Editor’s note: In this column, we’ve asked researchers to discuss their experiences at the Center. Some of our visitors will report on their ongoing research projects and their relationship to our collection, others will share their surprises, frustrations, and interesting discoveries that don’t quite fit into larger projects–the gems of the cutting room floor. In doing so, this column hopes to provide insight into the experience of historical research at the center while highlighting a few of our collections along the way.
My premier research trip to the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research took me to the vast collection of Agnes Moorehead papers. Her name was already quite familiar to me—we’re both ex-pats of St. Louis, and I’ve had the pleasure of walking past her star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame many evenings. But knowing her name, her biography, even following in her footsteps to study at the University of Wisconsin, Madison couldn’t have prepared me for the experience of interacting with her personal history first hand.
At the archives, I had the privilege of holding the script that she used for her famous radio performance of “Sorry, Wrong Number” on the horror anthology show Suspense! The finding aid information on this folder is mundane, in the way keyword descriptions usually are: it reads simply “Box 9 Folder 18, Recording Script-Sorry, Wrong Number.” What it can’t mention is that this episode of Suspense was so popular it was repeated nine times, each time with Agnes Moorehead as the lead, and each time with her reading off this same script.
Other than the aging yellow hue, the pages are clean and stain-free. They were not folded or bent. They are in remarkably good shape, despite being nearly 70-years-old (on May 25th, 2013, it will have been exactly 70 years since the episode’s East Coast premier). The script itself is covered in notations and marginalia, notes for when to breathe, when to sigh, how loud her next scream should be. Whole sections of the episode are crossed out. Whether these are her personal revisions or studio notes is impossible to tell.
The best of these marks came as a total surprise to me. Scrawled across the front page was ‘The Queen,’ in the queen’s own eminently identifiable handwriting. The precision and evenness of her letters denotes a personal self-control that contrasts with the wild hysterics that defined many of the characters she portrayed.
The remarkable thing is there’s no context for this note. The only other allusion to this title of nobility is at the top of the script for Suspense! episode “Post Mortem” (4/4/46), on which is written ‘“Queen” Aggie’. There is no other mention of this title in her archived papers or in her biographies, at least that I have seen. There are no artifacts that exist to say who named her, or if she crowned herself, or when she wrote it on this script or why. Moorehead had many well-documented titles (The Lavender Lady, The First Lady of Suspense), but Queen is not among them.
But that’s the beauty of archives. When you sort through their papers, you get to know a person in a way that can’t be transmitted to another person. I could make a myriad of wild assumptions about the title ‘Queen Aggie,’ but I wouldn’t dare print them without proof—and proof simply doesn’t exist. So this one title of hers goes largely undocumented, except here, in the archives, in her papers, in her handwriting.
These are the things that don’t make it into papers or presentations; the moments of perfect humanity that escape the purview of whatever argument we’re making, because they’re too small or seem insignificant. But the confident strokes of the Q and precise e’s tell a researcher something about Agnes that may never figure into a thesis. It’s a reminder. She wasn’t just the screaming hysterical housewife from “Sorry, Wrong Number.” She wasn’t the bossy caricature Endora from Bewitched. She was Queen Aggie. She reigned.
Jenna Stoeber, University of Wisconsin-Madison