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Walters Ms With Images, 4-09-1

Walters Ms With Images, 4-09-1

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Published by Robert Branch

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Published by: Robert Branch on Apr 18, 2011
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Welles’s experiences at R.K.O.—the studio that backed Citizen Kane, broke up The

Magnificent Ambersons, and balked at It’s All True—established the reputation that

would accompany him for the rest of his life. Rightly or wrongly, he was perceived as


Person to Person, C.B.S. Television, November 25, 1955


Cahiers du Cinéma, ‘Interview with Orson Welles (I)’, p.44

Arrested development


quixotic and unaccountable, by turns profligate and inspired. Even those who admired his

accomplishments would think twice about hiring him. His spell in Europe did little to

improve things: an exiled king across the water to a few, Welles was more generally

considered a curiosity, a has-been, or a liability. His profile as a movie actor had

declined, and his own films of the period—The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, Othello,

Mr. Arkadin—were not, to put it mildly, sympathetically treated by U.S. studios,

distributors, critics, or audiences. Triumphs like the London stage production Moby Dick

—Rehearsed, meanwhile, barely registered in America.

Yet for all this, Welles retained a unique international profile, a reputation for

intelligence, innovation, and wit, and a yen for populism. When he returned to New York

late in 1955, he seemed determined to make a go of it again in his native land, and was

happy to use shows like Person to Person to promote himself. He had been invited to

mount a production of King Lear at City Center, and hoped it would restore him to

primacy on the American stage; he already had Ben Jonson’s Volpone in mind as a

follow-up. Lear, however, proved a disaster that ended Welles’s U.S. theater career for

good. Too busy directing to learn his own lines, he also broke both ankles at the start of

the run in January, 1956. His attempts to perform from a wheelchair, pushed by his Fool,

were not judged a success.

That February 5, Welles appeared on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, gamely

reciting from the production that had folded in ignominy a week earlier. The show’s other

guests included Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who were plugging their own half-cocked,

over-reaching failure, Forever, Darling, the feature that dashed their movie hopes as

effectively as Lear ended Welles’s theatrical ambitions. Welles had known Ball and

Arrested development


Arnaz, he later said, since “before they met each other.” He and Ball had shared radio

bills in the late 1930s, and, when he arrived at R.K.O. in 1939, she was a contract player

at the studio. One of the many rumors about Welles buzzing around Hollywood at the

time was the suggestion that he was homosexual, prompting the publicity department to

arrange a press-friendly rendezvous. As Welles recalled it, “my official escort, given to

me by the studio one night, was one of the stock girls, who was Lucille Ball. That’s how I

met her first. We went to see the opening of some movie or other—I simply picked her

up at her house and we went to the movie and got photographed and came home and I

said ‘Good night,’ and that was the end of that. That was the end of that romance, but it

was the beginning of a long friendship.”16

Between 1934 and 1942, Ball appeared in more than 40 pictures for R.K.O.,

including Too Many Girls, on which she met Arnaz in June 1940. She was given

occasional supporting parts in features, and leading roles in B pictures, but was not

considered a particular asset. When Welles proposed her for the lead in the comedy

thriller The Smiler with the Knife—one of the projects he considered before settling on

Citizen Kane—he remembered being told “Lucy Ball is washed up, finished, we’re

letting her go, her career is over.”17

They would work together on radio during the war:

like many movie actors, she appeared several times on C.B.S.’s Orson Welles Almanac.

(In a March 1944 skit, she played his secretary, Miss Grimace. “That’ll be all,” she told

him. “That’ll be all who?” he haughtily replied. “That’ll be all, Fatso.”18

) Ball’s memories


Bill Krohn, ‘My Favourite Mask Is Myself’, Cahiers du Cinéma, February, 1982
(expanded English-language version in Stefan Drössler (ed.), The Unknown Orson
(Munich Filmmuseum, 2004), p.59


This Is Orson Welles, Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich with Jonathan Rosenbaum,

(Da Capo, 2nd

edition, 1998), p33


Simon Callow, Orson Welles: Hello Americans (Penguin, 2007), p.204

Arrested development


of Welles were mixed. “I had a real love-hate relationship with Orson,” she said towards

the end of her life. “His mind was awesome…but he was also a pain in the ass…He was

so wasteful. He left a huge trail of garbage in his wake. He did it with everything. He left

debts behind, wives behind, children behind, everything, as he just sailed through life.”19

Now here they all were, together again for Ed Sullivan. Welles lined up a

residency at the Riviera Hotel, Las Vegas, a characteristic combination of Shakespearean

recitation and magic tricks that went down so well its run was extended from four weeks

to six. Other than that, he was at a loose end, with distinctly limited opportunities in the

fields for which he was famous: he had probably never seemed less appealing to film and

theater producers, and radio was in decline.

