Monday, December 5, 2016

Agnes Moorehead's Radio Career

Agnes Moorehead and her 1953
Golden Mike Award
Today Agnes Moorehead is best known as Endora on the classic TV show Bewitched. When people think of her other roles, they might think of Mary Kane from Citizen Kane (1941) or Fanny from The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). That having been said, Agnes Moorehead had a whole career of which many people today have no knowledge. Agnes Moorehead played primarily supporting characters in film, but on radio she was a bona fide star.

Agnes Moorehead's radio career began before she was even famous, while she still called St. Louis her home. In the Twenties she was a singer on radio station KMOX. in St. Louis. She moved to New York City in the early Thirties. Her first major role on radio came in 1935 when she was cast as Min Gump on The Gumps, a radio show based on the popular comic strip of the same name. It was not long afterwards that she became part of the repertory company of the classic radio show March of Time. It was through March of Time that Agnes Moorehead met a young actor named Orson Welles. When Orson Welles and John Hoseman formed the Mercury Theatre in 1937, Agnes Moorehead became a part of it.

The year 1937 would prove significant for Agnes Moorhead beyond the formation of the Mercury Theatre. It was on September 26 1937 that the radio drama The Shadow debuted. Orson Welles played the title character for its first year. Agnes Moorehead played Margo Lane, The Shadow's female associate who knew his secret identity. She played the role until 1940. In 1937 she also appeared in a radio play based on Alice Through the Looking Glass that aired on Columbia Workshop.

As part of the Mercury Theatre, Agnes Moorehead would quite naturally appear on The Mercury Theatre on the Air. CBS asked Orson Welles for a summer show that would last thirteen weeks. Debuting on July 11 1938, it was initially titled First Person Singular. It was only after a few months that it was renamed The Mercury Theatre on the Air.  Agnes Moorehead appeared in many of the radio plays on The Mercury Theatre on the Air, including Dracula and Treasure Island. In 1939, when The Mercury Theatre on the Air became The Campbell Playhouse, Agnes Moorehead continued to appear on the show. She appeared in such radio plays on The Campbell Playhouse as Our Town, The Count of Monte Cristo, Liliom, and Vanity Fair.

Nineteen forty saw Agnes Moorehead appearing regularly on Cavalcade of America. On the show she appeared on such productions as "Susan B. Anthony", "Wild Bill Hickock", "The Farmer Takes a Wife", and "Will Rogers". She continued to appear on Cavalcade of America into 1941. The Forties would be an active time for Agnes Moorehead. In 1941 she briefly played Maggie on the short-lived show Bringing Up Father, based on the famous comic strip of the same name. That same year she guest starred on Jungle Jim. From 1942 to 1949 she played Marilly, the housekeeper of the unnamed mayor (played by Lionel Barrymore) on the show Mayor of the Town.

While Agnes Moorehead was one of the stars of the gentle comedy Mayor of the Town, it would be for the mystery and suspense genre that she would become best known in radio. She was a frequent guest star on the legendary radio show Suspense, appearing in such episodes as "Sorry, Wrong Number", "Post Mortem", "The Screaming Woman", and "The Evil of Adelaide Winters". She also appeared on many other mystery/suspense programmes. She appeared in an adaptation of The Lodger on Mystery in the Air in 1947. She also appeared on several episodes of Inner Sanctum Mysteries.

Agnes Moorehead continued to appear on radio throughout the Fifties, even as television was taking its toll on the medium's popularity. She continued to appear on Suspense and Inner Sanctum Mysteries, as well as such shows as Hallmark Hall of Fame, Anthology, NBC Radio Theatre, and Beyond Our Ken. Her last appearance on Suspense was fittingly enough another adaptation of "Sorry, Wrong Number" in 1960.

With the growing popularity of television in the Fifties, the days of Old Time Radio were numbered.  Of the networks CBS held out the longest. It aired its last radio dramas for some time on September 30 1962. Fittingly enough, Suspense was the final radio show aired for quite a while, preceded by Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Radio drama would not remain dead in the United States, however, as it saw a revival in the Seventies. On January 6 1974 CBS Radio Mystery Theatre debuted. The show was created by legendary radio producer Himan Brown. Fittingly enough, the very first episode starred the Queen of Radio Suspense, Agnes Moorehead. It was "The Old Ones Are Hard to Kill". Miss Moorehead starred in another episode, "The Ring of Truth", a few weeks later, on January 26 1974. Sadly, it would be her last appearance on radio. Agnes Moorehead died only a few months later, on April 30 1974.

Agnes Moorehead had a remarkably long career in radio, spanning from 1926 to 1974. Through the years she played a number of great roles on the medium and worked with some of the best actors in radio. Over the years she worked with such legends as Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Ida Lupino, Lionel Barrymore, and many others. While Agnes Moorehead's radio career has been largely forgotten by all but Old Time Radio fans, there is every reason it should be better known.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

Thank you for this very interesting article on Aggie and radio. I remember that revival time in the 70s, it really opened my ears.