Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In The Beginning

St. Louis Post Dispatch Friday January 8 , 1943
Harry Niemeyer Jr.
Early in the Spring of 1917 Aggie Moorehead quietly "cut" her physics class at the old Central High School and slipped out to Forest Park in company with another young lady of teen age.  Before their teacher even noticed their absence they were standing in line with some 200 other stagestruck girls waiting for tryouts for an opera about to open in Forest Park.  Aggie, who had danced a little in school, didn't really hope to tryout.  After all her father was the Rev. Dr. John Moorehead pastor of the Carondelet Presbyterian Church.  Aggie had a feeling that the Reverend Doctor might have some objections to his daughter becoming a chorus girl.
More to keep her friend company than anything else Aggie went through the first tryout with her and passed.  Then went through the second and passed again.  Aggie's girlfriend failed to make the grade leaving a terrified preachers daughter on the stage in company of with some 40 other youngsters who had pleased Musical Director Charles Previn.
Before she could conveniently faint and back out of the whole thing, Aggie was give a stage pass and told to report the next night for rehearsal.  Trembling she put the pass in her purse and went back into town.--not to the physics class at Central High, but to her father's study at the Carondelet Presbyterian Church.
"Aggie," he said, "Why aren't you at school?"
"I cut class papa," replied the girl.
The good doctor was worried.  Aggie had never cut class before.  In fact she seemed to realize that as a minister's daughter she had a certain dignity to uphold.
"What did you do?" he asked.
Nervously Aggie told him what she had done and waited for the reverends wrath to descend.
For a few seconds Dr. Moorehead studied his daughter.  Then he smiled and said:
"When does the show open, Aggie?  I'll want to get a couple of seats for your mother and myself."
A month later Aggie Moorehead made her professional stage debut in the chorus of "Aida," playing one of the dancing slave girls.  In a front box were Dr. and Mrs. Moorehead accompanied by several of the Presbyterian flock.
Since obtaining the parental sanction to a stage career Aggie had been deliriously happy.  She worked like a Trojan at rehearsals and as a consequence had been put in the front line of the dancers.  She squinted nervously through the opera's footlights trying to catch a glimpse of her parents as the dance began.
Then it happened.  In her over enthusiasm in kicking she managed to kick off her right ballet slipper.  It sailed gracefully over the footlights, past the orchestra, and landed in the lap of a gentleman in row three of the pass section.  The happy gentleman, flushed from a few beers at Tony Massa's bar, stood up and exhibited his catch to the rest of the 8000 people viewing the opera.  Aggie, who was the end girl, fled into the wings where she promptly had a tantrum.
In an effort to console the unhappy girl stage director Previn admiringly watched her go through her contortions of mental agony and the said:
"Honey, you don't belong in the chorus.  Acting like that should put you out with the principals."
Last week, for "acting like that" in a similar tantrum in the motion picture version of "The Magnificent Ambersons," the New York film critics got together and voted Aggie Moorehead the best actress of the year.
This honor, in which she competed with and won over such actresses as Greer Garson and Katherine Hepburn cam entirely unexpectedly to the actress who, when she received the telegram notifying her of the award thought it was a gag and threw the wire away.
Only now a week or so later, is she getting used to being pointed out on the streets as the Number One Actress in Hollywood.  A year ago when Orson Welles brought her out here to play the Mother role in "Citizen Kane" no one in the film city ever heard of her.  Now she working in two films at once and has offers from every major studio in Hollywood.  Although she's billed as "Agnes Moorehead" in the screen credits she's still Aggie to everyone on the sets from her leading men to the make up girls and prop boys.
Aggie recalls her St. Louis childhood with no small amount of nostalgia.  She moved there from her birthplace in Clinton, Mass, when she was 6 years old and her father had been called as the pastor of the United Presbyterian Church.  the Mooreheads moved to a home on McPherson Avenue and Aggie was installed in the Eugene Field Grammar School.
"Even then," she says "I had the acting bug.  With other girls I'd slip downtown after school and watch the actors coming out of the stage doors after the matinees at the Shubert-Jefferson.
"Every Friday I night I went to the Pageant Airdrome out on Delmar and watched the actresses like Gloria Swanson and Colleen Moore.  Then I'd go home and walk through the entire picture playing their parts.
"Once I went down to the Gayety Theater and asked everybody for their autograph as they came out the stage door of a burlesque house.  I shudder to think now what would have happened if a friend of my father's had seen me soliciting autographs at the stage door of a burlesque house.
Finishing the Eugene Field School, Aggie moved on to Central High, where she joined the Lambda Alpha Lambda Sorority a very theatrical group of young girls at that time.  Some of these ladies still keep up a correspondence with the actress and she renewed her acquaintance with them a couple of years ago when she sopped off in St. Louis to visit a distant relative Jacob M.Lashleywhom she calls "Uncle Jake."
Despite the embarrassing incident of the flying slipper, the actress later survived four seasons at the Municipal Opera working  in virtually all of the Gilbert and Sullivan and Victor Herbert shows so popular in the years immediately after the first World War.  During her last season she had fulfilled Director Previn's prophesy and was "out in front" with the principals.
Finishing high school and her opera years at the same time, Aggie went into stock roles in various Midwestern stock companies working her way East and to her ultimate goal Broadway.
As a stage actress her record is one to be envied, while more recently, in the radio field she has portrayed more roles than any other actress her age in the country.  It was through her radio roles that she came to the attention of the Boy Wonder Orson Welles, who immediately signed her up for roles in the Mercury Theatre of the Air.
Welles, too, is responsible for bringing her to Hollywood and for directing her in the extremely hard role in "Magnificent Ambersons," which won her the New York critics award.  Having completed "Journey Into Fear" for Welles at RKO she's now working with him again in "Jane Eyre" at Twentieth Century Fox.  She also has a swell role in MGM's "The Youngest Profession."
With her husband, Jack G. Lee, also an actor, Miss Moorehead lives quietly in a small home in the Cheviot Hills district.  The have a 320 acre farm outside of Zanesville, Ohio, to which she hopes to commute "between pictures" when the war is over.
No matter what happens she expects to drop back to St. Louis next summer to have a look at her theatrical birthplace the Municipal Opera.
"Not so much the show itself as the seat 32, row 3 in the pass section." she says "The man in that seat who caught my shoe and exhibited it to the audience.  God bless his soul, made an actress out of me."

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