Welles centennial celebrated in Madison, Kenosha

Jay Rath, Contributing writer

A century ago, on May 6, 1915, Kenosha found itself the birthplace of one of the greatest film directors of all time: Orson Welles.

It’s a centennial set to be celebrated in force this year, both there and in another of Welles’ hometowns: Madison, where he lived for a year in his youth.

Madison’s celebration kicks off this month. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque will present Welles’ first film, Citizen Kane, in a free screening on Jan. 24.

It’s only the first foray into Welles’ work, which Cinematheque director of programming Jim Healy says will continue weekly, with screenings of The Magnificent Ambersons and The Stranger on Jan. 31, and subsequent films including Othello, The Lady from Shanghai, F for Fake, and Touch of Evil presented later in February.

“We’ve never really done a Welles series before, so this is a great occasion,” says Healy. He added that the Wisconsin Film Festival, in April, will feature additional presentations, before the Cinematheque returns to a weekly schedule. “In the summer we’ll focus on his acting roles in films that other people directed, and in the fall look at Welles rarities.”

Later in the year, Kenosha’s Citizen Welles Society will have a monthlong celebration of the director beginning on his birthday. Some of the biggest events planned are a live performance of Welles’ famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, a Welles Film Festival hosted by UW-Parkside and Carthage College and a variety of other Welles-inspired activities — including magic acts, a lifelong passion of his.

Welles’ time in Wisconsin was brief — he moved to Chicago with his family in 1919, and his year in Madison between 1925 and 1926 was an anomaly that immediately preceded his arrival in Woodstock, Illinois, the town he would ultimately consider his home. 

But even in his brief time in Madison as a fourth-grade public school student, Welles drew attention. A Capital Times story from that year summed him up in the headline “Cartoonist, Actor, Poet and Only 10,” describing accomplishments like impromptu, four-hour performances, oil paintings that showed “keen insight and interpretation” and original poetry recitations.

“Orson has many ambitions,” reported The Capital Times. “At the present time he cannot decide what he will be when he grows up.”

Another Welles anniversary takes place this year. He died in Hollywood 30 years ago, on Oct. 10, 1985.

NOW SCREENING

The UW-Madison Cinematheque will screen Citizen Kane at 7 p.m. on Jan. 24, in room 4070 of Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free. The Orson Welles series will continue on Saturdays into February, and continue into the Wisconsin Film Festival April 9-16. Visit cinema.wisc.edu for more details.