Today I’m paying tribute to the talented Agnes Moorehead! I’d like to start off by thanking In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for hosting yet another fantastic blogathon. I wish it all the success possible, and I can’t wait to write about Carole Lombard in January! I’d also mention that I don’t intend to tackle and discuss the entirety of such an iconic film as Citizen Kane (1941). There’s just too much to say about such a picture, and to do it justice it would require many posts. Besides, our star of the day (despite giving a fine performance) hardly appeared in it, so I think discussing her early life and path to her breakout role in Citizen Kane (1941) would far better suit the theme we’re trying to highlight today. So without further ado, on with the post!
Agnes was born on December 6, 1900 (though she would later tell the white lie that she was born in 1906) to a Presbyterian minister named John Henderson Moorehead and a singer named Mildred McCauley. Her first performance was surprisingly early; at the age of three she sang “The Lord’s Prayer” at her father’s church, urged by her mother. Later on her family moved to St. Louis, where Agnes honed her acting talents by impersonating members of her father’s congregation with her sister, much to the encouragement and delight of both of their parents. At the age of ten Agnes joined the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company (“The Muny” for short) as a singer and dancer for four years, where she also developed a strong interest in religion that would remain with her for the rest of her life. There are conflicting reports as far as which high school she attended; she claimed that she graduated from Central High School in 1918, but she does not appear in its yearbook and lived nowhere near the school. Thus, I am led to believe that she graduated from Soldan High School that same year, as she does appear in their yearbook and within proximity. While both of her parents were supportive of Agnes’ desire to act, as I mentioned earlier, her father insisted that she complete her education first. Always one to respect his wishes, she obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Biology at Muskingum College in Ohio in 1923, while appearing in several stage productions on the side. The very same year she landed her first job as a singer for a St. Louis radio station, which instilled in her a deep appreciation for the medium which would last well into her later fame.
Afterwards her father recieved a pastorate in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, uprooting the Moorehead family and Agnes along with them. She went on to attend the University of Wisconsin, earning a Master’s degree in English and Public Speaking. Afterwards she taught English and Drama for five years and in between studied pantomime in Paris with the illustrious Marcel Marceau. In 1928, Agnes enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating with honors the following year and adding yet another accomplishment to her resume. From there Agnes’ career would begin to falter, however, as she struggled to find work with the exception of a few minor stage productions once she left school. She often found herself unemployed and hungry, and later recalled a period of four days during which she went without food, saying in hindsight that it “taught her the value of a dollar”. Soon Agnes found work in the medium that she loved straight out of college: radio. Stations began to clamor for her and her many voice talents, and she often worked on several programs each day. During that time she met actress Helen Hayes, who encouraged her to try for Hollywood, but her first attempts failed and she was rejected as not being the “right type”, leading Agnes to head back to radio, where she met the man who would give her her real shot at the big time: Orson Welles.
It was through her work on such radio programs as “The Shadow”and “March of Time” in 1937 that she met and befriended Welles, and he soon invited her to join him and fellow actor Joseph Cotten (who of course would later star in Citizen Kane (1941) as well) as charter members of his “Mercury Theatre on the Air” program. The first show performed by Welles and his company that would attract worldwide attention was the infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast of 1938, which Miss Moorehead was deeply involved in and resulted in a lucrative $100,000 per picture deal for Welles with RKO Studios. The Mercury Theatre players, including Moorehead and Cotten, were on their way to Hollywood. Welles’ very first picture for RKO was none other than Citizen Kane (1941), and he made every effort to heavily include the Mercury Theatre cast, and of course this was not limited to Agnes Moorehead, who made her first onscreen appearance in the film as the mother of the titular character, Charles Forster Kane. Despite only appearing in the film for one brief scene, Welles made sure to give Moorehead ample credit during the end credits, as he did with every actor who starred in the film and assisted him in his rise to the top. The one scene and plug at the end was all that she needed, and as they say, the rest was history.