Festival celebrates legendary filmmaker who called Woodstock home

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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, Todd 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.”

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