Orson Welles came to Woodstock as a boy in 1926 to attend the private Todd School for Boys. (Photo provided)
Orson Welles came to Woodstock as a boy in 1926 to attend the private Todd School for Boys. (Photo provided)
Orson Welles came to Woodstock as a boy in 1926 to attend the private Todd School for Boys. (Photo provided)
Orson Welles came to Woodstock as a boy in 1926 to attend the private Todd School for Boys. (Photo provided)
Orson Welles came to Woodstock as a boy in 1926 to attend the private Todd School for Boys. (Photo provided)

Orson Welles’ only real sense of home was Woodstock.

Arriving in Woodstock as a conflicted 11-year-old boy, whose mother had died a couple of years earlier, Welles went to what was then the Todd School for Boys.

It was the place where he’d meet the man he would call his mentor, Roger Hill, the school’s headmaster.

And Woodstock was the place where Welles would make his directorial debut, both directing and starring as Svengali in “Trilby” in 1934 during the Todd Theatre Festival. Welles orchestrated the festival 80 years ago, while Hill funded it.

“From there, he was a rocket through the cultural life of America,” said Todd Tarbox, the grandson of Hill, who attended the Todd School for Boys until it closed in 1954.

In celebration of Welles and to mark the 80th anniversary of the Todd Theatre Festival, the nonprofit group Woodstock Celebrates Inc. is hosting numerous events throughout the weekend.

Beginning with a presentation by Tarbox at 7 p.m. May 16 at Stage Left Café, 125 E. Van Buren St., Woodstock, the weekend-long celebration includes panel discussions at the Woodstock Opera House, a film festival, a walking tour, a pub crawl, exhibits and re-creations of Welles’ radio productions, including the well-known “The War of the Worlds.”

“He’s part of the history of Woodstock,” said Peter Gill, the spokesman for Woodstock Celebrates Inc. “This is what’s important to Woodstock. ...

“We’ve got to not only teach people what it’s about, but celebrate it and enjoy it. If you ignore it, it fades away in time and nobody knows about it and that’s a shame.”

A glimpse into Welles’ life is fascinating, say those involved with the festivities, even to those who are not film buffs.

Welles not only made films including “Citizen Kane,” which has been declared by many as one of the best films of the 20th century, but he became a mastermind in radio (creating the “War of the Worlds” broadcast in 1938), theater, speech writing (for Franklin D. Roosevelt) and even magic.

A featured speaker during the festivities, Tarbox wrote “Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts,” based on telephone conversations between Welles and his grandfather, Hill. Welles had asked Hill to record the conversations in the hopes of one day writing a biography. Welles died in 1985 at the age of 70, before that biography was written.

Becoming somewhat of a nomad after he graduated from the Todd School in 1931, Welles later would be quoted as saying, “I have lots of homes ... but, I suppose it’s Woodstock, Illinois, if it’s anywhere. I went to school there for five years, and if I think of home, it’s there. It may be a tedious bromide to say that school days are the happiest days of your life, but 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.”

The somewhat mysterious innovator honed his creative skills in Woodstock, Tarbox said.

With Hill’s support, he created his short film “The Hearts of Age” in Woodstock in 1934, along with immersing himself in the Todd Theatre Festival.

The festivities will honor all aspects of Welles’ career, organizers say.

“This is sort of playing homage to the school that allowed Orson to flourish creatively, where I think many schools then and now wouldn’t have allowed Orson Welles to flourish, because he was so unique and his talents were so directed toward the creative arts,” Tarbox said.

“His character is sort of larger than life. He stormed the world in a mighty fashion,” he said. “He’s a flame that should continue burning, I think, and I think this is one means of celebrating his excellence.”

Events planned

Programs celebrating the life and career of Woodstock's adopted famous son Orson Welles will take place May 16-17.

Hosted by Woodstock Celebrates Inc., a nonprofit organization established to celebrate Woodstock's history and heritage, the events commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Todd Theatre Festival at the Woodstock Opera House. That historic festival was orchestrated by a 19-year-old Welles and paid for by Roger Hill, the headmaster and teacher at the former Todd School for Boys, where Welles attended from 1926-31.

