Queen of the Road
The time was the early fifties. The event was Paul Gregory's production of Don Juan in Hell,by the First Drama Quartet. The cast: Charles Laughton, Charles Boyer, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Agnes Moorehead.
Across four seasons they toured with this vehicle, twenty weeks a season, which meant nearly five months on the road at a stretch. Agnes said of the company: "It was like a finishing course in Shakespeare to be able to perform this play with the likes of Laughton, Boyer, and Hardwicke. Every night was a new experience. This seldom happens to an actor. If I never acted again, I'd be happy for having done this remarkable show. The gruff-seeming Laughton had a heart like pink plush. He directed us, Paul Gregory produced, and Hardwicke would tease me about 'one more freckle.' "
Agnes liked to recall that "the magic of acting is being able to get over an imaginary wall between the actor and the audience. That we accomplished this in our First Quartette was an unforgettable experience."
Paul Gregory furnished me with the following comments about the great quartette from an old flyer:
San Francisco - The theater is looking up in this old town judged by rousing reaction to this new twist in theatricals. There has never been anything like it and probably won't be - without the likes of Laughton, Boyer, Hardwicke and Moorehead. We salute a new kind of impresario. It is all magnificent, brilliant, theatrical performance.
Sacramento - A jam-packed house witnessed the most startling piece of theatrics ever afforded this city.
Salt Lake - Smashed all attendance records playing to nearly 12,000 people in four days. One is entranced and captivated as the spoken word becomes great music and all are enthralled by majestic movement of words rarely seen since the days of the Greek theater.
Memphis - Capacity audience thrilled by pure theater. Four great stars teamed to present exciting, thrilling, absorbing pure drama as ever enjoyed here-if ever.
Washington, D.C. - Capacity audience came out of curiosity with added lure of four star cast. They left dazzled by most provocative, fascinating, theatrical demonstration of this or any other season. Shaw is the real star though every one of the four stars walked off covered with individual glory.
Indianapolis - Impressive performance before 7000. Magnificent show by first drama quartette. Everybody had riproaring good time.
London - The large audience was keyed up to the rare theatrical occasion from the start. Four stars, in immaculate evening dress, played their way to success. It was an unforgettable spectacle. Through this Quartette, Shaw is himself again. The Quartette has done something remarkable for the cause of the theater by their bold, pioneering spirit in presenting this magnificent piece.
Manchester, England - It was up to the audience to join in. This they did and it was sheer delight. The relish with which Charles Laughton licked his lines and twisted and turned was the Laughton the world loves. Charles Boyer stopped the show with his magnificent performance. Agnes Moorehead was radiantly beautiful and displayed superb artistry. Hardwicke is brilliant.
What provoked these acclamations? A section excerpted from George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman. It was not a play, but a reading. The First Quartette gave this more than a reading. They read from memory rather than from texts. Their imagination, daring, brilliance, integrity, dignity, midst informality, fired the audiences. With nothing but some simple music stands to hold their manuscripts and a few microphones, this startling theater burst upon unsuspecting audiences. Agnes was veritably bewitched with her part long before she was to ever appear as Endora the witch on Bewitched.
Of Paul Gregory, Agnes remarked: "He is a great force in the dynamic theater. He wants to give audiences the best he can. We need people like him in the theater."
Mr. Gregory's successes include John Brown's Body, with Judith Anderson, Raymond Massey, and the late Tyrone Power; The Caine Mutiny, with Henry Fonda, Lloyd Nolan, and John Hodiak; and The Marriage-Go-Round, with Charles Boyer and Claudette Colbert.
Gregory told me: "Agnes often said, 'Acting is hard work, like digging ditches or factory labor, but after it's over, nothing can ever feel like the emotion when the curtain comes down and you know you've done a good job.'
"Agnes wanted to do Don Juan in Hell because she said, 'There is so much garbage in the theater.' We always hit it off well because she knew she could depend on me. Agnes was the glue that held it together.
