February 2 1936
Agnes Moorehead Longs To Escape ZaSu Pitts Roles
By Mary Jacob
You're going to interview a radio star, a young, feminine star.
You make your appointment, you get there on time, and after a while SHE arrives. That's fine; you're glad she got there at all. So you get set to hear how wonderful her work is, how she simply LOVES radio, how happy she was when she got her present role, and how everything is perfectly adorable. She will probably wind up by telling how, when she was five and making her debut in the Sunday School class play, that she knew she would never be happy unless she could become an actress and do just what she is doing now.
If she tells you just that you sigh and shrug your shoulders; that's what you expected anyway. But if she tells you something else, tells you, in fact, just the opposite, that, folks, is something to write about. And that is what Agnes Moorehead told me.
Since Agnes came to radio in 1930, she has played one dizzy female role after another including her present jobs. She is, you may know, one of Phil Baker's stooges on CBS and the nosey Mrs. Van Alastair Crowder on Helen Hayes' NBC show, "The New Penny." And how does she feel about it all?
"Invariably," she said with a sigh, "when there is a pain in the neck role for a girl to play, the directors start yelling, 'Agnes.' And Agnes comes running, except once in a while when I get so fed up I refuse the job."
"If I could get one decent dramatic role to play, it wouldn't be so bad. But do I get it? No! I'm ZaSu Pitts of the radio, and apparently I've got to keep on being ZaSu Pitts until my hair is white and the bones of my fingers rattle when I wring my hands."
We were talking in Miss Moorehead's sitting room, a huge paneled white room, very modern and not at all ZaSu Pitt-ish. She sat on a brown linen box like sofa, one foot restlessly tapping on the floor as she spoke. Dressed in a simple white flannel suit trimmed with navy braid and a navy sailor tie she looked about 18. Actually she is in her twenties.
Tall, blue eyed, titian haired , Agnes Moorehead is the kind of girl the men are just so k-krazy about.
My first impression of her was that she was very aloof and self contained. That was when I entered her apartment. But as she warmed to her subject this reticence left her. She went on:
"When I got my first chance on the air I felt grand. You would too if you were an unemployed actress down to your last nickel and a job on the air landed like manna from heaven."
"I had pawned my diamond ring. I lived on oatmeal soup and apples. Nourishing enough," with a shrug of her shoulders, "But no diet for little Agnes."
"Joseph Bell, who had been one of my instructors at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, started to work for NBC and sent for me. He gave me the role of Sally, the tough girl in 'The Mystery House."
She was so tough she seemed worse than Capone to me. But I played the role for over a year."
"My next job," she says, "Was Lizzie Peters, the sharp spoken New England spinster on the Seth Parker program. I toured with Phillip Lord in the Seth Parker shows for 20 weeks." A smile lighted her face, "I got the thrill of my life then," she confessed.
Agnes offered me a cigarette. "Don't mind my not smoking," she said, "just a remnant of my childhood days. I'm a Presbyterian minister's daughter and when you are a minister's daughter you don't smoke or do a lot of other things."
"After the Seth Parker stint was finished," she continued, frowning at the fireplace in front of the sofa, "I tried my best to get a dramatic role on the air. I auditioned and I auditioned. "
"And I landed up as Nana, the most fluttery, helpless, half wit who ever lived. I was Nana for three years on the 'Evening In Paris' program. Somebody, with nothing but the the best of intentions, I'm sure, phoned CBS after the show one night. She wanted to talk to ZaSu Pitts, she insisted. 'But,' the attendants told her, 'Miss Pitts is in Hollywood.' She kept insisting that she had just heard the movie star broadcast from their New York studios."
"It wasn't til she mentioned Nana on the 'Evening In Paris' program that they realized she thought I was ZaSu. Then all the directors began to say I was the ZaSu Pitts of radio and I've been that ever since."
Looking up for a minute she smiled, then her eyes wandered back to the fire again. "When Mr. Griffith, the famous movie producer who had discovered ZaSu, went on the air, " she continued, "he clinched matters. He wanted someone to impersonate ZaSu." Dozens of actresses were tried out, including, Agnes Moorehead.
