Before “Citizen Kane,” there was the Todd School for Boys.
The groundbreaking private academy once located along Seminary Avenue groomed a young Orson Welles and hosted the drama festival that helped launch his illustrious film, radio and theater career. Now, a group dedicated to Woodstock’s heritage aims to highlight that history.
“I think the more people know about Orson Welles and know about his tie to Woodstock, the more excited they’ll become,” said Peter Gill, spokesperson for Woodstock Celebrates, the grassroots nonprofit hosting the Orson Welles Todd Theatre 80th Anniversary Festival Friday and Saturday, May 16 and 17.
Welles attended the boarding school from 1926 to 1931, studying under his mentor and headmaster Roger Hill, who encouraged the young man who would go on to make “Citizen Kane” at age 25 to participate in the school’s drama productions. He also took part in the school’s lauded 1934 theater festival at the Woodstock Opera House, which attracted nationwide attention and helped set in motion Welles’ distinguished career.
“The idea is Orson Welles became Orson Welles at the Todd School,” said Michael Dawson, a filmmaker, Welles expert and Woodstock Celebrates board member helping to organize the event. “That’s my opinion.”
The first-of-its-kind festival will include a live reading of Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio script for “The War of the Worlds,” period musical performances and lectures on Welles’ life and body of work. Concurrent events, hosted by area businesses, include screenings of Welles’ most famous movies and a pub crawl featuring prohibition-era cocktails inspired by Welles’ youth.
The 80th anniversary festival is the second of three consecutive Welles commemorations planned by Woodstock Celebrates, which will mark the 100th anniversary of Welles’ birth next year. Last year, the group successfully campaigned to have the stage at the Opera House named in his honor. But Woodstock Celebrates volunteers say they want to highlight different Woodstock personalities and institutions — among them, “Dick Tracy” creator Chester Gould and Eugene V. Debs, the pioneering union leader whose imprisonment in Woodstock led him toward socialism — in the future.
“I don’t know of another city that has this really unique cultural legacy,” said Gunnar Gitlin, a Woodstock attorney who serves as president of the Woodstock Celebrates board. “Being able to celebrate that with all kinds of events that are going to be exceptional … gives us the ability to really celebrate that unique history.”
But for now, the group’s focus is on honoring Welles in the place he once told interviewers was his truest home.
“We’re holding this event at the exact same venue that Orson Welles started his career,” said Gill. “Four years before ‘The War of the Worlds,’ he was directing a play on that same stage. If his ghost could be anywhere, it would be there.”
View the complete festival lineup at http://welleswoodstock.com.