"In addition to the eighty weeks of Don Juan in Hell that we did across four seasons, and, incidentally she performed at least six times weekly even on the road, I convinced her with the aid of Charles Laughton to let me produce her in her one-nighters. At first we called them 'The Fabulous Redhead,' and later 'Come Closer and I'll Give You an Earful.' But, as she so often said because she was such a private person, 'Don't come too close.'
"One time when we were on tour in Omaha (I forget the show), a woman came up to her and said, 'Miss Moorehead, you were simply marvelous as Medea.' Drawing herself up to her fullest stature, Agnes said, 'Madam, I was not Medea.' The lady persisted, 'Oh, you're mistaken. You were Medea.' Reflecting about it, Agnes then replied, 'Madam, if you saw me as Medea, then to you I was Medea.'
"Once in some city or other her fresh dress did not arrive on time for the performance. Quick as anything Agnes said, 'Is there a spare drape somewhere?' We found a used velour drape, miraculously. She draped the velour about her. She summoned an extra stock of safety pins. Within minutes, would you believe it, with a ruffle about her neck, she looked absolutely divine with her flaming red hair. It was an incredible performance.
"She toured all over the U.S.A. in '60-'61 in Prescription for Murder with Joseph Cotten, Patricia Medina, Tom Mitchell, under my production, as also Lord Pengo and others."
Tucked away in one of her personal fan scrapbooks was this little poem, unsigned and undated. I presume it came from this period because of the reference to Dona Ana in Don Juan in Hell.
To a lady we admire
We think you're swell
As Dona Ana
In Don Juan in Hell.
We wish you the best
For your success
We wish for you
Health and happiness.
You make many happy
With the work you do
May all the joy you brought to us
Come back thrice to you.
On the same page with the above was a little note, probably written by someone that shared a dining room time with her: "Sitting across from you in the dining room has brightened my dreary day." No wonder Agnes was so aware of the importance of fans. From all her lonely trouping for ontour plays and her fabulous one-night personal shows, she, too realized that even sitting in the same dining room could be an uplifting experience for some anonymous stranger. The little more and how much it is!
Agnes teamed with Paul Gregory in Prescription for Murder, Pink Lady, and Lord Pengo.
Here is the touring itinerary for Prescription for Murder. It should give some idea of the magnitude of her touring schedule.
This play, with Joseph Cotten, Patricia Medina, and Thomas Mitchell, opened at the Curran Theater in San Francisco, then continued to the following: Denver, Topeka, Kansas City, Missouri, Omaha, Des Moines, Sioux City, Minneapolis, Duluth, Fargo, Hibbing, Eau Claire, Madison, Rockford, Philadelphia, Williamsport, Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, Lynchburg, Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto, St. Louis, Pensacola, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Norfolk, Baltimore, Hartford, Boston, Montreal, Ottawa, Syracuse, Binghamton, and many, many more. The tour opened January 15, 1962, and closed May 12. All in less than four months. What a trouper!
Joseph Cotten called her the "Queen of the Road." This is some compliment, coming from Mr. Cotten. I was fortunate to interview him after his annual return from their sojourn in England. They keep an apartment there and in West Hollywood. I mentioned to Mr. Cotten that Charles Raison, the dynamic young director of the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York, recalled seeing their production of Prescription for Murder at Williamsport when he was in charge of a new theater there. Raison recalled that the troupe was grieved by the sudden decease of Thomas Mitchell. He had left the cast in Philadelphia, just prior to their Williamsport appearance.
Cotten recalled: "Oh, yes, I remember the incident well, because we were all so shocked by Mitchell's death that we sat up until all hours talking.
"You have probably learned that Agnes disliked sharing a dressing room with anyone. To our amazement, she had to do this with my wife, Pat Medina, at one of the theaters on this tour. They became such good friends that she overcame her reluctance to share a dressing room with someone. She was such a private person, wasn't she?
"Do you know why I call her 'Queen of the Road?' It was not because she traveled more often to more places than any American actress in memory, but she gave so much time to what we refer to as 'the dreary groups.' My goodness, she was unbelievable in her compassion for others, even the dreariest! And, every place we'd go, we'd find we were merely the curtain raiser for Agnes. Everyone seemed to know her everywhereeven to the most outlying provinces. She was the queen of the road, "She was always trying to improve people in the theater and improve on the theater. It was like a mission in life for her - she did it evangelically and even with apostolic zeal.
