Welles in Woodstock
Orson Welles’ star rose to great heights due in no small part to his stint at Woodstock’s Todd School for Boys under the wing of mentor Roger Hill.
When Orson Welles moved to Woodstock as an 11-year-old boy in 1926, he had reservations about coming to live at the Todd School for Boys, a boarding school founded in 1847. By the time he left the town in 1934, he was ready to embark on one of the most incredible radio/theater/film careers of the 20th century.
That career included striking panic into a national radio audience in 1938 with his rendition of the sci-fi novel “War of the Worlds,” and creating what many consider the greatest film of all time, “Citizen Kane,” in 1941. But it all started in Woodstock in 1934 where he made his debut as a professional director during the Todd Theatre Festival at the Woodstock Opera House.
Welles Arrives in Woodstock
Welles graced the stage and screen with his rich baritone voice, deeply intense eyes and a passion that filled his large physique. He was a magician, actor, director and producer who will long be remembered as one of the greatest filmmakers ever. But there was so much more to Welles.
Born in Kenosha, Wis., in 1915, he was well bred, learning music, theater and art as a child. But his childhood was far from ideal. His parents divorced and his mother died when he was just 8. Three years later, in 1926, his father enrolled him at the Todd School.
It was at Todd where Welles met his teacher and mentor, Headmaster Roger Hill, who nurtured Welles’ artistic impulses. Woodstock was where Welles had his first lessons in theater production, wrote his first plays and truly fell in love with the stage. In those five years at Todd, Hill not only helped Welles develop his theatrical skills, but served as a sort of adoptive parent for the budding young talent.
“If I think of home, it’s there,” Welles later said of those years in Woodstock. “Roger Hill and his staff were so unique and the school so imbued with real happiness, that one could hardly fail to enjoy oneself within its boundaries.”
In 1931, after graduating from Todd at age 16, he traveled abroad where he made his stage debut as an actor in Ireland. He returned to Woodstock with a goal to make it on the stage back in the States.
To help him get started, Hill financed the Todd Theatre Festival, a trio of plays that Welles organized at the Woodstock Opera House. It included Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, two actor-directors who had given Welles his acting debut in Dublin. The stage play “Trilby” marked Welles’ debut as a director. The plays drew people from the Chicago area and beyond, and received rave reviews from the press.
As big a success as the festival was, it wasn’t the only thing Welles accomplished in Woodstock in 1934. He also made his first film, “The Hearts of Age,” and collaborated with Hill to publish Todd Press’ “Everybody’s Shakespeare” (later reprinted as “The Mercury Shakespeare”), a highly successful series of play texts designed to help students bring Shakespeare to the stage.
It was Hill’s innovative educational philosophy that allowed Welles to focus on the things he loved most — theater, writing and painting. Throughout his life, Welles maintained a close friendship with Hill and kept a soft spot in his heart for Woodstock.
Celebrating a Local Treasure
Woodstock clearly has a soft spot in return for its renowned former resident. In 2014-15, the city celebrated with various events in his honor.
These Welles engagements are all part of a movement by not-for-profit Woodstock Celebrates Inc. (WCI), created in 2012 to promote and celebrate Woodstock’s associa-tion with great successes in culture, science and commerce.
“The community hasn’t been teaching our youngest generation about Woodstock,” said R.B. Thompson, WCI board member and Woodstock City Council member. “This is one thing we can do to make them aware of our rich local heritage.”
Thompson compiled a long list of famous people and events from throughout Woodstock’s past. Chester Gould, the creator of the Dick Tracy comic strip, lived in Woodstock. So did John Strohm, creator of National Wildlife magazine. The famous labor leader Eugene Debs developed his political affiliation with socialism while imprisoned in Woodstock.
Ironically, it was the destruction of Welles’ residence at Todd School — known as Grace Hall — that led to the formation of WCI and the Orson Welles events. A passionate group of Woodstock residents, including Kathy Spaltro and her husband, John Daab, tried, but failed, to save the historical edifice. Although they couldn’t save it from the wrecking ball, they would preserve the memory of one of our most famous citizens with a series of celebrations.
“This festival pays homage to Woodstock as a place that nurtured Welles’ genius,” said Spaltro, the festival event manager.
Peter Gill has lived in Woodstock since 1987. A former editor and reporter at the Northwest Herald, he is currently employed with the Illinois Retail Merchants Association in Chicago and enjoys photography in his spare time.