You make an excellent point, which certainly happened to me the first time I saw CITIZEN KANE around 1970. I wondered why everyone was so excited about KANE. Deep-Focus and showing ceilings? What was so new or radical about that?
Likewise, the many innovations Welles did on the stage in lighting alone, can now only be imagined, until the very accurate re-staging we get of JULIUS CAESAR in ME AND ORSON WELLES.
Norman Lloyd, Arthur Anderson and William Herz all agree that ME AND ORSON WELLES is a marvelous film, and is quite accurate to the production that Welles put on. They are the only three survivors of that production, and thus, we must defer to their memories.
Now, who is William Herz?
He is a 93-old gentleman, who was an extra in the crowd scenes for JULIUS CAESAR. He went on to work with Welles in small roles in plays and on radio, notably appearing as two different radio operators in Welles's famous WAR OF THE WORLDS radio broadcast.
Frank Rizzo, the theatre reporter for The Hartford Courant recently talked to William Herz about working with Orson Welles:
WILLIAM HERZ: Christian McKay's performance as Welles was extraordinary!
By FRANK RIZZO
My partner's cousin, William Herz, 93, can boast of his extraordinary life in the theater as a stage manager, general manager, producer, Broadway ticket agent and friend to a coterie of grand dames: actress Elaine Stritch, designer Pauline Trigère and Anne Kaufman Schneider, daughter of playwright George S. Kaufman.
He was also part of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre, starting in 1937, when a 21-year-old Herz became an unpaid "extra" in Welles' landmark production of "Julius Caesar."
Herz eventually became a salaried member in Welles' theater company — he even lived in Welles' Manhattan home — as he assisted in other productions such as "The Shoemaker's Holiday," "Danton's Death" and "Heartbreak House." He also stage managed the legendary "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast in 1938, taking on Welles' part in the dress rehearsal. Welles also directed a show — "Too Much Johnson" — for a summer theater Herz managed in Connecticut in 1938.
Herz's presence in "Julius Caesar" mirrors, in part, the story of the movie playing at theaters around the country, "Me and Orson Welles," based on the novel by Robert Kaplow. In the film, Zac Efron ("High School Musical") plays Richard, a 17-year-old who talks his way into Welles' production.
What was Herz's reaction to the film?
Herz, who lives in Manhattan, thought Christian McKay's performance as Welles was "extraordinary." He also liked Efron, whose character ended up playing Lucius, the young servant to Brutus in the production. "This guy's going to have a career. He's very talented."
The film brought back memories for Herz. "There were moments when I felt like I was there again," he says.
But first some background:
The Detroit-raised Herz (whose father grew up in New Haven) met Welles while studying theater at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. Katharine Cornell's touring theatrical troupe — which included 22-year-old Welles — came through town in the spring of 1937, shortly before Herz was to graduate.
Herz knew George Macready, a member of the troupe, and they had planned to go out for dinner after the show when Macready asked if Welles could join them.
"I said, 'Of course, I'd love to meet someone who was planning to have a theater in New York. The outcome of that evening — most of which I don't remember much of, although I do recall tripping into Cornell's arms in the theater's Green Room — was that Orson asked me come see him when I came to New York."
When Herz arrived in Manhattan, he met company manager John Houseman, who said, 'We have no jobs, but if you want to come and work for nothing, come.' So I did."
Herz had high praise for Welles' music director Marc Blitzstein ("a genius") and set designer Samuel Leve. But Houseman "was a pompous ass, just like he was in [the film] 'The Paper Chase' ," Herz says. "He was a sonofabitch. Problem was, he couldn't control Orson. But nobody could."
Especially accurate is the film's depiction of rehearsal chaos.
"One day we came into rehearsal and the whole back wall was painted red, with lights underneath." Herz says the scene about the fire sprinklers going off and showering the theater with water actually happened — not during dress rehearsal, but later in the show's run. Spot-on is Welles' disregard for schedules. "Orson had no conception of time," says Herz, who confirmed the film's scene of Welles hiring an ambulance in order to rush through Manhattan traffic.
There was, however, no red neon "Mercury Theatre" sign. And though the audience on opening night was enthusiastic and the show indeed got raves, there was no standing ovation as there was in the film.
The movie creates a fictional romantic rivalry over a woman between Welles and Efron's character, a loose version of the original Lucius, played by then-15-year-old Arthur Anderson. ("Orson was actually sort of nice to the boy," he says.) Herz, Anderson and Norman Lloyd are the only surviving cast members from that production, which included Joseph Cotten, Martin Gabel, George Coulouris and John Holland, who played Caesar. ("Orson actually stabbed him with a real dagger," Herz recalls, "but that was later in the show's run.")
"Orson had a great respect for actors and hated everybody else," Herz says, "especially the financial people. I met him when I was in college, so whenever he saw me I was 'that rich boy from Pittsburgh,' even though I didn't have a pot to pee in."
In 1938, Welles insisted that Herz, who lived in Brooklyn with his aunt, stay at his two-story home on East 57th Street, where he lived with his wife, Virginia, so he could be readily available for the director at any time of the day or night. "I wasn't asked to live there," Herz says. "I was told. Orson doesn't ask."
