Orson Welles Tells Some Damn Good Stories in the Orson Welles’ Sketch Book (1955)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Orson Welles Remem­bers his Stormy Friend­ship with Ernest Hem­ing­way

Orson Welles Explains Why Igno­rance Was His Major “Gift” to Cit­i­zen Kane

Orson Welles’ Last Inter­view and Final Moments Cap­tured on Film

Revis­it Orson Welles’ Icon­ic ‘War of the Worlds’ Broad­cast That Aired 75 Years Ago Today

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.


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