For Paul Gregory
There are large voids as to any public statements, whether in movie biographies or what, concerning Agnes' early life. We know she was born in Clinton, Massachusetts, in the first decade of this century. It is not clear from what I could learn whether her father moved from the Boston area to St. Louis and thence to Reedsburg, Wisconsin, or vice versa.
She was born Agnes Robertson Moorehead of Protestant Irish ancestry. Her father was a conservative Presbyterian minister. She early indicated a natural attraction to the stage, or at least to making singing appearances. There is one story that at age three, she made an appearance singing "The Lord Is in His Holy Temple." Another account says she sang "The Lord Is My Shepherd." Whichever, it showed her early proclivity for the stage. She is known to have loved to appear at annual picnics at the Ohio farm in which she did make-believe roles.
She was allowed to be one of a group of girls who formed part of the ballet of the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company. It is not clear when this occurred. What is known is that she graduated from Muskingum College, New Concord, Ohio, in 1923 with an A.B. degree. She taught English and public speaking briefly at Soldier's Grove, Wisconsin. (Soldier's Grove's chief claim to fame is having the dubious distinction of having been flooded annually each spring for nearly 125 years.)
Next she studied for her master's degree at the University of Wisconsin. Upon completing her M.A. work in drama and public speaking, she proceeded to New York City. She had promised her father, whom she adored, that she would get her formal education out of the way before proceeding with plans to become an actress.
Whenever anyone would question her about her seemingly natural ability of happiness and cheerfulness, she would reply: "I think I learned of the happiness of being with people from my father. He was so warm and outgoing. He did not believe in just being a Sunday morning preacher to the congregation. No, he went to their homes frequently and invited them to ours.
"Even as a little girl I shared in the social activities of my parents. No one else had ever been in show business. But when I told my father at an early age I intended to start dancing lessons and later enter training to be an actress, he said, 'If this is what gives you happiness, go ahead. What you learn is sure to give happiness to others.' He was a very understanding minister, especially for the times. 'But,' he added, 'please get your formal education first. That will keep everyone happy, too.
With her father's blessing she had attended Muskingum and Wisconsin. Now her long-dreamed-of hopes and aspirations were about to be fulfilled. She yearned to enter the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. She proceeded there and auditioned in August 1926.
It gave me the greatest joy to come into possession, quite bewitchingly, of her original audition report at AADA.
AGNES R. MOOREHEAD
AUDITION REPORT - AMERICAN ACADEMY OF DRAMATIC ARTS
Date: August 14, 1926
Name: Agnes R. Moorehead
Address: 535 Denver Place, St. Louis, Mo.
Physical Condition: Good
Stage Presence: Good
General Education: B.A. Muskingum College - Post Grad.
Univ. of Wisconsin
Occupation: Teacher of Eng. and math - High School
Previous Training: College dramatic award
Stage Experience: Amateur
Voice: Good (somewhat nasal)
Pronunciation: Mid-west R
Reading: Very intelligent
Dramatic Instinct: Yes
Recitation: "Italian Dialect Recitation" - "Quality of Mercy" -
Individuality and promise of a positive personality. Has promise.
C.J. (Charles Jehlinger)
Agnes entered AADA in the fall of 1927. There is no data I could locate on what she did until then. Through the aid of Charles Raison, director of AADA, I was able to contact Elizabeth Council Crafts, who was her roommate from 1927 to 1928 while both attended AADA.
Crafts: "As I recall, we moved around quite a bit that year. We lived at Barbizon for Women, The Mayflower, Central Park West, and I recall one place up on Riverside Drive. In those days, Agnes was called 'Bobby.' I don't recall why, but that is what everyone called her."
According to the Academy, Agnes had classes in pantomime, vocal training, stagecraft, makeup, costuming, dramatic analysis, and dramatic literature. Rosalind Russell was a fellow classmate both years. The Academy has always been a two-year school, but no one is allowed to advance automatically to the second year until voted upon by the faculty.
We know that she helped support herself while at AADA by teaching part-time at the Dalton School in New York City. She did other side jobs, too, to make ends meet.
