Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Orson Welles at 100 and the Woodstock Connection

The youthful Orson Welles.

Today would have been the 100th birthday of Orson Welles—writer, producer, director, actor, scene designer, radio pioneer, raconteur, and polymath extraordinaire.  All of that and, for a time, the husband of the most desirable woman in the world by actual vote, Rita Hayworth.
Needless to say, there are celebrations galore in his birthplace, Racine, Wisconsin; Indiana University at Bloomington; and countries around the world.  Turner Classic Movies (TCM), of course, is featuring Welles films every Monday night for the whole month of May.  But nowhere is the celebration more heartfelt or comprehensive than in self-professed home town, Woodstock, Illinois

Promotional art work for the  Woodstock Orson Welles Centennial Festival.

For the second year in a row the organization Woodstock Celebrates has assembled a definitive multi-day program featuring the authors of several recently released studies of Welles and the various facets of his career, screenings of many of his films, stage performances, a recreation of his famous War of the Worlds broadcast, and even a program with the fascinating and exotic Oja Kodar, his final leading lady, collaborator, and life partner.  For details on all of the programs check out the Orson Welles Centennial Festival web page.
A few years ago while the local battle to save a key landmark associated with Welles and the history of Woodstock, I wrote a piece for the blog that ultimately caused the energetic Kathleen Spaltro to contact me about helping with her vision of a pair of festivals celebrating two key anniversaries.  Ultimately due to my hectic work schedule and already committed volunteer time, I was unable to be much, if any, help.  That’s alright.  They did a bang-up job without me.
Here is a version of that piece lightly edited to reflect subsequent developments.

Welles--directly under the ground floor window on the left--and school mates in front of Grace Hall at Todd School for Boys in Woodstock.
Woodstock, Illinois is a county seat town built around a charming Square about 50 miles northwest of Chicago.  That is in the orbit of the great metropolis, but far enough away not to be just another suburb.  Like a lot of places, maybe your home town, it has a unique history.  Today, I’d like to tell you the intertwining tales of two historic buildings.
The Todd School for Boys had been founded by a Methodist minister in 1848 as a seminary for the sons of the local gentry dissatisfied with the instruction available at local one-room school houses.  By the dawn of the 20th Century, it was a thriving academy with a liberal and artistic bent serving the sons of the wealthy from around the nation. 
In 1919-20 Grace Hall was built at the center of the campus as a combination dormitory and administration building.  The 2 ½ story red brick structure was built in the Prairie Style promulgated by Frank Lloyd Wright with sweeping horizontal lines and broad eaves. 
The school closed in 1954.  Grace Hall stood until 2010, the sole remaining building of the old campus, surrounded by the buildings of a retirement home.
The most famous resident of Grace Hall was Orson Wells, who attended Todd School from 1926 to 1931.  It was there that the flamboyant young genius first performed in elaborate productions that ranged from Shakespeare to original musical reviews. It was there that he wrote his first scripts, directed his first plays, and even shot his first film — His second would be Citizen Kane.
Wells, who had a turbulent, unconventional childhood, considered Todd School and Woodstock to be his home.  After graduation he often returned to town to visit his mentor, Headmaster Roger Hill.  He drew on his experiences at the school and in staging productions at the old City Hall auditorium in his later work, notably the 1946 film The Stranger.

The lovingly restored Woodstock Opera House as it looks today.

Which brings us to our second historic building.  The cream and red stone building with its Italianate bell tower dominates Woodstock Square.  It was built in 1890 as a combination City Hall, police station and fire house it included a small second floor theater.  In its early years the theater hosted touring theatrical companies, mostly featuring popular melodramas and comedy staples like Peck’s Bad Boy.  An opera or two and some operettas were also performed. 
City Hall eventually was relocated to the old high school building, the police department moved out of the basement and the fire department built a new station a block away.  But the theater remained in use.  After World War II enterprising graduates of Chicago’s Goodman School of Drama established the Woodstock Players, a repertory company which staged ambitious and sophisticated productions on the stage through the early 1950’s.  Among the performers who cut their theatrical teeth there were Shelly Berman, Tom Bossley, Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, and Lois Nettleton.
But the old building was deteriorating.  Local residents made a heroic effort to raise funds and refurbished it in 1977.  Re-christened as the Woodstock Opera House, the building is now the lively cultural center of the community.  It is home to two resident community theater companies—including one of the oldest continuously operating companies in the nation—and a summer youth theater.  It also houses a week-long Mozart Festival every August, and hosts a variety of special concerts, lectures, and other programs.  Together the Opera House and the Square are gems that draw visitors and tourists from around the country.
In 2012 the stage at the Opera House was dedicated to Wells and a brass plaque installed.  It was part of the preliminary run up to the 2014 festival commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Todd Theater Festival Well’s debut as a professional stage director.  It will be a focal point of this year’s Centennial Festival as well.

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