‘The Hearts of Age’: Juvenilia From Woodstock Kid Orson Welles

In 1934, Orson Welles had departed Chicagoland and was on the verge of his New York theater breakthrough. But that year he married Wheaton native Virginia Nicholson—and the two shot a film, Welles’s first, at his beloved alma mater in Woodstock.

Orson Welles’s father Richard was a businessman, a co-founder of the Badger Brass Manufacturing Co. in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It was founded in 1898, and by 1917 was making $1 million a year with the sale of its popular Solar Lamps (actually carbide-fuled). Then the electric lamp came; the company was bought; he and his wife separated; and he began to drink himself to death. Beatrice Welles died in 1924, when Orson was nine, leaving the future auteur essentially without parental figures.

The young Welles ended up at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, in the far western suburbs. Its headmaster was a man named Roger Hill, a progressive and forward-thinking educator who gave Welles free reign with his interests in theater in film, at a school that was remarkably well-equipped for such pursuits:

Usually, when people discuss Todd School, they mention its many physical attributes, among which were a film lab, radio studio, and recording studio. But these were only the outward manifestations of a remarkably insightful and effective approach to education–the most important point to make about the school…. Hill educated many young men (and some young women) by following the philosophy that giving responsibility and power to students motivates them to display responsibility and develop creativity. Given both responsibility and power, expected to attain a professional standard, Todd students were not subordinates but, instead, collaborators in their own education.

Hill was not just a gearhead, however; he shared with Welles a passion for Shakespeare, and with the help of his former star pupil the school produced a popular set of plays, Everybody’s Shakespeare, intended for school productions and meant to shake the dust off the classics in the manner of the then-22-year-old director:

You are wrong, Johnny. It’s the gray beard that you can’t understand. He has asked you to read Shakespeare with a pair of glasses smoked to a dull and dingy gray. Take them off. It was written for you, for the groundlings, for the unscholarly Globe patrons who walked in from the cockfight on the street. Only those folks whose blood courses hot through their veins can understand these tingling lines.

(The Woodstock Public Library tracked down a picture that may be of a 15-year-old Welles; he appears here, on the campus.)

When Welles was 19, he was working as a radio actor in Manhattan, the prologue to what would become the Mercury Theater, and making inroads into New York’s theater community. But he married a Wheaton native, Virginia Nicholson, surrounded by the cast of the Woodstock Little Theater, where both had acted and where Hill had directed Welles. The two also took the time to shoot a short film at the Todd School, the surrealist eight-minute short “The Hearts of Age"—Orson Welles’s first film. Virginia Nicholson plays the old woman and the cop.

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