Discovering Orson Welles' Wisconsin Roots

by Dean Robbins
| April 23, 2015
Download audio

People don’t associate Orson Welles with Wisconsin. Even biographers gloss over the fact that the brilliant theater, radio, and film artist was born in Kenosha and schooled in Madison. Welles himself played down the association, calling Kenosha a “nasty little Middle Western city” in a 1937 magazine profile.

But hold on a minute. Wisconsin surely helped to mold this one-of-a-kind virtuoso. He had formative experiences here as a child. He later backed off his harsh assessment of Kenosha, calling himself a “confirmed Badger.”

As a Badger myself, and a lifelong Welles fanatic, I’m thrilled that he considered himself one of us. It makes us automatically essential to the history of 20th-century art.

Orson Welles is best known for directing highly personal, visually dazzling films like "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "A Touch of Evil." Each one featured his own flamboyant acting.

His masterpiece, 1941’s "Citizen Kane," is usually cited as the greatest movie ever made. Welles stars as newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane, who mysteriously utters “Rosebud” on his deathbed.

In the film’s closing seconds, we discover that the word relates to a crucial childhood memory and is the key to Kane’s soul.

Anyone looking for a Rosebud moment in Welles’ own life might focus on the day he attended his beloved mother’s funeral in Kenosha, at age 9. Given that tragic association, it’s no wonder he had mixed feelings about the city of his birth.

The world hailed Welles as a prodigy in his early 20s, when he conquered New York theater and terrified the nation with his "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast.

But Wisconsin had recognized his talent long before then. His gained his first public notoriety in the Capital Times when he was all of 10. The newspaper got wind of an extraordinary boy attending elementary school in Madison. It cited his amazing vocabulary and poetic gifts, calling him “an apparent genius.” 

And that wasn’t the only sign of future greatness. In the summer after fourth grade, Welles made a big impression at Madison’s Camp Indianola. The other campers likely realized he wouldn’t be a typical bunkmate when he showed up with his own easel and oil paints. He also told long, dramatic stories during camp meetings to the point where the counselors tried to shut him up.

But Orson would not be denied. He begged to put on a one-man show of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," complete with props. Both campers and counselors watched, stunned, as he morphed from one character to another using vocal inflections and body language.

Welles went on to a career of dizzying highs and lows, dying in 1985 at age 70.

But Madison never forgot "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Decades later, an eyewitness still spoke reverently of the astounding summer-camp performance.

That’s how audiences have always felt after experiencing Orson Welles’ genius. I’m just proud to be from Wisconsin, where we got to experience it first.

Tags: Orson Welles / movies / theater / child / summer camp / actor / Citizen Kane / director / writer
Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins is a journalist and author based in Madison. He has won state and national awards for arts, features and news stories, and has contributed to magazines and newspapers around the country.