The early years after graduation from the Academy are somewhat hazy.
Piece by piece we learn that Agnes returned to New York City to appear briefly on Broadway in supporting roles of such vehicles as Marco's Millions, Scarlet Pages, All the King's Men, and Candlelight.
At this point in her public career, Agnes seemed destined to become involved in the rather new media of radio. Eventually she was to become one of radio's top actresses. She actually appeared in a total of over twenty-five successful series.
Her favorites were Philip Lord's The Seth Parker Show and Lionel Barrymore's The Mayor of Our Town. Speaking of Barrymore, she once said, "I never heard him complain, even though he often was in intense pain." (His illness required first a cane, then a wheelchair.)
I inquired once about Lionel Barrymore's autographed photo prominently displayed on one of her tables-one of her "treasured photos," she said. Enthusiastically she said in reference to the radio days, "Did you know that Barrymore had invented the overhead boom microphone for radio?" I replied negatively. "He got the idea, he said, while fishing."
Then I learned that Agnes was in Jack Benny's first radio show. In her continuing years in radio she was often to appear as the foil for Bob Hope, Ed Wynn, Fred Allen, Phil Baker, Garry Moore, and Milton Berle.
Agnes often said, "Radio was sensational training. One had to convey characterizations merely by thrusting one's voice and not by being visual."
Somewhere in the numerous vitas put out by movies and stage releases, it is mentioned that she began radio broadcasting in St. Louis in 1923-1924 as a singer over stations KSO and KMOX. That she was a pioneer radio performer we know. That she was a singer is less known. Yet she was to appear in several musicals including her final performances in Gigi. This would seem to prove out the old philosophical adage "The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end," inasmuch as she seems to have begun and ended her brilliant career with music.
She played the part of Marilly on The Mayor of Our Town. She was also with the NBC Seth Parker Show as of 1932. Seth, himself, wired her "Success" when she opened with his show on February 7, 1932. She played the part of the wacky maid in a comedy series entitled The Adventures of Mr. Meek
No wonder she enjoyed reading mysteries. She was in the radio mystery series of Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond, and the Orange Lantern. She was the sinister Dragon Lady in Terry and the Pirates and portrayed Margo Lane in The Shadow.
She was Min Gump with young Jack Kelk portraying Chester Gump. She was Homer Brown's mother in The Aldrich Family, in which Jack Kelk again appeared. There are many past performers who remember Agnes, but few kept in touch with her for forty years as did Kelk.
Perhaps her versatility in radio led her to become so versatile in the entertainment media generally. By the end of her life she had excelled in ten different entertainment media forms.
We know that she appeared in as many as six radio shows a day at the top of her radio career. She was Ma Hutchison in Circus Life. Other serials were: Brenda, Dot and Will, Life Begins, Life Can Be Beautiful, and This Day Is Ours.
Orson Welles asked her in the late thirties to become a regular on his famous CBS show, Mercury Theater of the Air This is not to be confused with Orson Welles, John Houseman, and Joseph Cotten's legitimate stage productions then known simply as The Mercury Theater. This was to be one of her most fortuitous meetings, since we know she credited Orson Welles with being one of the three most influential men in her career life.
In radio's Cavalcade of America series by Dupont on NBC, Agnes starred as Ann Hutchinson (#235) on July 7, 1941. Dupont's #238 in the same excellent series saw her portraying Dr. Josephine Baker (Typhoid Mary) on August 4, 1941. Agnes was to become world famous as the only woman allowed to be the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt on the celebrated March of Time and she also played Madame Chiang Kai Chek. (I tried to locate tapes of these early shows with the help of Time magazine assistants but was unsuccessful.)
Since her early years on Broadway and in radio coincided with the Great Depression, she often mentioned waiting on table, assisting as librarian, teaching in a private school - anything to keep the proverbial wolf from the door. Until she ultimately starred in a series, there was no certainty of regular income.
Her attorney, Mr. Frank Rohner, told me: "There is an anecdote about her early years of the Depression. She once confessed to me that the only time she ever appropriated anything was once when she was very hungry she took a bottle of milk from a nearby apartment door. When she was paid at her work, she put the money back with a note of apology beneath the door from which she borrowed the milk. To her surprise, thereafter, for quite some time, there was a quart of milk delivered to her regularly, each morning. "
A recent newspaper story emanating from Tokyo reports that " old radio lives again. " It is part of the Far East Network, which is beamed to 128,000 members of U.S. military and Government families in Japan and Okinawa. What caught my eye was the mention of the old series called Suspense. We know that Agnes portrayed several heroines as a guest star on this series.
Who will ever forget Agnes' most stirring radio role as the bedridden woman in Lucille Fletcher's Sorry, Wrong Number, originating in May 1943. It was often repeated by popular demand in subsequent years. In fact, Agnes held the record for radio's most repeat performances. She did it twenty-six different times. She made a recording of it, which was very successful. There is a story that Barbara Stanwyck listened to the album while on set for the movie Sorry, Wrong Number. (I found no positive verification of this, however.)
When Orson Welles decided to take part of his group to Hollywood in the summer season of 1939, Agnes was invited to move with them and play the part of the mother in Citizen Kane. This opened up a whole new career in the cinema.