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The One About the Lady, The Bed, and the Phone

By B. A. Peterson

1. History of Sorry, Wrong Number, by Lucille Fletcher.
2. Photos of Agnes Moorehead performing before the microphone.
3. Agnes Moorehead on performing Sorry, Wrong Number.
4. Broadcast dates of Sorry, Wrong Number and its many reprises.
5. Sorry, Wrong Number as play and motion picture, and spoofed.
6. Purchase the playscript, or videos of movie versions.

See more summaries, synopses and scripts at the Cairo Radio Script Library

1. History of Sorry, Wrong Number, by Lucille Fletcher.

Sorry, Wrong Number made its debut performance on the radio anthology series Suspense on May 25, 1943. It was so popular that Agnes Moorehead recreated her role as Mrs. Stevenson seven more times over the years.

How does a writer get her ideas? 'It was in the middle of the afternoon - her six-month old baby needed some milk. She made a trip to her local store. An elderly woman started ranting about her being first in line, demanding to know what made her so important. The old woman's attitude and behavior stuck in her mind on the way home. After feeding the baby, she began to work on the idea...At the time she and husand Bernard Herrmann were living in a small, old house in Sutton Place in New York City, with the East River almost in her front yard, and the Queensborough Bridge soaring overhead. She used this as the setting for the radio play.

Lucille Fletcher writes: ''This play was originally designed as an experiment in sound and not just a murder story; with the telephone as its chief protagonist. I wanted to write something that by its very nature should, for maximum effectiveness, be heard rather than seen. However, in the hands of a fine actress like Agnes Moorehead, the script turned out to be more the character study of a woman than a technical experiment, and the plot itself, with its O. Henry twist at the end, fell into the thriller is, as I see it, a simple tale of horror.''

The episode was originally called ''She Overheard Death Speaking.'' It wasn't until a few days before the broadcast that it was changed to the short but sweet, Sorry, Wrong Number. Because it was then that Bill Spier (producer of Suspense came up with the trick ending that makes this program so memorable. [This according to June Havoc. Spier made minor adjustments to practically all scripts for his program.]

Most radio programs were broadcast live in the early 1940s. Most were also performed by the actors twice in one night, first for the East Coast, and two hours later for the West Coast. A 'blooper' during the first broadcast of Sorry, Wrong Number inadvertently revealed to the producers just how popular the series Suspense was. During the first broadcast of the show, the actor playing the murderer missed his cue. He 'picked up' the telephone and said, ''Oh, police department? I'm sorry, must've got the wrong number.'' The actor playing the policeman then said his line, and the killer repeated his final line correctly. CBS was flooded with phone calls from confused listeners wanting to know the outcome of the story. The next week, the announcer for Suspense The Man in Black, commented on the previous week's mishap and promised that the episode would be performed again in a few weeks.

2. Agnes Moorehead in photographs performing Sorry, Wrong Number.

Mrs. Stevenson, a 'querulous, self-centered neurotic,' attempts
to phone her husband at his office, Murray Hill 4-0098.
Instead, the operator somehow crosses the lines, and she
overhears two men - who can't hear her, plotting the murder of a woman
for eleven-fifteen that night.

Mrs. Stevenson calls the operator back, demanding she try to
trace the call. She must save this poor woman. The operator
can't help. Mrs. Stevenson calls the police, and they won't help.
She calls and gets another operator, and another, all official, impersonal, useless.

Mrs. Stevenson is more and more frustrated. Those men are going
to kill someone who lives near a bridge, and she lives near a bridge.
But the police didn't believe her, and the hospital won't send over
a registered nurse...and her clock stopped...and it's past eleven....

Mrs. Stevenson is terrified. She can hear someone downstairs, and she's all alone in the house. Frantically she begs an operator to call the police, as she hears someone coming up the stairs. She drops the phone and knocks over the lamp. She screams and chokes...and dies. Inspector Duffy of the police comes on the line. He repeats his name a couple of times. The killer picks up the phone. ''Sorry, wrong number.'' he tells it, and hangs up.

3. Agnes Moorehead on performing Sorry, Wrong Number.

-From Martin Gram's Suspense: Twenty Years of Thrills and Chills: Agnes Moorehead: ''I couldn't even finish reading it [the script] because it made me so nervous. I was [originally] afraid it was too morbid and people would turn it off.''

When Moorehead finished each Sorry, Wrong Number performance, she found herself completely exhausted, lying on the table, worn down emotionally from her work.

-From Leonard Maltin's The Great American Broadcast: Agnes Moorehead was interviewed for the September 12, 1952 issue of TV Radio Life. ''The sound man is extrelely important. A mood can be projected expertly, you know, in the mere dialing of a telephone.''

4. Broadcast dates of Sorry, Wrong Number and its many reprises. The shows were not 're-run'. Agnes Moorehead re-enacted her part live, each time. Sorry, Wrong Number holds the record for the number of times an episode was reprised.

1. Episode #43. May 25, 1943
2. Episode #54. August 21, 1943
3. Episode #80. February 24, 1944
4. Episode #157. September 6, 1945 (recorded live, and sold on vinyl later in 1945)
5. Episode #315. November 18, 1948
6. Episode #478. September 15, 1952
7. Episode #721. October 20, 1957
8. Episode #840. February 14, 1960

The Philco Radio Hall of Fame
On March 24, 1946, Rudy Vallee and Agnes Moorehead starred in an abbreviated version of Sorry, Wrong Number.

5. Sorry, Wrong Number as play and motion picture, and spoofed.

The play
The play is essentially the same as the radio script, with 'spots' on chairs for actors playing the telephone operators, police, and killer. The playscript, along with the playscript for Fletcher's The Hitchhiker is available here.

The movie
Although Agnes Moorehead wanted the role, the studio felt that Barbara Stanwyck was a bigger star, and so she and Burt Lancaster performed in the 1948 motion picture.

The Lux Radio Theatre January 9, 1950, broadcast an adaptation of the movie version, starring Stanwyck and Lancaster in their original roles.

Both an Agnes Moorehead version of Sorry, Wrong Number and the Lux Radio Theatre version starring Stanwyck are available from Radio Showcase.

The Maxwell House Coffee Time, March 13, 1947. This show starred George Burns and Gracie Allen. Gracie was scolded by George for listening to too many radio mysteries. She picks up the phone and overhears a conversation by two bug exterminators wanting to get rid of the 'pest.' Gracie mistakes the 'pest' for her husband George, 'and the lunacy begins.'

The Jack Benny Program, October 17, 1948. Written by comedy writers Howard Snyder and Hugh Wedlock. Barbara Stanwyck made a guest appearance.

1. The World of Yesterday fanzine, #25, December, 1979, copyright 1979 by Linda S. Downey
2. Suspense: Twenty Years of Thrills and Chills, by Martin Grams, Jr., Morris Publishing, 1997.
3. The Great American Broadcast, by Leonard Maltin, Dutton, 1997

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See more summaries, synopses and scripts at the Cairo Radio Script Library

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