After he heard her, he said, "She's more like ZaSu than ZaSu is herself. It's amazing."
"You know," Miss Moorehead told me, "I almost did play one swell emotional row on the air. I was ambling through the halls of NBC when a director came running out of one of the studios and literally pulled me after him. 'You've got to help us out,' he gasped, 'Miriam Hopkins hasn't appeared for the dress rehearsal of her program yet and the sponsor is listening in. Please, Miss Moorehead go in and act for all you're worth. The sponsor must be pleased.'"
It was an original dramatic sketch prepared for Miss Hopkins. Agnes Moorehead did her best. The sponsor was pleased. Everyone patted her on the shoulder and said she was superb.
But that was only for the dress rehearsal. When the show went on the air that night Miss Hopkins played the role. No one outside the studio ever heard of Agnes acting.
" I almost got a break that time," she told me grimacing, "but almost doesn't count."
Just then a tall, slim, blond man entered the room and said to Miss Moorehead, "I'll be back at 6," as he leaned over and kissed her goodbye.
"That's my husband, John G. Lee," she said, "We met when we both attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He's in the movies. And he's the swellest person you ever met."
Agnes glanced at her wrist watch. "Goodness." she exclaimed, "I'm due in rehearsal at NBC in 10 minutes. I've become to engrossed in talking about myself. I've forgotten about the time. Do you want to come along to the rehearsal? It wouldn't take long and we can finish our chat there."
The NBC studios were just a few blocks from Miss Moorehead's apartment. We walked quickly and soon we were in one of the rehearsal studios on the third floor of the NBC building. There wer about 10 actresses sitting in a semi circle. The production man sitting in front at a table with his assistant.
I retreated to the piano stool. They were rehearsing for "Dot and Will," that long lived sustaining feature at NBC. Perhaps you will listen in. If so, you'll recognize Agnes as Rosie, the wholesome ordinary, housewife. She doesn't like that role either.
Soon she said her few lines in the days program, and we sat out in the lobby.
"Tell me was there any single role in radio you really liked" I asked her.
"Yes," she told me "Jeanne, the sweet ingenue, on the 'Lady Next Door' program. Of course, it wasn't a particularly dramatic part, but Jeanne was a nice girl instead of a witch like female. That lasted over a year."
"I also played," she added smilingly, "the role of Betty on that program and Betty was as nasty a cat as ever lived."
"What is the most unsympathetic role you've ever played?" I asked. "I think my present role as Mrs. Crowder on the Helen Hayes show, " she said. "I am the most terrible malicious cross patch you ever heard of. For shear hopelessness, though, I think my role at CBS with the Street Singer a few years ago was the worst. I was Lonesome Lulu the original wallflower."
"When I was a youngster, " she told me "everyone thought I'd turn out that way. I had a martyr complex as a child. I longed to attend the parties my classmates gave. But, I was a minister's daughter. I couldn't stay out after 9:30 at night.till I went to college. I never went to a dance until I was grown up and away from home."
You can imagine what went on in the Moorehead household when, Agnes, a naturally gifted dancer, secretly tried out and was accepted for the ballet of the St Louis Municipal Opera Co. when she was 15. And you can imagine how her family felt a few years later when she announced she was going to be, not a teacher, but an actress!
"I came to New York to study at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts," she said, "I fell I was on my own and could do as I wanted. I liked acting better than dancing-that was all there was to it."
She graduated in 1929 in the heart of the depression. "John and I, without a cent between us, got married as soon as we graduated." And then......
"I had an awful job getting placed," she said " I got my first job by pestering Al Woods, the producer, til he got tired of seeing me around so he gave me the part of the French Maid in 'Scarlet Pages.' When that was ended I couldn't any work to do. Aside from a few brief engagements in dizzy parts, like the Hindu in 'Soldiers and Women', I was at liberty all the time."
Then along came radio.
"I think radio is O.K," Miss Moorehead concluded, "but how I would like to be something besides a hard hearted Hannah or dumb Dora combined."
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