Roger Hill’s daughter recalls Orson Welles at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois
By JOANNE HILL TARBOX STYLES
Orson Welles came to the Todd School in 1926 when he was 11 and I was 9 years old. We were not that far apart in age, but his scope of knowledge of the world's literature, geography, history music, fine arts, and drama was generations ahead of mine.
This was a very unusual boy. He had need of a very unusual education. My father, especially, but also my mother was very enamored, captivated and charmed by this out-of-the-ordinary youth. He was warmly welcomed into our family apartment in Wallingford Hall.
My parents enjoyed visiting with him. His visits were a daily occurrence. Here was a boy who could have a discussion about China, Europe, Toulouse Lautrec, Renoir, Mozart, Hugo, Voltaire and Shakespeare and many, many others. I was furious! Why would my parents spend hours with Orson, when they wouldn't spend much time with me?
One day I tore into Orson, telling him just what I thought of his behavior, which was certainly very negative, He looked at me with a condescending, supercilious smile and said "Joanne, everyone has their little idiosyncrasies" and marched off. I had no idea what he meant and dashed off to find a dictionary. I know he was right but he had more than most.
I had to be much more mature to be able to understand that visiting with Orson was like visiting with an adult. I still talked and thought like a child.
While Orson was having this rich rapport with my parents, he was having a very difficult time communicating with the Todd boys and the Todd faculty. The first day that he arrived at Todd he was assigned a roommate in Clover Hall. That roommate was John Dexter. Later, Johnny would regale us with his adventures that first night. He told us that Orson had a trunk put in his closet and after "lights out" Orson told Johnny to wait a minute. He went into the closet, donned a costume, came out and began quoting something Johnny did not understand. Johnny was amazed and puzzled. Orson went back into the closet, changed costumes and began to quote again. This went on many more times. For Johnny it was a long, long night, Next morning he told his housemother, Miss Collins, how he had been audience to Orson's theatrics. After that first night Orson always had a single room
All the activities that children enjoy were an anathema to Orson, especially athletics. His body was becoming chubby. He had weak ankles, so he refrained from participating in the activities we all enjoyed – football, baseball, basketball, tennis, skating, tobogganing and horseback riding. These were not for him. We did not understand why he would not play with us. We sensed early, that he looked down on us as "lesser mortals." He had the same difficulty with the faculty. When he entered into an English class he felt that he knew more than the teacher and said so. The same behavior was evident in Geography and History classes. When he was in Math or Science classes he declared that they were not in his field of interest.
Not surprisingly, the faculty member's complained to the headmaster, who happened to be my father. All of them told him that having Orson in their classes was a real detriment to their ability to teach. They felt it was not fair to the students who wanted to learn.
Dad told them that Orson was a very unique individual, far from being an average student. He would have to be treated differently. He said that the Todd School was in the business of cultivating the interests of every child, by letting the child work toward his interests. Orson's interests were in drama. To help, dad said that he would allow Orson to produce plays in the school auditorium Orson began to do that with a vengeance. Year after year he directed and played in many, many plays. I forgotten the names of most of them. But I remember some of the ones in which I was shepherded into acting.
I had no urge to be an actor. My father insisted. Possibly because there were many female roles and I was the only female available. Also he may have believed that it would be a learning experience. It certainly was. The reason that I learned to be happy to be in Orson's plays was because Hascy Tarbox was in all of them. I fell in love with Hascy when we were both 14 years old. My love for him only grew through the years until during the 51st year of our marriage I lost him.
Our production of "Julius Caesar" had me playing Calpurnia, Caesar's wife, who reminds him that the Ides of March will not be auspicious. Orson played two roles: Caesar and Marc Antony. Hascy was the "lean and hungry" Cassius. Orson was not a delicate director. We children must have driven him crazy for we never could perform up to his expectations. So he yelled a lot. Thinking back we must have produced some quite acceptable productions, thanks to his very great directing ability.
At first it was only the Todd boys, faculty and parents who viewed our productions in the Todd auditorium. Later, we would give them in the Woodstock Opera House for the townspeople. Still later, we joined the Chicago Drama League, a group which private schools established. We gave our productions to other private schools. One year we won the Drama League prize for best play with "Twelfth Night." Because of that we were asked to give it many different places, including The English Village at the 1932 World's Fair. That was such fun. Wherever we went to give a production we were transported in the Todd bus. If Orson was on tour he rode in a car.