Ball and Arnaz, meanwhile, headed the country’s most ambitious and successful

independent television production company, Desilu. Its name—which Thornton Wilder

said “sounds like the past participle of a French verb”—was, of course, derived from its

founders’ forenames, and had previously been bestowed on a ranch and a yacht. The

company was created in 1950, when C.B.S. was considering a television transfer of

Ball’s successful radio sitcom, My Favorite Husband. The network doubted that

audiences would accept a W.A.S.P.-Latino marriage, so the real-life couple established

Desilu Productions to underwrite a vaudeville tour that proved C.B.S. wrong. The pilot

episode of I Love Lucy, starring Ball and Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, was filmed

in February 1951; a year later, it was the nation’s top-rated T.V. show.

I Love Lucy was formally and industrially pioneering, too. Arnaz and Ball insisted

on shooting in Los Angeles, where their lives and careers were based—a demand so

unusual in 1951 that C.B.S. almost dropped the program because of it. As Coyne S.


Brochu, p.149

Arrested development


Sanders and Tom Gilbert note in their history of the company, Desilu didn’t, as is

sometimes suggested, pioneer the multi-camera system that became the industry standard

for much T.V. production. But Lucy did offer the finest demonstration of the system’s

efficacy, and was the first program to combine it with a live studio audience—another

Desilu innovation, exclusive to the company until the mid-1950s. Almost as novel was its

decision to film the show on 35mm, rejecting the standard practice of live broadcasting,

with later transmission in other time zones made possible through kinescoping, a

mediocre recording format. To assuage some of the network’s concerns about this

unorthodox set-up, Desilu agreed to shoulder the start-up and production costs of I Love

Lucy itself, retaining program rights in exchange. Lucy thus became one of the first shows

to be owned by its creators rather than the network, and proved an enormously profitable

asset once it became clear that, contrary to industry expectations, viewers were happy to

watch repeats of their favorite series.

Despite his inexperience, Arnaz proved an effective and popular corporate

president, and, with Lucy attracting audiences of more than 30 million in its first season,

Desilu soon began launching other shows. The company also poached managerial talent

from C.B.S., including Martin Leeds, who became Arnaz’s executive vice-president in

1953, effectively becoming Desilu’s chief operating officer. By early 1956, with

hundreds of employees and an eight-figure turnover, the company’s standing as a major

industry player was assured. Ratings for “Lucy” were holding up, but it was showing

signs of creative strain, with Desi lobbying C.B.S. to switch to a one-hour, color format

with an emphasis on guest stars. The previous year’s season, during which the Ricardos

relocated from New York to Los Angeles, had certainly established a pattern of celebrity

Arrested development


cameos, and the company was always open to innovative programming proposals.

When Welles crossed paths with Arnaz and Ball again that February, then, it’s

easy to imagine that they discussed collaborating: Orson simply must appear on the Lucy

show! Why, he’d be delighted, naturally. And, do you know, he had one or two ideas of

his own. Had Lucy and Desi heard about his work for British television, by any

chance…? Such exchanges would have been lubricated by the performers’ longstanding

friendship, and the sentimental streak they all brought to bear on business decisions. Ball,

for instance, had recruited the undistinguished Al Hall to direct Forever, Darling

because, in the words of Bernard Weitzman, “she liked him and he was nice to her when

she was a nobody.”20

Weitzman, who left C.B.S. to become Desilu’s head of business and legal affairs

in 1955, remembers the situation with Welles being similar. “The whole thing really

came about because Lucy and Desi, when they were contract players at R.K.O., were

treated very nice by Orson Welles. He had no place to go, really, and they wanted to

show him the appreciation that he showed them when they were kind of down and out.