"Agnes Moorehead was the most disciplined actress we ever met. She was the hardest-working member of our profession.
"Did you know about her ability to mimic and imitate? Even Katie Hepburn loved to have Agnes imitate her. She (Katie) would laugh until she'd split.
"But the one that always floored us was her imitation of the Dusa, all in French, yet. We'll never see her likes again."
Mr. Cotten continues with what he said was one of his favorite anecdotes about Agnes. "She'd never wedge Angier Biddle Duke out of his protocol job. We were once guests of Admiral Cavanaugh at a famous naval yard. After spending several hours with him, she gaily bid him good-by with 'G'bye, Commander.' "
The marvelous veteran actor from scores of films stood up and paced to the picture window of their beautiful penthouse as if to recall something. Then he said, turning around as I'd seen him do in so many movies, "Would you believe that Agnes and Bette Davis actually coached me in southern dialect for my role in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte? I was born in the South, but since Pat is English and I played so many English parts, Bette and Aggie actually assisted my diction in that particular movie." He paused, as, if even he found it hard to believe. Then he said: "I mentioned to you a while ago that we often felt as if we were just the curtain raisers for Agnes. Well, one time in La Jolla she asked me to do a one-act play by Christopher Fry. I agreed. I thought I did rather well, and, lo and behold, she came bursting in afterward with her sensational readings of The Fabulous Redhead and, sure enough, we were just the curtain raisers. What an actress! What a lady!
"I did many films with Aggie. But I'll never forget her in Since You Went Away. Can you imagine that? Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple, Robert Walker, Keenan Wynn, Lionel Barrymore, and yet, I can't forget her terrific part in that-she was so chic and so bitchy. She never had starring roles-always supporting, but without her, many a picture just wouldn't have had it, if you know what I mean."
Being a movie buff all my life, I said, "I believe Since You Went Away was made in 1944, which is thirty years ago."
Mr. Cotten paused with those soulful eyes of his and meditative quizzical look and said: "Think of that! Thirty years, and I recall her part like we just ran through it yesterday."
Through the years, I was struck with Agnes' constant emphasis on the philosophy of her craftsmanship. She told me: "Today we have too much emphasis on the neurotic, which can, if we allow it to, make neurotic machines, robots of us all. We must look beyond the surface of human beings -everything below that surface is not ugly or corrupt.
"Theater and its true expression are vital and necessary to our way of life. An actor must breathe life into words from a printed page. Acting is sometimes like a sixty-five-year-old man I once met when I went back to college for a refresher course. Everyone talked theory and books. He wanted to know about the practical applications. That is what matters in acting, too."
There was a notice in one of her books she obviously felt highly of, about Paul Gregory flying to Paris with S. Behrman to sign Charles Boyer for the leading role in Lord Pengo. Rehearsals began August 7, 1972, and they opened November 19 in the Royale Theatre on Broadway. In this play, Boyer was a slick art collector who liked to con people. Agnes was his faithful yet critical secretary who lent pungency to her part of the dialogues. One critic said of Agnes in this vehicle, "Miss Moorehead played the part with all the artistry one has come to expect of this excellent artist." Henry Danielle, Cliff Hall, and Brian Bedford rounded out the cast ofLord Pengo.
Opening night notes, wires, and such received and kept by Agnes included:
"Knock em dead, luv. Joan Fontaine."
"Good luck and love tonight. Ann Sothern."
"You've won the West, now win the East.
Other persons' memos included those from Roz Russell, Dore Schary, Leland Hayward, Polly Bergen, Kathryn Grayson, Bea Lillie.
Vincent Price penned a note to her after attending a performance with the then First Lady, Jackie Kennedy: "We were escorted by a total of 38 police and secret service. Attending anything with a First Lady is not relaxing."
From this same production she had saved a backstage note that read: "That I couldn't have known you better is a source of regret-because the little was a pleasure."
