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Orson Wells was born May 6, 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His mother died when he was nine and his father when he was 15 and I’ve always wondered if there was a part of Welles that resonated with the young boy in Citizen Kane who is separated from his parents. Shortly after his mother died Welles began attending the Todd Seminary for Boys in Woodstock Illinois. 

When he graduated in 1931 the school was called Todd School for Boys. According to Wikipedia the school was founded by Reverend R.K. Todd with the philosophy of “plain living and high thinking, and in harmony with Puritan traditions.” It was a boarding school. (In Citizen Kane you may recall, the parents own a boarding house.)

Keep in mind that Wells was only 25 when he made Citizen Kane, so not that removed from school. At the Todd school Welles’ talent was allowed to flourish under the influence of Roger Hill, his teacher, headmaster and father figure. It was where Welles began his theater performances that would include Shakespeare and other classics.

Barbara Learning writes in her book Orson Welles, a Biography that after Welles arrived at the Todd School,“There followed a starling succession of plays—variously adapted, designed, directed, and acted by Welles. There was Orson as Cassius; Orson as Marc Anthony; Orson as Richard III, Orson as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Orson as both Androcles and the Lion; even as Jesus Chrsit, for which he posed for photographs looking strangely ethereal.” 

Keep in mind that he did all that between the ages of 11 and 15. Welles did not attend college, but traveled Europe and North Africa acting here and there so the Todd School really was his only formal education.

An association with playwright Thornton Wilder (who was born in Madison, Wisconsin) led Welles to New York just a few years after graduating from the Todd School. In 1935 he was 20 years old and considered a prodigy. In 1937 he found international fame with the radio performance of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Three  years later he would write and direct Citizen Kane which many critics consider the greatest film ever made.

Director Peter Bogdanovich on a Citizen Kane DVD commentary wondered how Welles played Kane as an old man when he was only in his mid 20s. I think the answer is that by that time he had been playing older men for almost 15 years. An actor once told me the key to being a good actor is stage time. And Welles got a lot of stage time at the Todd School.

So it’s no wonder then when Welles was 45 and asked in a TV interview “where home was” he tried to dodge the question before saying, “I suppose it’s Woodstock, Illinois if it’s anywhere. Went to school there for four years. And if I try to think of home it’s that.” 

(I had never heard of Woodstock, Illinois until my father-in-law died there this past summer. While there I learned that the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day was filmed there. It’s located about 45 minutes outside Chicago.)

Welles was a magician and an enigma. Many books have been written about him as they try to figure him out just like the reporters tried to figure out who Charlie Kane really was. But if there is one thing we know about Welles from just War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane it is that he knew how to hold an audience.

“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.” 
                                                                                                   Orson Welles 

P.S. Orson Welles’ education is why I think the next great writer/director will not come from USC film school, but from a kid who is homeschooled by a mother who loves Shakespeare. (Probably in a small town in Iowa…and who reads this blog, of course.) And he or she will do it with a film using actors who have never been in a film before as Welles did in Citizen Kane.

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Scott W. Smith

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