The legacy Orson Welles leaves to Woodstock, Illinois
Having heard from several concerned citizens in Woodstock, Illinois, who have expressed their concern about the proposed demolition of Grace Hall, I thought I'd try to bolster their case before the city council by highlighting some of the remarkable achievements Orson Welles made in Woodstock.
To begin, here is an overview of Welles relationship with the town of Woodstock, as reported in these excerpts from a profile of Welles taken from The New Yorker, from October, 1938 - just a scant four years after Welles had triumphed mightily on the stage of the historic Woodstock Opera House.
Even stranger, is that in just three short weeks after this profile of Welles first appeared, he would become world famous for his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which caused a nation-wide panic.
THE NEW YORKER – October 8. 1938
By Russell Maloney
…Dr. Bernstein, an orthopedist with cultured tastes, persuaded Dick Welles to enter his son, when the boy was eleven, in the Todd School at Woodstock, Illinois. Orson continued to travel with his father during summer vacations, but he had already found his vocation.
Todd is an expensive preparatory school of considerable antiquity, now run on severely progressive lines. The present headmaster, Roger Hill, a slim, white-haired, tweed-bearing man, who looks as if he had been cast for his role by a motion-picture director, has never let the traditional preparatory-school curriculum stand in the way of creative work. All the boys spend as much time as they want in the machine shop, the print shop, the bookbindery, or the school theatre. Orson Welles was at Todd from 1926 to 1931. In those five years he completed eight years of academic work and qualified for admission to college, provided the college wasn't too particular about mathematics. Also, abetted by the delighted Mr. Hill, he gave himself a thorough course in the fundamentals of the theatre. It is probable that Welles, as a boy, wore more crepe hair and putty noses than most actors do in a lifetime. When he was thirteen, he began directing the Todd Troupers, the school dramatic society. His first big job that year was a production of “Julius Caesar,” played in togas hut nevertheless embodying many of the ideas he later used for the Mercury's “Caesar.” This was the Todd School's entry in the annual Drama League contest for high schools and little-theatre groups around Chicago. It didn't get the prize; the judges explained that, meritorious as the production was, the two lads who played Cassius and Mark Antony were both too mature to be bona-fide students. This was a severe disappointment for Welles, who had cast himself in these two leading roles to make sure that they were played exactly right.
Welles directed about eight productions a year while he was at Todd, usually playing one of the chief parts. He developed quite a nice touch at scene painting and even executed a mural for a classroom. Fortunately, he was at a school, which placed no emphasis on athletics. During his travels he learned to swim and to ride a horse. That is today the extent of his physical accomplishments. If he attempts anything else even mildly athletic, he sprains his ankle. Once he sprained his ankle while trying to chin himself. Roger Hill is inclined to believe that there is some sort of psychic slant to this infirmity, that Welles sprains his ankle because he is worried or doubtful about something. It may be.
There would be no point to a recital of Welles childish triumphs if he had not turned up in New York a very few years later and repeated some of them as commercial and artistic successes. For instance, his last big job before he graduated from Todd was a mélange of Shakespeare's historical plays—edited and directed by Orson Welles, starring Orson Welles. This was the germ of the “Five Kings” chronicle play to be presented by the Mercury this autumn to the Theatre Guild subscribers. Seven years ago, if anybody had told the Guild directors that they were going to buy an interest in a production then being whipped up by a child in a progressive school, they wouldn’t have believed it. Welles, one imagines, would have been gratified but not particularly astonished.
…Welles was back in Chicago by the summer of 1933. Roger Hill introduced him to Thornton Wilder, who gave him a letter of introduction to Alexander Wolcott, who sent him around to Katharine Cornell. She had been looking for a convincingly young Marchbanks and hired Welles on the spot. This was for her famous tour with "Candida," "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," and "Romeo and Juliet.” Welles' other roles were Mercutio and Octavius, the stuttering brother of Elizabeth Barrett. He set off on a thirty-week tour, which took in some seventy-five cities. There was nothing to report about the tour except that, according to one of his companions in the troupe, Welles slept until noon every day, got into numerous tavern brawls, sprained his ankle several times, was publicly reproved by Miss Cornell for wearing a false beard in a San Francisco restaurant, and turned in two hundred-odd creditable performances. The tour wound up in the spring of 1934 and Welles hopped right back to Woodstock, where he and Roger Hill had planned to have a "summer theatre festival." This involved a coeducational dramatic school on the Todd campus, with the students supporting Welles and other guest stars in public performances. Welles courteously invited Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, two Gate Theatre players, to come over here and make guest appearances. These gentlemen, once they had recovered from their pardonable surprise at learning his true status, helped him to make a success of a nine-week repertory which included "Trilby," 'Tsar Paul," and "Hamlet." Welles, exercising almost incredible self-restraint, allowed MacLiammoir to play Hamlet and cast himself in his old role of the King,
Now, for the first time, love entered this busy life. One of the blondest and most beautiful of the girls at the dramatic school was Virginia Nicolson, the daughter of a well-to-do and socially impeccable Chicago family. Before the summer was over she and Welles were engaged. That Christmas he married her. At first the Nicolsons objected strongly to their baroque son-in-law, but their displeasure softened as the years passed, and melted away altogether last spring, with the birth of a granddaughter. The child, named Christopher because Welles had assumed that she would be a boy, was born quietly just before Welles started the intensive rehearsals of "Heartbreak House" and caused no interruption. His wife has made only one professional appearance, in "Horse Eats Hat." Welles wants her to play Desdemona to his Othello when he gets around to it. She’s an adoring wife and mother, and makes him comfortable in their eight-room house in Sneden’s Landing.