On the first episode of Orson Welles’ Sketch Book, the man who made Citizen Kane remembers an anxiety-inducing evening early in his career: having somehow already gained a reputation as an entertaining after-dinner speaker, he found himself standing before a roomful of what seemed like every movie star in the flesh that he’d ever seen on the screen. Desperate to impress all these celebrities who had so impressed him, he pulled out the only amusing story in his repertoire, only to realize halfway through the telling that he couldn’t remember how it ended. Luckily, one of California’s earthquakes struck just before he reached that forgotten ending, sending the whole Hollywood crowd out the door and letting him off the raconteur hook. By the time he tells the next tale, of his longer-ago, more stressful and much more formative debut onstage in front of a decidedly uncooperative Dublin audience, you’ll wonder why he couldn’t handle the after-dinner speaking; if anyone has a natural storyteller’s instinct, he does.
The BBC must have thought so, in any case, when they put together this series of television commentaries from Welles, none of which need more than his then slightly unfamiliar face (without, he underscores, the usual false nose he wears for roles), his unmistakable voice, and his illustrations — taken, literally, from his sketchbook. In these six fifteen-minute broadcasts, which originally aired in 1955, Welles talks about not just the inauspicious beginnings of his illustrious working life but his experiences with the critics, the police, John Barrymore and Harry Houdini, the infamous radio production of War of the Worlds (which you can hear in our post for its 75th anniversary), and bullfighting (see also our post on his friendship with Ernest Hemingway). Though interesting in and of themselves, he uses these subjects to tie together a variety of recollections and observations from his life and career: on the finer points of producing Shakespeare with voodoo witch-doctors, on media-induced gullibility, on the invasion of privacy, on the art of line prompting. Not settling for status as a creative genius in film, theater, and radio, it seems Welles also laid down the example for a form that wouldn’t actually arrive for another fifty years: vlogging.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.