This year is the centennial of Orson Welles; May 6th was the 100 anniversary of his birth. Welles was a great filmmaker and a colossal failure. He suffered from the curse of being his own worst enemy. He was one of those people who regularly shot himself in the foot.
After 1938, when he succeeded in pulling off one of the greatest gags of all time, Welles seemed to have a compulsive need to push the envelope on all his projects, and more often than not he pushed the project into commercial and critical disaster. Of course, nowadays, those disasters are considered the work of genius.
I became a Welles fan in high school, after listening to a recording of the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. It sounded pretty hokey, but still, it was a cool joke, tricking half of America into believing Mars was invading the earth. My mother recalled people out in the streets in Wichita Kansas, all in a panic because the Martians were coming.
About a year and a half later, I saw my first Welles film, the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane. I had seen plenty of movies already in my young life but nothing like that. If you have seen the film, I need say no more.
Then, many years later, I was living in Los Angeles and working in Beverly Hills. Each day I rode the old Number 1 bus to and from my job. The bus ran along Hollywood Blvd, that west of La Brea changes from a business thoroughfare to a residential street.
One afternoon I was headed home but decided to get off before La Brea to visit a friend who lived in an apartment building on the corner of Stanley and Franklin. As I walked up the hill, I saw a man standing on the sidewalk who looked very much like Orson Welles.
As I drew closer, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Orson Welles. A tall, massive, gigantic Orson Welles. Wow, it looked like I’d have a chance to see one of my heroes close up!
He was looking for something. Walking back and forth, calling out “Rosebud . . . Rosebud . . . Here kitty kitty!”
I mustered up some nerve and came up and said, “Is there anything I can do to help you?”
Without bothering to look in my direction, he growled, “I looking for a cat.”
Orson Welles had a cat named Rosebud? Too much.
I said, “How did your cat get out?”
Now he turned and stared at me. He took the longest cigar I’d ever seen out of his mouth and said, “Young man, do you know anything about cats?”
“A little.” I explained that when cats are scared sometimes they go into a super-freak-out mode and hide. If it’s an indoor cat, it’s not likely it will go outside because that’s even scarier that whatever frightened it in the first place. A freaked-out cat will head for the first good hiding place it sees and stay there, and no matter how many times you call it, the cat won’t come out until hunger become more overwhelming that fear.
“You’re saying Rosebud is probably still inside the house?”
I nodded. “Yeah, probably. I would be glad to help you look around, if you like.” Then I said something I thought might be the equivalent of shooting myself in my own foot: “I mean, I’m a really big fan and it would be my honor to help you find Rosebud, er, your cat.”
I thought it might turn him off, you know, acting like a star-struck fan, but he loved being adored.
He took me inside his house. It was a Colonial Revival style house, and like most Hollywood mansions I’ve been in, it looked big on the outside, but was rather small on the inside. We found Rosebud hiding behind a bookcase. Welles was grateful for my help. He never did explain what frightened the cat but he told me that his wife was out shopping and he thought the cat had escaped through the front door that he had left open by mistake.
At that moment, star-struckednes got the better of me and I told him I had seen all his films, or at least as many as I was able to because they weren’t screened very often and that when I saw Citizen Kane at age 17 during my first week of college, it completely blew my mind and I couldn’t of anything else for days afterward, and so on and so forth. He loved it.
A few minutes later, his wife, Oja Kodar, a very beautiful woman, came home and Welles told her what happened and she said, “Orson, where are your manners? You should offer our guest something to drink.”
Welles opened a bottle of Dom Perignon. Unbelievable. It was like 4 in the afternoon. First time I had tasted the stuff.
He asked me what I did for a living and I said I worked in the reservations department at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and he said he had stayed there many times but swore he would never set foot in the place again as long as Warren Beatty lived there, and I said Beatty didn’t live there anymore but a lot of people thought he did and women with names like Bambi and Trudi were always calling up wanting his room number.
He did not elaborate about what he had against Beatty but I think I got a clue when later on he mentioned that famous actors who were also producers and directors were always saying how great he was but they would never give him any money.
After I finished my glass, I got up to go. I didn’t want to wear out my welcome. Welles had already finished off the bottle and he was getting ready to open another one. He told me to stay. I did.
With the second bottle, Welles got really loose and started in on a monologue. Oja Kodar kind of rolled her eyes as if to say she had heard it all many times before, but I thought he was hilarious and he said some very funny things, like:
“If there hadn’t been women we’d still be squatting in a cave eating raw meat, because we made civilization in order to impress our girlfriends.”
“I’ve spent most of my mature life trying to prove that I’m not irresponsible.”
“When you are down and out something always turns up — and it is usually the noses of your friends.”
“I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.”
During his soliloquy, Rosebud had come up and rubbed herself (or himself, I never found out which) against my leg a few times, and then Welles said something that astounded me.
“Young man, you seem to know a lot about cats, and Rosebud has taken to you. I have need of a good cat person. We’re going to France next week to speak with some people about directing another Shakespeare film, and I need a cat-sitter.”
“A house sitter, too,” Oja Kodar added.
“Would you be interested?”
Would I? Damn! Baby-sit Orson Welles’s cat? And his house? What an opportunity! Maybe it would lead to something like being his assistant. Who could tell? Stranger things have happened.
I couldn’t believe it. I thought I must be dreaming.
And I was. I woke up, took a shower, got dressed, and headed down to Hollywood Blvd to catch the Number 1 bus for Beverly Hills. It was another ordinary day.
I never had a chance to meet the great man. He died three months later.