“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 radio and 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 Chicago with both his father and Dr. Maurice Bernstein, a family friend. While living in the Chicago apartment, Welles attended public school nearby. His father struggled with alcoholism and uprooted himself and Welles in favor of traveling to Jamaica and Far East. Upon their return, his father purchased a hotel in Grand Detour, Illinois, which eventually burned down. Welles and his father were faced with moving away once again.
Welles returned to public school but in Madison, Wisconsin, entering into his fourth grade year. Later, he transferred to the Todd Seminary for Boys, an upscale school in Woodstock, Illinois. At Todd School, Welles studied under Roger Hill, an educator who allowed him to study on topics that interested him. As a result, Welles explored a passion for performance and working as part of various stage productions there. He would also execute his first radio performance through the Todd radio station, writing and appearing in an adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes tale.
At the same time. Welles’s relationship with his father was suffering. He vowed to stop seeing him, hoping that this would encourage his father to stop drinking. Sadly, his father died of heart and kidney failure soon after, leaving Welles with a sense of guilt.
Welles graduated from Todd and was awarded a scholarship to Harvard University. However, he opted to travel instead and briefly studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. He would also return to Woodstock on occasion, considering it his home. 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.”
Welles continued his travels thanks to an inheritance and arrived in Ireland, where he walked into a theater and insisted that he was a Broadway star. Though in disbelief, the manager was impressed and allowed for Welles to make his stage debut at the Gate Theatre, opening the door to a variety of supporting roles and work in stage production.
Welles soon returned to the U.S. and initiated a writing project at Todd School, which would become The Mercury Shakespeare. Welles became active in a network of writers and hoped to become part of a repertory theatre company.
Welles’s first radio job was for The American School of the Air. In the same year as his first paid radio role, Welles produced a drama festival with the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, inviting actors from the Gate Theatre to appear along with various New York stage actors. He would also film his first short, The Hearts of Age, at a firehouse in Woodstock, in addition to performing at the Woodstock Opera House.
Welles frequently traveled from Woodstock to New York, where he formed relationships with actors who would later be integral to his Mercury Theatre. He was also active in many facts of radio, though often going uncredited for his work. However, it was Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells October 30, 1938, that truly cemented Welles as a radio star. His performance and script detailing a Martian invasion was so convincing that it panicked audiences all over the nation.
Soon enough, Hollywood offers began to come in for Welles. After commuting from coast to coast, he signed a film contract with RKO Pictures in August 1939 and transferred the production of his radio show to Los Angeles. Welles enjoyed creative control and the ability to have final cuts of his work. Though RKO rejected the first two film proposals from Welles, they agreed to Citizen Kane (1941), which would go on to receive high praise from film critics and become his most notable film. In addition to co-writing the film, Welles also produced and directed the film, garnering nine Academy Award nominations. Citizen Kane was followed by The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Journey into Fear (1943).
In 1943, Welles’s work for the radio shows Ceiling Unlimited and Hello Americans was complete and Welles was enjoying income from his films and radio roles. As a result, Welles was able to pursue his dream of organizing a show that that combined circus acts and magic for the War Assistance League of Southern California. Welles invested much of his own money in the show, entertaining members of the service and raising funds for the War Assistance League.
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, featuring Welles drawing in a sketchbook and sharing anecdotes with the audience. Around the World with Orson Welles, which showcased his travels throughout Europe. Welles returned to Hollywood and continued working on his own projects while making guest appearances for Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, and many more talk show hosts.
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.