Orson designed all the costumes for "Twelfth Night." He also designed and painted the very clever stage set. It was made in the shape of a huge book. We turned the pages to change the set.
One summer Orson spent some time on an island on Lac de Flambeau in northern Wisconsin, writing a play about John Brown, He called it "Morning Song". It was a very long play. Hascy thought it might be a good one if it was drastically cut. He did that and many years later he directed his wife and daughter in "Morning Song".
Orson graduated from Todd in 1931. That was back when Todd only went through the first two years of high school. Later, when Hascy graduated in 1936 his was the first class to have spent four years in high school at Todd.
When Orson graduated he was 17 years old. He decided to go to Europe to receive more education. When he landed in Ireland he learned that the Irish players at the Gate Theatre were auditioning He lied about his age and was accepted into the cast that toured Ireland, giving the Irish fine theatrical fare. The tour ended in 1934. Orson wrote to dad and persuaded him that it would be a great idea to have a summer theater festival in Woodstock. They would use the Opera House for their productions. The dormitories in the Todd School would house the professional actors. They would advertise for students to be selected to pay to study drama and perhaps be in some of the plays. The students would live in the dormitories also.
Dad agreed. Orson brought with him the two founders of the Gate Theatre, Michael MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards. He found other professional actors. The ones I remember were Louise Prussing and Mr. and Mrs Charles "Blackie" O'Neal.
I begged off from "treading the boards." They had more than enough females to fill the female roles. I was through with acting. However, I was around all that very hot summer. I was a first hand witness to the comings and goings of the theater people. I was privy to all the pairings and breakups, the laughter and tears that often occur when groups of people find themselves in close quarters.
Hascy was in most, if not all of the plays. In "Hamlet" he was the player queen. He hated that role. He was Greek god handsome and looked wonderful in whatever role he was given. Orson decided that Hascy would be his dresser and go-fer. When big fans of Orson, such as Simon Callow, and many others, would fly across the ocean, track us down in our many different homes, to have us talk about him, I'm afraid our memories of Orson were pretty negative.
During the festival, Orson met Virginia Nicolson She had enrolled as a student. At the end of the summer they got married with the help of my parents. It was also during the festival that a student, William Vance, brought a camera to the campus. Orson with Virginia, Paul Edgerton, other students and Blackie O'Neal produced a ridiculous, meaningless film they called "The Hearts of Age." It made no sense. Orson was just trying to discover the workings of a camera.
After the theater festival, we only saw Orson two more times. But because my parents were in constant touch with him we always knew where he was and what he was doing. Mother and dad loved Orson. They thought of him as a son. Over the years they had many happy times with him and his three wives. Mother often chastised him for being a negligent, perfunctory father. But that never stopped them from visiting him in New York, California, Mexico and Europe.
When dad was in his 50s he decided he wanted to learn how to fly. He took flying lessons. Shortly after he became a licensed pilot he persuaded mother to fly with him in a small Piper Cup, from Illinois to California to visit Orson.
If you were not a recipient of his disagreeable behavior you could be sorry for Orson. He had no empathetic skills. He did not know how to get along with his fellow man. While men admired his tremendous talents they were put off by his insolence and widely inflated ego. Women gladly flew into his arms, most of them gladly flew away.
The only times we ever saw Orson again was when he brought some of his lovely ladies to Todd. He brought them into the dining room to the great delight of the gawking, thrilled Todd boys. The first one was Dolores Del Rio, a stunningly beautiful lady, and very friendly. We were all very fond of her. Later, he brought his second wife, Rita Hayworth, another stunningly striking, comely lady. Rita was very sweet but very, very shy. She let Orson do all the talking.
Orson was jealous of Hascy. While dad loved and admired Orson, he also loved and admired Hascy. He had persuaded Hascy to come and work for him the first 13 years of our marriage until he found a way to bring an end to the Todd School. So dad and Hascy were necessarily, very close.
I want to end on a positive note. I will tell you that while Orson was a notorious liar and was proud of his propensity to prevaricate – he must have given dozens of different biographical tales of his birth and upbringing – he truly had the gift of gab. He needed no Blarney Stone. If you were fortunate enough to be in his vicinity when he chose to recount one of his exciting, interesting, fascinating chronicles, you sat on the edge of your chair, engrossed and spellbound by his masterful, well-planned way of narrating. One of his very many talents.
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