We are approaching the anniversary of Orson Welles greatest hoax, Oct. 30th, when he broadcast H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938 to make it seem like a current news broadcast. It caused local panic as many listeners believed it was a real alien invasion. This was Welles first notoriety and caused a widespread scandal.
Another "war of the worlds" happened when the Coon Creek Girls led by Lily May Ledford descended upon the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA in 1939 for two weeks to open for Orson Welles production of the play "The Green Goddess."
Sure there have been other all-time booking mismatches, take Jimi Hendrix and the Experience signing on as an opening act for the Monkees in midtour. After dates in the South, they played several concerts in July 1967 in the stadium at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills.
But the Coon Creek Girls and Orson Welles. What were they thinking! The Coon Creek Girls had just played at the White House for the President and Mrs. Roosevelt and the King and Queen of England. Their popularity was at an all-time high.
According to Lily May, "As word got out to the ever alert newspapers, reporters began to arrive from several papers for interviews and the story spread to a New York booking agent who booked us two weeks in the large Stanley Hall in Pittsburgh PA with Orson Welles and Company."
In a 1996 interview with Barbara Greenlief (Lily May's daughter), she commented: "Daisy (one of the Coon Creek Girls) told me one time, I think it was when they were on stage with Orson Welles, that the guys in the orchestra pit kept making fun of them and their accent, and talking about those, you know, the hillbillies. The men would always ask them if they wore shoes at home."
"So one time when the women ran out on stage, they took off their shoes. And so they were kind of playing with that stereotyped image, you know, throwing it back in the guys' faces and laughing at them for thinking such a stupid thing."
George Orson Welles (May 6, 1915 – October 10, 1985) was an Academy Award-winning director, writer, actor and producer for film, stage, radio and television. In the mid-1930s, his New York theatre adaptations of Macbeth and a contemporary allegorical Julius Caesar became legendary. In 1941, he co-wrote, directed, produced and starred in Citizen Kane, often chosen in polls of film critics as the greatest film ever made. Welles received a 1975 American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement award, the third person to do so after John Ford and James Cagney. Critical appreciation for Welles has increased since his death. He is now widely acknowledged as one of the most important dramatic artists of the 20th century: in 2002 he was voted as the greatest film director of all time in the British Film Institute's poll of Top Ten Directors.
More on the Welles-Coon Creek Girls engagement from Lily May: "He was making a tour with the 25 minute play the Green Goddess (a popular stage play of 1921 by William Archer) with our first (opening act) matinee performance. When the light men missed cues the infuriated Mr. Welles stopped the performance several times and stepped to the front and apologized to the audience and berated the terrified sound and light men with that awesome voice of his."
"Well we were well received from the sophisticated audience and everyone waited for the evening papers and the critics words. They all simply ripped Mr. Welles calling it a farce etc. About us they said, 'Well it was alright if you go for Hillbilly mouthings.' "
"That same afternoon Mr. Welles sent his valet to our dressing room with the message I should come to his dressing room. I was already half afraid of him now but dared not disobey the message. I was led to the presence of that august body and treated him very royally as he asked if I could do a favor for him. After our act and bows I was to go to the center mic and tell the audience that now the house was to be darkened for the next big act- a complete blackout."
"They were to hold onto their hats and pocketbooks for a minute or so. And then I was to pick up my skirt and just fly from the stage! This I did and Mr. Welles complimented me and I did this for the next two weeks." (From Lily May Ledford's Autobiography)
That's about it! More on Lily May later.