"Julius Caesar" was followed with "The Shoemaker's Holiday," "Heartbreak House" and "Danton's Death." Herz was also stage manager of Sunday performances of "The Cradle Will Rock." ("My two cues were 'Curtain up' and 'curtain down.'")
Welles' one Connecticut experience came when he directed "Too Much Johnson" for a summer theater Herz managed in the Stony Creek section of Branford in 1938. (Herz also managed summer theaters in Greenwich and Great Neck, N.Y.) "That is, if you could call it directing," Herz says.
Welles concept for the show was to shoot a 40-minute silent film, which would be used in the production. Welles shot about 25,000 feet of film in New York, according to Frank Brady's biography, "Citizen Welles." But Welles never finished editing it because of other demands on his overbooked time, so there was no film ready for the stage show — which shortened the show considerably.
Still, the two-week Connecticut run was a sellout. Katharine Hepburn, who had a home in Old Saybrook, twice saw the play, which featured Joseph Cotten, and she selected him as one of the leads for the upcoming Broadway production of "The Philadelphia Story." Because of that "he was already a star before 'Citizen Kane' came out," Herz says.
Throughout the late '30s there were many radio broadcasts by Welles, including "War of the Worlds" in October 1938.
"Orson never liked dress rehearsals [for the radio shows]. He would sweep in and say his lines, more or less, unless there was a big star like Helen Hayes. Then he had to follow the script because they would have otherwise said to him, 'Mr. Welles, I'm sorry. Goodbye.' He would improvise when he thought he could get away with it."
Herz became an Equity actor in Welles' ambitious 1939 production of "Five Kings," which closed out-of-town because of a lack of funds. At that time, Welles began working on a deal with RKO Studios to make movies. In 1940, Welles' first Hollywood project began — the filming of "Citizen Kane" — but Herz declined the opportunity to join many from the Mercury Players there.
"I regretted the fact that I didn't go because I might have been associated with the film," he says. "But then again, I wasn't really an actor, so I would have had to familiarize myself with a medium that I didn't know anything about, and it scared the hell out of me."
But looking back on his theater days with Welles, Herz says "they were exciting times. I didn't know what I was actually living through — but then you never do."
In my story on William Herz and Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre productions of the late '30s in Sunday's Arts Section of The Hartford Courant, a few things had to be edited out because of space.
But let's share the stories here.
Herz (full disclose: he's a cousin of my partner) is an 93-year-old gentleman living in New York. In his early 20s he worked for Welles and the Mercury Theatre in Manhattan. Herz was an extra in "Julius Caesar" in 1937, the production that is at the center of the current film, "Me and Orson Welles," starring Zac Efron ("High School Musical"), Claire Danes and the remarkable Christian McKay in an Oscar-worthy performance as the young Welles.He then went on to have a variety of jobs for the theater and Welles -- even living in Welles East Side home with Welles' wife Virginia to be close at hand for the director's many orders.
Herz -- a man of discriminating tastes with a low tolerance for corn -- liked the movie, praised Efron ("He is very talented and has a career ahead of him") and found McKay's performance "extraordinary. I don't know how he did it."
He confirmed or disputed incidents in the film. Yes indeed, he says, Welles did hired an ambulance to speed through Manhattan traffic. "But I'm surprised the movie didn't use the time when he used a hearse as well. Only Orson would do that."
Among Herz' duties was that of a casting director with fellow company member Hiram "Cubby" Sherman, a position Herz called "a joke because Orson did all the casting. But he wanted to show everyone that he was a great guy and that the company was seeing and interviewing actors all the time. But none of them got jobs."
Herz recalls one time when he had a notion for an Englishman to play the narrator in his production of "Five Kings."
"On New Year's Eve he decided he wanted Ralph Richardson who happened to be in Africa. Now, under any circumstances finding an actor in Africa would not have been easy but on New Year's Eve it was impossible. So he went out carousing, Virginia had gone to a party at Burgess Meredith's and I worked the telephone. I told Orson, 'The phone company is not cooperating.' I couldn't say I was inept. So he said, 'I know, Thornton Wilder will do.' I said, 'I don't think so' and in that tone of voice he said, 'Call him.' So I called Mr. Wilder in New Haven and said, 'Mr. Welles would like you to come and see him at his home at 8 o'clock on Monday morning.' "
And Wilder came.
"Orson was in bed with Virginia and he came out in a robe naked underneath and interviewed Mr. Wilder. They should have had that in the picture. Mr. Wilder said, 'But Mr. Welles, I'm not an actor. Orson said, 'Didn't you play the Stage Manager in 'Our Town?' He said, 'Not really. But I'm very flattered you thought of me and am delighted to see you.' See, this was after 'War of the Worlds' broadcast and Orson was a celebrity and everyone wanted to know him"
After "Citizen Kane" was finished filming, Welles returned to New York, to direct "Native Son" with Canada Lee, based on the novel by Richard Wright.
"Our paths rarely crossed again after that," says Herz, who was in the Air Force from 1942 to 1946.
After 1941's "Citizen Kane" Welles attention was primarily on film, thought he did return to direct a failed production of "Around the World in 80 Days."