In the main lobby of the Academy there are photos of famous graduates with appropriate comments written by each. Agnes' words by her photo read: "I have always followed the principles taught at AADA throughout my career and shall continue to follow them."
Among the famous graduates through the years were: Spencer Tracy, Garson Kanin, William Powell, Walter Abel, Jane Cowl, Lee Bowman, Sam Levene, Lauren Bacall, Pat O'Brien, and, of course, Roz Russell and Agnes.
The present building of the Academy was formerly a private women's club. Its name was Colony Club, not to be confused with a more famous club known by that name. The architect of the building was none other than the famous Stanford White.
A member of the AADA staff is Ruth Neuman. She told me: "My most memorable thoughts of Miss Moorehead were that she possessed both charm and command. In the theater one seldom finds both in the same person.
"Before coming to New York and the Academy to work, we lived by chance in Beverly Hills. One Sunday afternoon in the mid-fifties, I was pushing my three toddlers in a specially rigged tri-stroller. Who should suddenly appear on the walk but the Agnes Moorehead. Pulling herself up at suddenly being confronted with three babies in a stroller, she said in that imperious way she could command, 'What magnificent children,' and hastened right along without another word."
Charles Raison told me, "I recall a most significant occasion for me in my young life in the mid-sixties. Agnes was touring with Joseph Cotten and his wife, Patricia Medina, in the play Prescription for Murder. It was in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where I was then directing a college playhouse. The members of the cast and myself went out to a postperformance supper. Thomas Mitchell, whom everyone present knew personally, had just died. We all talked until after three in the morning."
In her second year at the Academy, Agnes appeared in several plays. It was the academic year 1928-1929. The plays and playwrights were: The Springboard, by Alice Duer Miller; The First Year, by Frank Crane; Captain Applejack, by Walter Hackett; Chinese Lou, by Clare Kummer; and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, by Fred Lansdale.
That Agnes followed the principles set forth by the Academy was very evident from her successes. Her professor who most impressed her was the renowned Charles Jehlinger, affectionately known as "Jelly," the same man who originally auditioned her. In 1946 Professor Jehlinger was honored for his forty-nine years of teaching at the Academy. On that occasion he said: "It's easy to spot ability, but ability is only one thing. They also need ambition and concentration. I never once predicted which of the students would positively attain success." Below are excerpts from actual notes of Jelly's classes kept by Eleanor Cody Gould. One can easily see the influence of Professor Jehlinger upon Agnes.
"As long as you only talk words and expect to fool an audience, you are an idiot."
"Keep the head cool and the heart warm."
"It is a fatal thing to utterly yield yourself to your director. It is equally fatal not to yield at all."
"Unless you develop as men and women you cannot develop as artists."
"Never go through a rehearsal mechanically. Always use your creative faculties."
"Unless you are using your creative faculties, you are not making progress."
"Stay in the scene. Don't drop out after a speech."
"Never break illusion."
"The secret of the whole thing is this: Yield to the character and let it take control of things."
"Simply obey simple rules simply."
"Don't blur your canvas with too many details [creativity again]."
"The first step is to be a good listener, a sensitive listener."
"The capacity to take infinite pains is the most intelligent definition of genius." [Agnes Moorehead did this.]
"You must not stiffen. You cannot play a piano with stiff fingers, neither can you play a character with a stiff brain. Whenever you tighten uprelax."
"Gold does not come out of the earth ready to go to Tiffany's to be made into jewelry. It must be made ready. So do not allow yourself to be discouraged."
"You can never be a great artist without a great spirit of unselfishness."
"These things are important for acting student: love of the work, enthusiasm, simplicity, breeding, culture, gentility, temperament, health, and unselfishness." [Agnes Moorehead was strong in each.]
"You must acquire poise, mastery of self, strength of will and command one's own forces." [Tanya's mention of being "strong".]
"Read biographies of great people." [Later you will read about Agnes' library.]
"If you want to draw all the good in a man out of him, like him, love him, do something for him. Your character will respond to the same treatment."
"The whole basis of acting is listening. You lie to your audience if you are not listening. Thinking of cues and stage business is not listening. Listening is listening."
"A good actor does not act. A bad actor acts. A good actor creates."
"The theater should be a temple to the actor, not a factory."