Orson Welles' Sketchbook: Transcripts
Episode 4: May 14, 1955
People are always asking actors if the makeup hurts their faces and if they ever forget their lines. Well, the answer to these two classic questions is fairly simple, the makeup doesn't hurt our faces and we do forget our lines. In the theater of course, we have prompters, and in television, often, we have what are called teleprompters, at least in America. That's a machine that is installed right over the lens. Particularly useful for politicians making earnest political speeches. And they have their lines, which are written beforehand, printed on little bands which run right across the camera and that very intense, intelligent, and patriotic expression is sometimes simply a nearsighted politico trying to follow the words. And he says, [imitating politican] "Now, what we must, uh…all strive for…" (chuckles) And you get an interesting effect.
Then too, there's something called the idiot board. The idiot board is basically a film device, the idiot board is, but it's used in TV, also. It's consisting, as it does, of big blackboards with the words on it, it was invented by the Barrymores, I think by John Barrymore, and used a good bit by Lionel too, and subsequently by a good many actors, a good many of us, I should say. The words that we are supposed to say are written on these blackboards, which are held by fellows who stand behind the camera and move along behind the camera, showing what the words are. And that too, gives an interesting look to the actor's face. A sort of faraway expression as he spells out the words.
I have a friend whose name is Charles Lederer, wonderful fellow, a screenwriter, with a good deal of humor and imagination, who was, during the war, a director of documentary films. And he was making one in the Far East, a dull little documentary, involving a general. An important, a very important and high-ranking general, who had to make a speech, in one of those little shorts that were shown to the men, I think it was a film about "keeping our barracks tidy" or something of that kind. The general couldn't remember his words. And he was very much reassured, when Charles, that is, Captain Lederer, told him that it was alright, that Captain Lederer would hold up an idiot board, rather like this:
So the general wasn't embarrassed at all, using an idiot board, he felt every inch a Barrymore, very much a member of the profession, as he looked earnestly into the middle distance to read the words which Captain Lederer was holding up for him, just as the light turned on, and the camera started to roll, and what the general saw, were the following words: "Why not make Lederer a major?" Well luckily, the story has a happy ending. Charlie got to be a major, instead of being disciplined in some horrid way. The general had a sense of humor.
As I say, there are all sorts of ways of taking a prompt, and in this particular show I don't need a prompt because of course I make it up as I go along, at least find the words as I go along, and I have in front of me the sketches from my various sketchbooks which suggest our subjects. And tonight I have a few drawings of people who aren't here anymore, and whom I miss.
This is Harry Houdini. The master magician. The whole world must miss Houdini, certainly the whole theater world, because he was, without any question, the greatest showman of our time. Nobody, as a matter of fact, who ever played the halls, either in England, or America, or anywhere, received his salary, and nobody deserved it, because he could get out of anything; as you may remember, he was called an escapologist, and escape king; he was an expert in miracles. I'm proud to say he was my teacher in magic when I was young, as a favor to my father, he did give me my first lessons in the art of conjuring. But, I'd like to tell you my favorite story about Houdini, had to do with his visit to the Kremlin. The night he rang the bells in the Kremlin.
This was in a private performance for the royal family, for the tsar and the royal family, with Rasputin in the background, gnashing his teeth with jealous rage. And Houdini had asked for the various people in the small audience to write on slips of paper some impossible thing they would like to have performed. And one of them had written "ring the bells in the Kremlin, or so Houdini had arranged it so this would be chosen, apparently by free choice. And to ring the bells in the Kremlin may not sound like much, but as a matter of fact, at that time, there were no ropes connecting the bells, and for a century at least, they'd been silent.
So after this command, Houdini moved to the window, raised his arm, it was a snowy night; there was moment's very dramatic pause, and then, over the snow-covered square, there could be heard first very dimly, and finally, in full chorus…the bells of the Kremlin. You could imagine the effect of that! Particularly on Rasputin. Now ordinarily, I don't explain how tricks are done, no magician, amateur or professional, likes to do that, but in this particular case I think I can tell you that since it's unlikely that anyone will be doing this particular trick again. As Houdini raised his hand, his wife, who was standing at a window in a hotel at the other side of the square, which was right near the bell tower, his wife received the signal, and with an air gun, shot the bells…bing bong bong, like that. Always struck me as a particularly ingenious miracle, and of course, those kind of tricks are the best, really. There are all kinds of tricks, as I say, he taught me magic, taught me the beginnings of magic, I had other teachers, including the great Chinese Long Tak Sam, but Houdini was the disciplinarian. I'd sit in his dressing room backstage at the Hippodrome, or wherever it happened to be, and he'd make me go over and over a new trick, and he told me once, I remember, "You must practice a trick, Orson, a thousand times before you perform it." And I was absorbing this, I remember, when there was a knock on the door, and a fellow from Carl Bremer, who was a manufacturer and artisan of magic tricks, came in and said "Hello, Harry, I've just got a new vanishing lamp. Here it is, a new principle." Harry said "Fine, I'll put it in the show tonight."