The Manchester Guardian said of her in this same production, "Why must she be wasted when she is one of few Broadway actresses capable of playing tragedy?"
I must have waded through hundreds of letters, notes, and messages from this one production of Lord Pengo alone. Mostly the sentiments were thanking her for her thoughtfulnesses one way or another. She was a very thoughtful person, but in a very private way.
I was privileged to read her own copy of Lord Pengo's printed souvenir brochure, complete with pictures of the cast, etc. One of her cohorts signed his photo, "You have changed my life." Henry Danielle wrote, "Such memories of soap and cheese." She was often a nut about soap (especially wonderfully scented and beautifully produced soaps), and she was just as interested in good cheese-fine cheese in true Wisconsin fashion.
It occurred to me you might like to know what the competition was like on Broadway in 1962 at the very time Lord Pengo was playing. Contemporary with Agnes, Boyer, and their cast that season were: Joseph Cotten in Calculated Risk, Anthony Quinn in Tchin Tchin, Jason Robards, Jr., in A Thousand Clowns, Kathryn Grayson in Camelot, Robert Morse, Rudy Valee in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, Emlyn Williams in A Man for All Seasons, Sid Caesar in Little Me, Barbara Bel Geddes in Mary, Mary, Robert Ryan in Mr. President, plus Sound of Music, Oliver, Never Too Late, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Her biographical sketch in the brochure for Lord Pengo said: "Toured more than any other actress living or dead. Once rode a circus elephant, played little Eva on a Mississippi riverboat, and scared the whey out of a nation with her performance of the doomed woman on the radio production of Sorry, Wrong Number."
When interviewed backstage once, she told me she thinks of theater as a place of instructive entertainment where you can sit and learn to laugh or cry. "I'm not going to ever contribute to delinquency in my roles, either adult or juvenile delinquency. I think too much of the public." This was the zeal Joseph Cotten mentioned and the evangelical professional fervor Agnes exemplified.
Somehow, with movies, television, and all sorts of assignments, Agnes managed to sandwich in the musical comedy High Spirits in the twentyfourth season of Dallas Summer Musical Theater, 1965. It was produced by Tom Hughes and directed by John Bishop. Based on Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, the music, lyrics, and book were by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray. Agnes played the part of Madame Arcati, who held a seance for a member of the cast. Michael Evans and Iva Withers were in the cast. In the biography of Agnes in the brochure of the musical comedy, they credit her with Don Juan in Hell appearances in Dallas with the First Drama Quartette and three personal appearances of her readings. (More of this in the next chapter.)
Even some of Miss Moorehead's most ardent fans in movies and television have little idea of her versatility on the boards, including several musical comedies. The very last vehicle she appeared in was Gigi. About the mid-sixties she also appeared with Ginger Rogers, Leif Erickson, and Maggie Hayes in Pink Jungle. It was produced by her long-time friend and mentor, Paul Gregory. Music and lyrics were by Vernon Duke, and direction was by Joseph Anthony.
When she would be touring, thoughtful people were constantly writing for Agnes to come to the country for lunch, dinner, or just plain rest, since touring is so hard, even for the stars. Generals, statesmen, school presidents, financiers, industrialists, every imaginable person wrote to help her escape the dreary routine of hotels and drearier food, often eaten on the run or hurriedly backstage between rehearsals or between matinee and evening performances.
Since she was so thoughtful, especially with hospitalized veterans, it is no wonder that a Fort Dix, New Jersey, writer would say that this past-middleage woman "got a warmer reception than Miss New Jersey and was the biggest hit as long as anyone could remember."
Keep in mind that while touring, in addition to constant travel plans, packing, unpacking, and personal needs, there were unlimited requests for every imaginable kind of personal appearance.
In 1972, while in Chicago with the second go-round for Don Juan in Hell (nearly twenty years after the First Quartette), there were radio interviews, newspaper interviews, magazine interviews, and television interviews - such as Kup's Show (Irv Kupcinet), and Essee Kupcinet persuaded Agnes to appear at the Jefferson Awards Dinner, Israel's twenty-fifth birthday, and National Artists' Committee. It boggles the mind that this rather frail woman -who was neither stout nor tall -this constant trouper, the "Queen of the Road," still found time for innumerable requests in her already very busy schedule. Small wonder she longed for the farm in southeastern Ohio. Small wonder she was eagerly awaiting the finish of each tour so she could rest and regroup - refine her sensitive spiritual qualities.
