of blue. The home has been split to accommodate several residents and is privately owned. There is a plaque in front of the home as well as near the doorway.
The home of Orson’s grandmother is located within walking distance at 711 61st Street. It is also privately owned.
Today, the town of Woodstock is best known for its annual Groundhog Day celebration, since the film Groundhog Day (1993) was filmed there. Many of the filming locations are marked with plaques, which I am sharing here if you are curious.
Because of the town’s significance in Orson Welles’ life and its appearance in Groundhog Day, the town celebrates its legacy with both of these fun accomplishments in mind. In addition, Woodstock was once home to American cartoonist Chester Gould, who created the Dick Tracy comic strip. Tributes to Gould are also found throughout the town. One of my favorite spots in town is this massive mural, celebrating Welles, Gould, and Groundhog Day.
If you find yourself in Kenosha, WI; Woodstock, IL; or Highland Park, IL, be sure to check out the various locations at which Welles is celebrated.
This post was nominated for the Best Profile of a Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker by the Classic Movie Blog Association in 2016.