Newly-Found Orson Welles Film Has Roots At Connecticut Theater

Hartford Courant

Next month, there will be a premiere in Italy of a just-discovered Orson Welles film -- one that preceded “Citizen Kane” by three years and one the film and stage master created for a theater production at a little summer stage in the Stony Creek section of Branford in 1938.

The then-23-year-old Welles envisioned a 40-minute film that was to be used in the stage revival of the 1894 farce by Hartford playwright William Gillette, “Too Much Johnson.” (Gillette, a leading American stage actor and writer, died in Hartford in 1937.)

The aim was to try out the production in Branford and then take it to Broadway later that year for Welles’ Mercury Theater company.

The silent film, which featured a Keystone Cops-style chase, was to incorporate a lot of the narrative of the play in a more dynamic way at the beginning of each act.

Trouble was, Welles never finished editing the film and without the narrative footage, the play made little sense. The production at the theater -- most people now are more familiar with it as the former Stony Creek Puppet House -- was a disaster. 

Why did Welles chose the tiny summer stage on Thimble Islands Road on the Connecticut coast? According to William Herz, 97, and a member of Welles’ company, it was because of an affair.

“He was having a ‘do’ with a Vera Zorina, an actress-dancer in New York, and he wanted his wife [Virginia Nicolson] out of town,” says Herz from his apartment in New York. (Full disclosure: Herz is a cousin of my husband, Bill Kux.)

Herz had joined Welles’ troupe right out of school of Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and also served as Welles’ personal assistant, living at the director’s Manhattan apartment for a period when Welles’ wife,  was pregnant. Herz performed in several Mercury Theater productions as well as Welles' radio play “The War of the Worlds,” which celebrates its 75th anniversary next month. Herz was also stage manager for the Mercury Theater’s “The Cradle Will Rock.”

That summer of 1938 -- just a few months before a hurricane would decimate much of the area’s shoreline -- Herz found summer employment in Branford running the summer stock house. Welles decided that the little theater was the perfect place to try out “Too Much Johnson”  and planned a film as part of that production -- unbeknown to Herz. “The film was a secret to me,” he says. 

Problem was, the theater didnt have facilities to project film.

The theater which opened in 1903 -- most likely as a Nickelodeon house --was purchased in 1920 by the Parrish Players and a stage and fly loft was added. It became a summer stock theater in the ‘30s. 

“But you cannot have film in a theater that doesn’t have a fireproof projection and we didn’t,” says Herz. “How Welles didn’t know that was beyond me.”

Even as the opening loomed with things far from finished, the feeling was that Welles would somehow make it work. “Everyone was in awe of Orson,” says Herz. “And he was a genius.”

But in this case, says Herz, “the whole experience was a nightmare. The only good that came out of that show was that Katharine Hepburn [who lived in nearby Old Saybrook] saw Joseph Cotton twice in the show and picked him for ‘The Philadelphia Story.’

Others in the cast were Arlene Francis, Mary Wickes, Howard Smith and other members of Mercury Theater, including Welles’ wife.

Music for the film, it was later learned, was composed by Paul Bowles, most known as the author of “The Sheltering Sky.”

Based on the buzz surrounding Welles at the time, the Branford run was sold out before the first performance of the two-week run. Good thing, too, says Herz, “because we wouldn’t have sold one ticket by word of mouth.”

For more than 50 years the print of Welles’ theater-film was thought to be lost or destroyed. But a print was discovered in a warehouse of a shipping company in the northern Italy port city of Pordenone, which just happened to be the home of Cinemazero, a cultural organization there that also co-produces a film festival,

The volatile nitrate film was sent to the motion picture department at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. in order to transfer it to safety stock.

The film will at last be shown at a film festival in Pordernone beginning Oct. 5 and then screened at The Eastman House on Oct. 16.

As for the Branford theater, it became a parachute factory during WWII, a ladies garment factory after the war and in 1959 it became  the Stony Creek Puppet House, the featured a puppet collection and presented puppet shows. Last April it was purchased by the Legacy Theatre Group with the intention of renovating it as a community arts center.

 There will be a dinner-cabaret fundraiser for the Legacy Theatre on Oct. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Woodwinds, 29 School Ground Road, Branford. Information:


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