Agnes nearly didn't return to the second go-round of Don Juan in Hell. But she said motion pictures are mostly so tawdry (not all of them), so devoid of the real sense of life, she decided to go out again with it.
This time, John Houseman directed it. He gave all sorts of credit to Agnes' help and suggestions, based on her original tour twenty years earlier. This time the cast was: Don Juan: Ricardo Montalban; Satan: Edward Mulhare; the Commander: Paul Henried; and Dona Ana: Agnes Moorehead.
They opened in Boston for two weeks in October 1972. Then to Washington for three weeks. Next Cincinnati for one week. December found them in Philadelphia, Pittsburg, and Wilmington, Delaware; Toronto for the New Year and two weeks afterward; New York for four weeks - mid January to mid February.
Mary Astor wrote in her book Mary Astor: A Life on Film (Dell Books, 1967): "There was a road company being formed for Don Juan in Hell, a section of Shaw's Man and Superman. Agnes Moorehead, Charles Laughton, and Charles Boyer had been enormously successful in a very interesting theatrical innovation. It was presented without scenery by four players who carried large, impressive, leather-bound manuscripts onto the stage, opened them on lecterns, and sat or stood and apparently read the play to the audience. It wasn't read, it was memorized and played, the 'readers' gradually becoming the characters in the play.
"The company assembled in a small, attractive playhousecum-workshop above Santa Monica Boulevard for rehearsals. Kurt Kasznar, Ricardo Montalban, Reginald Denny, and 1, and Agnes Moorehead as our director.
"Here there was none of the depressing 'You're lookin' fine, sweetie!' None of that 'dear old girl' crap. Here we concentrated on Shaw and his words and his thinking. Agnes, besides being an excellent actress, is a fine director and was most generous with her own experience in the show. (This was not a case of following a personal success by another actress. For Agnes gave me all sorts of little goodies which she had found and worked when she originated the show. I wasn't working blind.)"
Since she was on tour with Gigi the following year, she had to miss her coveted Christmas party, which always coincided with her birthday, two years in a row - 1972 and 1973. This was to mean she would never preside at one again.
Here were some of the tabloid's comments on the second go-round of Don Juan in Hell as found in Agnes' theatrical souvenirs: "Talk in a Hot Spot." "Going to Hell Demands Cool Head." "Don Juan is Theater of the Intellect." "Shaw's Talkathon in Good Hands." "Heavenly Presentation of Shaw's Devilish Wit." "Superb Performances Bring Don Juan to Life." One reviewer wrote: "Miss Moorehead never having seemed really young, she will never truly grow old. She is one of our most skillful stage technicians."
Ken Mayer, Boston Herald Traveler (October 26, 1972) said: "Agnes Moorehead is the heir apparent to the throne vacated by the great Ethel Barrymore. Great is too weak a word to describe her."
Faithful Cesar Romero sent her flowers and an opening-night telegram, "Break a leg. I'll be talking to you."
Joseph Cotten reminded us she was ever crusading for better acting, better vehicles, and more beauty, more gentility, and, above all, more appeal to the spirit in the theater.
One of the last things she told me on the phone went something like this: "I hope family life, good solid family life, comes back. It means so much to the world. It means so much to the children. I feel sad for some of these youngsters. There's not a wholesome laugh of life in them. There's nothing like learning to laugh. They're kind of bent. They're old before their time. They're old at seventeen. And when it comes to marriage - they're really babes in the woods." I often played the devil's advocate in these discussions by pointing out how modern families contribute to the so-called juvenile delinquency by being torn apart constantly with false priorities.
Once again, I can hear her say so eloquently and poignantly, "I don't want to drag audiences into the gutter and push them into the mud. I want the theater to be spiritual uplift even while entertaining. It should be glorious, too."