That was the beginning of, well, great disillusionment on my part. Because, of course, you don't practice tricks a thousand times, you practice sleights, methods of doing tricks. I must apologize, because I'm sure that I'm not interesting the ladies, because the very subject of magic is not deeply interesting to the female, as all magicians know to their cost. I remember once, performing a miracle, rather in the style of Houdini's, a humble little miracle, but it cost me $75 to do, in honor of a young lady I was courting. And this was the miracle: I asked her, it was three o'clock in the afternoon, in Central Park, if she would take a card, any card…All ladies know how boring that is, but I didn't know it was boring, and I asked her to take any card. She took the card I wanted her to, and I asked her would she like the card in her purse or in my pocket, or would she like it written in the sky. She said written in the sky, and I pointed, a la Houdini, to the heavens, and she looked up, and there sure enough, written in the heavens, over New York, was the seven of hearts. I hired a signwriter, a skywriter, one of those aeroplanes with the smoke, and given him $75 to write the name of the card in the sky, but as I say, she said, "Well, you must have seen it up there before you did the trick."
Anyway, it's just a trick. You see, magic is not really for the ladies, they don't like to be fooled. You watch an audience when a conjurer is working. The men will all say "Oh, that's interesting, how does he do that?" And the girls will all say, "Well, it's very clever of course, but it's a trick! There must be some way of doing it." And you do another trick, and usually we bring out those silk scarves and those awful-looking feather flowers and all those things that we use in magic. The purpose of all that is to brighten things up and to keep the ladies' eyes focused on the stage. And the jokes that we try to tell and the other things we do are to cheer them up, because as I say, they become increasingly irritable. There's always the rather hard expression coming into the eyes, and invariably before the evening is over the remark "Well, of course there's a way of doing it." I didn't know that when I spent the $75 on the skywriter.
Here's John Barrymore. Who was certainly as famous as Houdini. Houdini could get out of anything, and Jack Barrymore could get into anything. He's also one of the greatest actors I ever saw in my life. But we remember him and miss him very much because he was such a personality, and such an original one. I remember one day, in the Brown Derby restaurant, in Hollywood, sitting with Jack, and two or three other assorted friends, and Jack Barrymore was a great storyteller, but a rather Rabelaisian one, and he was telling a story in his fruitiest and most Elizabethan style, and there was a tourist, obviously a fellow from the Middle West, sitting at the next table with his wife. Very respectable looking gentleman, with a celluloid collar, and I became aware that our neighbor was quite shocked with Mr. Barrymore's storytelling, and pretty soon the gentleman came over to the table, made a little speech about how embarrassing it was for himself and for his wife to hear this sort of talk going on, and Barrymore paid no attention whatsoever, and I saw the man go away and come back with the head waiter, and again a little speech, "We've come all the way to Hollywood, and this is certainly a very bad impression we're receiving of you actor people," and I tried to indicate to Jack Barrymore that he should censor himself, but made no impression at all, and then I saw, a little bit later through the window, that the tourist gentleman, and the head waiter, and a bus boy, and, of all things, a traffic policeman from the front, were on their way in to the restaurant.
And I finally got through to Jack, with the news that the board of censors had really descended on him; Jack finished his story, just as this procession had come to a halt in front of our table. Jack turned around, looked at them, with a full Barrymore glare, said "What is this, a peasant…with a petition?"
Now, John Barrymore may have invented the idiot board, but he didn't need it, always, certainly not in the theater; he could do Shakespeare without leaving out a single line of the poet's, and even sometimes adding a word or two of his own. As for example here in London, when he was doing Hamlet. You know the tea business in the matinee performances, I needn't dwell on it, but it is a rather startling experience for a visiting American actor. Particularly the sight of those trays, as they go floating through the darkness after the second interval. You see them as the curtain goes up, and it does rather resemble a spiritualist séance, they seem to be suspended in mid-air and of course the clattering is an earthly sound, a very definite one, and Jack had just come to the tag, just at the end of Hamlet, and made his last speech, [Barrymore-esque] "The rest is silence," And he suddenly moved down to the footlights, stared at the poor Wednesday matinee audience, and shouted "Tea. TEA. TEAAAA!" At which the curtain fell. And I'd like to think of him shouting "Tea" or something insulting like that at us over the footlights; I'd certainly like to speak with him always as "sweet prince," to wish him good night, and to hope that flight of angels sing him to his rest.