Welles made his debut as an American theater director with the production of "Trilby," in which he played the character Svengali, at the Woodstock Opera House.

Following are the events and programs planned throughout the weekend:

• 7-10 p.m. May 16, Stage Left Café, 125 E. Van Buren St., Woodstock. A $15 donation is suggested.
The Welles Festival opens.
Todd Tarbox speaks from 7 to 7:45 p.m. Tarbox is the author of "Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts." He attended the Todd School for Boys until it closed in 1954 and is the grandson of Roger Hill, Welle's teacher and mentor.
From 7:45 to 8:45 p.m., members of a Welles experts panel respond. The panelists are Jonathan Rosenbaum, Joseph McBride, Michael Dawson, Jeff Wilson, Josh Kerp and Robert K. Elder.
From 9 to 10 p.m., Petra Van Nuls and Andy Brown play music from the 1920s and 1930s. Van Nuis is a Chicago-based jazz vocalist who will play in collaboration with her husband, guitarist Andy Brown.

• 9:30 to noon May 17, Woodstock Opera House, 121 E. Van Buren St., Woodstock. A single event costs $15. A full-day pass costs $40. Student single event tickets cost $10, while student full-day passes cost $25. Tickets and passes are available at the Opera House. Information: 815-338-5300 or www.welleswoodstock.com or the Woodstock Celebrates Inc. Facebook page.
A panel presentation focusing on the Todd School for Boys (1926-31); Welles' 1931 debut as a professional actor at the Gate Theatre in Dublin; the 1934 Todd Theatre Festival; Welles' first film, "The Hearts of Age," created in Woodstock; the book "Everybody's Shakespeare" Welles published with Roger Hill; and the later appearances by Gate Theatre actor/managers in Welles' "Othello."
Those involved include moderator and film critic Robert K. Elder, author and film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, film writer Joseph McBride and Michael Dawson, president of Intermission Productions, which found and restored Welles' "Othello" in 1991.

• 2 to 5 p.m. May 17, Woodstock Opera House. A panel focusing on Welles before and after his 1934 debut in Woodstock. In 1931, he visited Spain. After 1934, he achieved success in New York City as a director of radio dramas and stage shows. Welles would soon cap his fame as an actor and director by joining RKO in Hollywood and creating the film "Citizen Kane" in 1941 at age 25.
Once again, Elder will moderate. Others involved include Jeff Wilson, who founded www.wellesnet.com in 2001, and Josh Karp, a Chicago-based author of "The Last Movie: The Unmaking of Orson Welles' 'The Other Side of the Wind.'" Karp will show a short documentary, "El Americano," about Welles in Spain.

• 8 to 10 p.m. May 17, Woodstock Opera House. RG Productions, an award-winning group based in Kenosha, Wis., will perform a number of Welles radio theatre scripts on the Woodstock Opera House Orson Welles Stage (named so last year in honor of Welles' direction of "Trilby" on the stage as part of the Todd Theatre Festival in 1934).
Vignettes from Welles' versions of "Dracula," "The Shadow," and "Sherlock Holmes" precede a full re-creation of the radio broadcast, "The War of the Worlds," that unexpectedly made Welles internationally famous in 1938.

Other associated events include the following:
• May 16-17, Woodstock Classic Cinemas presents the "Orson Welles Film Festival."
• Through June 1, the Woodstock Public Library, 414 Judd St., hosts a Todd School exhibit.
• Through May 18, Woodstock bars and restaurants host a Pub Crawl with Prohibition and Depression era drinks, such as Sidecar, Bee's Knees, the Flu and more. Customers will be given a card, and each time they order one of the drinks at one of 13 participating establishments, the card will be punched. Anyone completing the Pub Crawl will be eligible to win a Woodstock prize package drawn May18. For a list of participating business, go to www.welleswoodstock.com.
• 1 to 2 p.m. May 17, a walking tour hosted by the Woodstock Historic Preservation Commission.
• Throughout May, a photo and multimedia tribute to Orson Welles at the Old Court House Arts Center, 101 N. Johnson St., Woodstock.
Throughout the weekend, book signings by authors involved with the weekend's festivities at Read Between the Lynes, 129 Van Buren St.

By JAMI KUNZER - jkunzer@shawmedia.com