Orson Welles

Orson Welles

Birthplace: Kenosha, WI
You Know Him From: Radio broadcast of War of the Worlds (1938) and Academy Award-winning screenplay, Citizen Kane (1949).

Did Your Know?: As Orson once noted of his hometown, “I never blamed my folks for Kenosha — Kenosha has always blamed my folks for me.”

“Hitler managed to scare all of Europe to its knees… but at least had an army and an air force to back up his shrieking words. But Mr. Welles scared thousands into demoralization with nothing at all,” wrote Dorothy Thompson in an article in the New York Tribune regarding the disastrous effects of Orson Welles’ theatrical radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.” It all happened the day before Halloween on October 30, 1938. Millions of Americans had tuned in to the station that featured plays directed by and often starring Orson Welles -except this night was different-Orson had made a change to the play that was based on an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ famous science fiction novel “The War of the Worlds.”

Under Orson’s direction the play was written and performed as if it were an actual newscast with the intention of heightening the dramatic effect. The play unfolded with its gripping news report style with actors portraying newscasters, policemen and eyewitnesses describing spine-chilling spaceship sightings, a spaceship actually landing and sinister looking aliens dispersing from the craft. Throughout the broadcast many people had tuned in missing the infrequent explanations indicating that the broadcast was a fictional play based on H.G. Wells’ novel. Mass hysteria soon began as those who missed the statements grew quite frantic. Many people across the nation were so scared that they actually went to the extents of loading guns, hiding in cellars, packing their bags and hitting the road, and even wrapping their heads with wet towels to protect themselves from Martian poison gas! A while after the airing of the play the nation-wide panic was reported via genuine news reports revealing it to be a national scandal. “All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time” observed Dorothy Thompson in her New York Times article. “They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic.”

The next day Orson publicly apologized as many lawsuits were filed against him and the CBS radio network, though all were later dismissed. Orson Welles was quite underappreciated in his time, however, today he is considered to be one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed cinematic visionaries -and it all began in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Ironically enough, whenever Orson was asked about his hometown he was reported to have grumbled, “I never blamed my parents for Kenosha -Kenosha has always blamed my folks for me.” On May 15, 1915 George Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin to Richard Head Welles and Beatrice Ives Welles. Both of his parents were quite well off financially as his father was a brilliant inventor and his mother was a beautiful concert pianist. Orson had quite a bit of talent himself and was considered to be a genius at a very early age, as he was gifted in many arts such as the piano and painting. Orson’s first stage appearance was a walk-on bit in the Chicago Opera’s production of “Sampson and Delilah” at approximately the age of four. He then went on to play the child role of “Trouble” in Chicago opera’s production of “Madame Butterfly” with Claudia Muzio in the &!@*#le role. By the age of age ten, Welles adapted, produced, directed and performed his own production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

The family had moved to Chicago when Orson was still quite young and his parents often traveling the world becoming very prominent making many connections. Though outwardly appearing to be the perfect couple that had it all, their private lives were rather troubled. Their relationship was slowly dissolving as his father’s main attention turned to alcohol, which soon resulted in their divorce. Meanwhile, Orson’s older brother was considered to be a disappointment as he did not live up to the high expectations that his parents held. He would be expelled from the progressive Todd School, where Welles would be sent years later. He later spent many years in a mental institution before settling into a normal life as a counselor. Orson’s mother held him in high regard since he was not a disappointment to her like his father and brother were. She spent time teaching him to read with Shakespeare and also taught him how to play the piano. Welles went on to write, direct, and act in his own plays while in school, which caught the attention of local newspapers that ultimately dubbed him a prodigy. A few years after his parents divorced his mother became sickly and passed away when Orson was about nine years old.

With his mother gone his father took him with on his travels all over the world, but sadly his father died reportedly due to alcohol when Orson was a young teenager. Orson became the ward of Chicago’s Dr. Maurice Bernstein. Bernstein sent Welles to the Todd School in Woodstock, IL, confident that he would do very well there. While at the Todd School Welles was quite successful, spending much of his time producing plays under the encouragement of his headmaster Roger Hill, whom he had developed quite a kinship with since he no longer had his parents and Bernstein wasn’t very pleased with his interest in theatre. He made his first film, “Heart of Age,” a four-minute short co-directed with another student, William Vance, starring Virginia Nicholson, also a Todd student, who would later become Orson’s first wife. In later years, when asked about this early work, Orson retorted that, “it wasn’t really a movie at all…” shrugging it off as mere satire, a youthful impetuosity. After his graduating from the Todd School, Bernstein sent Welles to Ireland, hoping that he would forget about his passion in the theatre and turn to painting. The plan backfired though as Welles found his way to the Gate Theatre in Dublin. He auditioned posing as a famous Broadway actor, but he didn’t fool anyone. Nevertheless, it was enough to win him a place at the Gate. He performed as the Duke in “Jew Süss,” which was quite thrilling for him.

His next few roles were disappointments for him so he left the Gate in search of more famous theatres in England. He went on attempting to enter the London and Broadway stages, but was unsuccessful, so he traveled more in Morocco and Spain and claims that he even fought in the bullring! Since he was unable to obtain a work permit he returned to the Midwest. A few years later he got into Katherine Cornell’s road company where he made his New York debut as Tybalt in 1934. During this same year he married Virginia Nicholson, directed his first radio short and appeared on radio for the first time. Aside from becoming a father to his first child Christopher in 1937, he began working with John Houseman and they formed the Murcury Theatre. A year later the theatre became the “Murcury Theatre on the Air,” known for its famous broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” which was intended to be a Halloween prank. At the age of 25 he was given a film contract at RKO Studio Pictures where he was given generous artistic freedom. Considered to be one of the best films ever made, Orson’s first film to be seen by the public was “Citizen Kane” (1941), which was supposedly based on the life of William Randolph Hearst. Displeased with the notion of the movie, Hearst made many efforts to destroy it, but was unsuccessful. “Citizen Kane” went on to win nine Academy Award nominations and won for best screenplay. Orson also became one of only five actors to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his first screen appearance. Despite the appearance of success, “Citizen Kane” was a commercial failure, losing RKO $150,000.

Welles’ next film was “The Magnificent Ambersons,” but after the RKO studio decided to shoot new footage and re-edit it without Welles’ participation, a dispute erupted between Welles and RKO leading toward a pattern of troubles for him with his directing. Nevertheless, during this time Welles also appeared in such films as, “Journey Into Fear” (1942), “Jane Eyre” (1944), and “Tomorrow Is Forever” (1946). His next directing venture was in 1946, when he made “The Stranger,” with himself, Loretta Young and Edward G. Robinson. He then went on to marry Rita Hayworth and direct “The Lady From Shanghai” (1948) at Columbia Pictures. After making “Macbeth” at Republic, Welles took off for Europe, where he appeared in “The Third Man”(1949), which many people consider to be one of his best acting roles ever. From the 1950s on he focused on his acting career and continued to work in the theater. He also wrote some unsuccessful TV pilots. He even used his unique and powerful voice to work as a narrator for films and television shows. Later in life, Welles did many other things like TV commercials. He died on October 10, 1985 of a heart attack.

Biography By Brigette Jensen

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