06 December 2016

The Golden Voice of Agnes Moorehead


It is unfortunate that Agnes Moorehead is mainly remembered today as the aristocratic Endora, the sorceress mother of good witch Samantha in the 1960's television classic, Bewitched. It was a fun show, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of; but she was a highly respected, well-known actress long before she ever stepped before a camera.
Today most people have no idea how important radio was for most of the 20th century. Because the basic equipment needed both to broadcast and to receive radio signals was fairly cheap to manufacture, as soon as it became technically feasible broadcast radio was everywhere. By the late 1920's radio was the dominant entertainment medium in this country, because it reached almost everyone, no matter how poor or remote. And the mainstay of this medium was not sports, talk, and top ten music; it was the radio play, whether comedy, mystery, or drama, sitcom, detective show, or anthology.

The writing and production of these programs was often of extremely high quality, and soon professional actors began to specialize in radio; for some it was difficult, but for many it was ideal -- because in radio, it doesn't matter what you look like, or how old you are -- all that matters is your voice, and what you can do with it. A radio actor's voice didn't have to be beautiful, but it did have to be distinctive, flexible, and expressive.
Agnes Moorehead was considered then, and is considered now, radio's greatest actress. Her voice was beautiful, or she could make it so, but most of all it was expressive. She didn't insist on sounding elegant or classy, although she could if she wanted to; she didn't hesitate to sound like a crone or a beggar or a shrew, if that was what the part required.
with Lionel Barrymore
Her finest work began in the mid thirties, when she met the young -- the very young -- Orson Welles. who at the age of 22, himself possessing a voice of remarkable beauty, was cast as the mysterious Shadow on the popular fantasy/adventure program. Moorehead, who already had several years of professional radio work under her belt, played "lovely Margo Lane," the mysterious Shadow's assistant, supporter, and romantic interest. Margo Lane is always introduced just that way -- as "lovely" Margo Lane. And somehow Moorehead made her lovely, and loving; her devotion to and anxiety about Lamont Cranston, the Shadow's alter-ego, are clear in every word. The Shadow was an enjoyable and often inventively written show, and Welles and Moorehead, who took the jobs because they needed the money, raised the level of the drama almost despite themselves.
Agnes Moorehead, Orson Welles, Ray Collins

When Welles established his groundbreaking Mercury Theater on the Air, an hour-long radio program that he had complete freedom to produce, Moorehead became one of his mainstays, playing an enormous variety of parts, from ingenues to matrons to elderly ladies. The program was an anthology, including popular classics like Dracula, some contemporary stories like The Thirty-Nine Steps, versions of stage plays produced by the Mercury Theater like Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and one spellbinding dramatization of a true story, Hell On Ice, When the show in its second season acquired a sponsor, it became The Campbell Playhouse.
Moorehead's work is particularly notable in Dracula, Our Town, Things We Have (a marvelous play by Welles about an American couple who adopt a German refugee), Vanity Fair, Victoria Regina, the Count of Monte Cristo, and many more. In Our Town, she played Lily, the spinster aunt who's in love with the teenage hero's alcoholic uncle, brilliantly played by Everett Sloane, and the tragedy of the situation is wrenching; she is the young queen's unsympathetic mother in Victoria Regina, and the hero's lost love Mercedes in Monte Cristo.

I have to believe that Moorehead loved this period in her career; she never stopped working, she never stopped learning, she never stopped meeting new challenges. It was a kind of actor heaven, for a few years. She and Welles had a powerful working relationship; she knew he would give her a script she could work with, and he knew that she could do anything he asked of her.
When Welles moved from New York  to Hollywood to make a film for RKO, several of his finest actors went with him, including Agnes Moorehead and the great Ray Collins.

Although Moorehead began her successful film career with Welles, she continued to do high-level radio for many years, in fact for the rest of her life. Throughout the 1940's and 1950's she was a regular on several popular shows. including Terry and the Pirates, Suspense, Mayor of the Town, Bringing Up Father, and more Orson Welles shows like Orson Welles' Almanac.

For this last, which was usually a public affairs program broadcast throughout the war years, Welles wrote a special script -- overnight -- when the news of D-Day was released. It is a beautiful, 30-minute play about what the war meant to Americans, entirely told from the point of view of a young woman defense plant worker, portrayed by Moorehead. It was a tour-de-force for him and for her. (To listen click on the link below.)

Over the next two decades she would perform more tours-de-force, including the first versions of Sorry, Wrong Number and Fourteen Hours, later made into a very successful film. She appeared on the popular and well-received program Suspense, more than 25 times. Of course, as radio drama faded away, she moved into television and films, with great success. 

Agnes Moorehead was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2014, being called radio's greatest actress.

Fortunately for us, a great deal of Moorehead's radio work isavailable online, on various Old Time Radio sites, on wellesnet.com, and on youtube.com.

Here are some links:

The D-Day Program


The National Radio Hall of Fame

Wellesnet: the Radio Years