Who was Orson Welles? With the recent acquisition of a treasure trove of Orson Welles memorabilia, The University of Michigan is now the world’s foremost repositor of the personal and artistic archives of one of the greatest geniuses in the history of radio and cinema. Welles’ War of the Worlds 1938 radio episode for the Mercury Theatre on the Air was the most amazing broadcast in radio history. Despite forewarning, millions of Americans believed the H.G. Wells drama about an invasion from Mars was the real thing and America freaked out en masse. (It was broadcast to do just that, as a series of “news bulletins.”)
Welles, who wrote, directed and starred in the radio drama, was 23 years old at the time and already had a booming career in the theater. Three years later he wrote, directed, starred in and produced what some consider to be the greatest motion picture of all time, Citizen Kane. My kids are old enough and my grandkids young enough for me to admit that the first time I saw Citizen Kane was as a freshman living in East Quad, when some of the artistic members of the EQTC (East Quad Tripping Club) gave me some LSD and walked me around the corner to the Cinema Guild presentation in the old Architecture Building. To this day, I don’t know which was the trippier, the film or the acid, but I freaked out in a really good way, baby. Welles finally expired at age 70 in 1985. He was obese and mongering Paul Masson jug wine on television, but he still had the silky-smoothest voice in entertainment and a lifetime of creativity that is now being saved for posterity.
The actual acquisition
Michigan already had the world’s greatest collection of Welles’ original archives. We’re talking handwritten notes, jottings and sketches in the margins of scripts, letters, telegrams (remember those?), photographs, illustrations, production and financial statements. There are several different donated “collections,” this most recent one from Beatrice Welles, Orson’s youngest daughter with Italian actress Paola Mori. Beatrice wanted to unite her collection with the rest of the UM treasure trove even though, “My father was very anti-establishment.”
For example, Beatrice never went to school, but hung out with her parents as they worked and jet-setted and, in the end, provided her with personal treasures like no other. The beauty part is that you and I, the public, can view and touch these rare artifacts in the UM Special Collections Library. Just ask nicely, request a look at anything, sit at a table and the librarian will bring you whatever you want. Manuscripts, posters, playbills, original art, everything, including the original annotated script for Fountain of Youth, a 1956 television pilot produced by Desilu (yes, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz – remember them?), completed but never broadcast. It won a Peabody award, the only unsold pilot to do so.