So Desi said to him, ‘Come out to Desilu, we’ll do something together.’ They still had

great faith and confidence that Orson was a great creator, and a star, and a genius.” Arnaz

was still aware of Welles’s reputation, however, reporting in his autobiography: “I told

him, ‘Orson, I know you are partly responsible for breaking R.K.O. Studios. You went to

Brazil to do a picture, shot a million feet of film and never made the picture, and you

couldn’t have cared less. But I am not R.K.O. This is my ‘Babalu’ money [Arnaz’s

signature song], so don’t you fuck around with it.’” After that, he wrote, “I never had any


Interview with author, April 11, 2008. All Weitzman quotations from same source.

Arrested development


trouble with Orson.”21

Following his Las Vegas run, Welles departed for Ball and Arnaz’s Beverly Hills

home. Less than a year earlier, the couple had reluctantly relocated from their beloved

Desilu ranch in Chatsworth, California, to a five-bedroom white Georgian brick house at

1000 North Roxbury Drive. James Stewart, Agnes Moorehead, and José Ferrer lived on

the same block. Jack Benny, their next-door neighbor, was known on occasion to pass

wordlessly through their living room playing his violin. The plum trees were in blossom

when Welles arrived to take up residence in the Arnazes’ guest house, a large studio

space reached via a brick path that ran alongside the long lawn and swimming pool.

“It was only a few months,” Ball later told Jim Brochu, who described their

friendship in the book “Lucy in the Afternoon,” “but it seemed like ten years. He had the

servants hopping. He’d walk in the living room, all in black with his big cigar blowing,

and scare the hell out of the kids. I heard Little Desi crying one afternoon, and I thought,

‘Orson’s home.’ ”22

Certainly, Welles could be less house guest than force of nature;

when he appeared in I Love Lucy, one character mentioned a plan “to get out of town

until Mr. Welles blew over.”

In the episode, called ‘Lucy Meets Orson Welles,’ Orson is lined up to appear at

Ricky’s club, doing what Ricky calls “the same act he did in Las Vegas: some

Shakespeare, and, of course, his magic routine.” Orson needs a supporting performer.

Despite Ricky’s best efforts, Lucy gets wind of this and volunteers, not realising that she

will be a magician’s assistant rather than a Shakespearean heroine. It was, in other words,

a farce plot built around the fault lines in Welles’s own public persona—was he high


A Book, Desi Arnaz (William Morrow, 1976), p.307


Lucy in the Afternoon: An Intimate Memoir of Lucille Ball (Wm Morrow, 1990), p.150

Arrested development


artist or vaudevillian? Mostly, of course, the episode was a showcase for Ball’s comic

talents. After Lucy fails to conceal her disappointment at the true nature of the gig for

which she has lobbied so hard, Orson tells her she can “take it or leave it.” “I’ll take it,”

she snaps, and you can see Welles break up at her perfect timing. (“I am watching the

world’s greatest actress,” he had said while observing her rehearse from the wings.23

) Ball

and Arnaz in turn watched Welles’s delivery of Romeo’s dying soliloquy in rapt silence.

[[IMAGES: Lucy1, Lucy2]]


Stefan Kanfer, Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball (Knopf,

2003), p.306

Arrested development


Arrested development


Welles and Ball in ‘Lucy Meets Orson Welles’.

The show’s climax saw Orson levitating “Princess Lu Si” and then leaving her

spinning in air, defiantly reciting Juliet. The illusion involved the use of a couple of

broomsticks. “It was the most painful experience of my life,” Ball later said. “Worse than

childbirth. It felt like the broom was up my ass, and I had to stay on the goddamned thing

for at least five minutes.” Nor was that the only problem with the shooting of the episode.

Arrested development


According to Ball, Welles struggled to fit into the biggest set of tails Desilu’s costume

department had to offer. “They were like big velour drapes that you used for backdrops,”

she said. “It was like putting skin on a sausage. He put me on the broom for the dress

rehearsal, and made some sweeping gestures and rrrrip! The tails split right up the back.

There was no time to get another set…. so [the costumier] cut some black cloth and

pinned it the best she could. If you look at the show, you see how self-conscious he is

about turning his back to the audience. God, that show was a stinker.”24

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