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Connecting Orson Welles to the Milwaukee Art Institute

Orson Welles.  Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection. Reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-54231
Orson Welles. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection. Reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-54231
Born on May 6, 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Academy Award-winning filmmaker (George) Orson Welles’ childhood was a Hollywood story of its own.

His father, Richard Head Welles, was a successful inventor and businessman who made a fortune inventing a carbide bicycle lamp. His mother, Beatrice Ives, was an accomplished pianist and spoken word performer. By the age of six, his parents were separated and Welles moved back to Chicago with Beatrice where she had family. Not long after they arrived in Chicago, however, his beloved mother would die of jaundice when Welles was just nine years old. His father, losing his battle with alcohol, would die when Welles was only 15.

In the wake of Ives’ death, Dudley Crafts Watson (1885-1972), a native of Wisconsin and a cousin of Beatrice Ives, became Welles’ guardian in Chicago. Watson, a vocal advocate for the arts, was the very first director of the Milwaukee Art Institute–which was renamed from the Milwaukee Art Society shortly after Watson’s arrival, and is known today as the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Dudley Crafts Watson, n.d. Milwaukee Art Museum, Institutional Archive.
Dudley Crafts Watson, n.d. Milwaukee Art Museum, Institutional Archive.
During Watson’s tenure (1913-1924), the Institute played host to a variety of cultural events from lectures, plays and spoken word performances, to symphonies and more. To raise money to care for her family, Ives was a frequent performer at the Milwaukee Art Institute, both to accompany Watson and his widely popular lectures and to perform interpretive concerts of her own. Ives garnered positive reviews and praise for her performances at the Institute and beyond. Unfortunately, though, by early 1924, the beautiful and talented Ms. Beatrice Ives had passed.

We still wonder: How did such exposure to the arts, and particularly the art of performance, influence the young Orson Welles? Did he attend lectures where his mother played for Watson or view her performances? Did he attend Mr. Watson’s lectures? What was the relationship between Welles and Watson?

Whatever the case may be, the rebellious young Welles (who reportedly at the age of 10 ran away from Watson’s home with Watson’s third daughter, Marjorie, also 10, and was found a week later, singing and dancing for money on a Milwaukee street corner) was set on his artistic path early on, becoming a tour de force in the art of twentieth-century filmmaking.

Needless to say, our curiosity is piqued. If you can share anything about Beatrice Ives or the young Mr. Watson, we would be pleased to hear from you. We look forward to your thoughts.

Heather Winter manages and oversees the Museum’s George Peckham Miller Art Research Library, the institutional archives and the rare books collection.

2 replies on “Connecting Orson Welles to the Milwaukee Art Institute”

I was most interested to come upon your report about Orson Welles and Dudley Crafts Watson. Dr. Watson was known to me as Boompaw, as he was my Grandfather. My Mother was Marjorie Watson Ewell,the 10 year old cousin that ran away with Orson Welles in 1925. I heard this story often as I was growing up. You questioned, in your article, if Orson was impacted by going to his Mother’s performances, or influenced by the time he spent with my Grandfather. I would say he was. Our whole family is artistic. My Mother, Marjorie, was a professional artist, (as am I and my daughters carry on the tradition) and I do believe the time that Orson spent with the Watson family enriched his creative side. Art, and creative expression was always important to my family. Thank younformwriting this article. I loved reading it.


Deborah Ewell Currin

So glad to see that the Milwaukee Art Institute is pursuing further leads re the important influences on Orson Welles during his formative years. Hopefully, the following information, which a high school friend has been able to glean off the Internet, may shed further light on how Welles became interested in the arts. My friend mentioned to me in an e-mail that he was “about to settle on plans for seeing “The Cradle Will Rock” Friday night at City Center. Written in 1937 by Mark Blitzstein and directed by Orson Welles, it caused a riot at the time. A landmark piece of radical theater. Oh, and did you know Orson Welles lived in Highland Park as a child? Google that! LOL.”


“…for the fun of it I Googled “Orson Welles,” and in his Wikipedia biography under “early life” I found the Highland Park reference. As you will read, after his parents did their things, he was placed under the guardianship of Doctor Maurice Bernstein. (Remember the character named Bernstein in Welles’ immortal movie “Citizen Kane?”) I had known this for many years, and even checked in the HP Public Library for the doctor’s address in the telephone books of the time, but could not figure out exactly where Orson lived. I also knew that he never attended public schools, but rather was enrolled at The Todd School For Boys in Woodstock, so there was no point in searching old yearbooks, etc.
Well, read the “Early life” entry in Wikipedia and get ready for a Real Jolt. There I learned that BEFORE Doctor Bernstein there was Dudley Crafts Watson, whose family home, “Trillium Dell” was located on………!
Maybe your contacts at the HP Library can shed light on Trillium Dell. Do your expert search thing and let me know.

Then later:

I Googled “trillium dell highland park” and not only got the exact address and photo of the house but also information on Watson and his circle, including Jens Jensen. Does that name ring a bell? For starters, you must remember the round stone “bench” in the middle of the “Ravinia Common” where Dean meets Roger Williams and St. John’s. That round construction was designed by Jensen and is found everywhere in Highland Park. So keep Googling and have fun discovering our hometown anew. I wonder if the Historical Society has ever put these pieces together to have an exhibit on the local influences on the formative years of Orson Welles.

(After reading his e-mails, I e-mailed the HP Historical Society, of which he is a member, suggesting that “the historical society do an exhibit on the “Formative Years of Orson Welles” — ( that is, if they haven’t already), as I was sure it would be much appreciated by Highland Park’s (and maybe Milwaukee’s?) residents.

My friend also wrote:

FYI, I learned years ago that as a kid, Orson wrote reviews of performances at the old “Ravinia Opera” that were published in the Highland Park News! (Ravinia Park, where summer concerts were held, was walking distance from where I used to live.)
You didn’t comment at all about the (291) Marshman (Ave.) House. Do you recall it at all? (Marshman Ave. was a block from where I used to live, but unfortunately, the picture on the Internet didn’t “ring a bell.”)
As for HP in the movies, I do believe that Tom Cruise did his “Risky Business” at a house on Dean just off Sheridan, but I’m not sure. I also think that at the ravine near that corner there is a Jensen Council Circle. My New Trier old gal-pal A.D. and her husband F. N. have lived in Braeside for many years when not in Arizona or at their apartment in downtown Chicago, and she was for many years a reporter for the Sun-Times and took me to Jensen’s circle at that ravine. She had years ago written about the history of HP before it was HP, and I will try to get that info to you if she still has it.”

Hope some of this will develop into leads for your readers to be able to explore the roots of Orson Welles’ interest in the arts! As my HPHS friend remarked, “….maybe the sledding (so pivotal in the above-mentioned movie) was in our old ravines. LOL.”

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