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Mountain Home Magazine

Wellsboro Goes Hollywood

Jun 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Nancy Hesser

The face in the faded black-and-white photo might not grab your attention: a reasonably attractive girl in a yearbook-style headshot. Her straightforward gaze didn’t freeze local historian Gale Largey in his tracks as he went about compiling photos of Wellsboro’s worthies to include in his Life in Wellsboro, 1920-1960: A Socio-historical Portrait (1988). It wasn’t until thirty-plus years and several film documentaries later that Gale fell under the spell of Kitty Moran, a.k.a. Kathryn Crawford, star of screen and stage.

It happened late one night, as hauntings properly do. “I couldn’t sleep and was flipping through this old magazine, and there she was,” Gale explains, pointing to a picture of a brunette beauty jauntily showing off shapely gams. This was the girl from Wellsboro! Holding her own against a rising tide of Hollywood blondes, she could boast a photo spread in a major movie magazine. Her journey from here to there must have been eventful, perhaps posing a tantalizing mystery or two along the way. The best historians are dogged detectives. Gale was intrigued. Kitty’s journey began on an ordinary note. Born in 1908, the second daughter of Michael and Ann Moran, she joined a family enjoying the promise of a secure life in Wellsboro. Her father worked in the glass factory, as did many locals at that time, while her mother tended to her girls at home. This period of stability proved all too brief.

At age three, Kitty’s life was to change when her father’s factory closure put him out of a job. Her parents divorced soon afterward, catapulting Kitty and her sister, in their mother’s custody, into a series of moves. Sorting through conflicting accounts of this period, Gale traced a path leading to Chicago—where the girls found themselves consigned to an orphanage. They were rescued by their father, joining him in Ohio and later relocating with him and his second wife to California. There were mounting tensions between Kitty and her stepmother, and, at age fifteen, the girl eloped with a seventeen-year-old boy (allegedly her sister’s fiancé). The young couple finished their schooling while cohabiting in mutual distrust until their short-lived marriage dissolved.

Hooray for Hollywood

By this time, Kitty was clinching roles in musical theater up and down the West Coast, thanks to her perseverance, pert good looks (“Five-foot two, eyes of blue,” quotes Gale), natural stage presence, and agile singing voice (fellow choristers dubbed her “The Warbling Soprano”). Her performance in Lillian Albertson’s production of Hit the Deck caught the attention of Wesley Ruggles (director of the Academy Award-winning Cimarron), who helped her land a contract with Universal Pictures. During the peak period of her film career, 1929 to 1933, Kitty starred in frothy fare with Buddy Rogers (“America’s Boyfriend” and Mary Pickford’s third husband), belted out “Buffalo Girls” opposite “Singing Cowboy” Ken Maynard, and shared billing with Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, Carole Lombard, and Pat O’Brien, among others.

Kitty’s Broadway dreams were to prove elusive, however. Cast in Cole Porter’s The New Yorkers in 1930, she introduced the composer’s (in)famous “Love for Sale.” The public rejected the depiction of a streetwalker by an ingenue so closely fitting their vision of the girl next door, and the number’s setting was promptly switched to Harlem, with Kitty replaced by African-American songstress Elisabeth Welch. Wellsboro’s star was left to take consolation in the seven films she’d made that same year, one of the busiest of her acting career.

A Whiff of Scandal

Some major events in Kitty’s life mirrored her screen performances for dramatic effect. In 1929, she was reunited with her mother, who reappeared in a blaze of publicity, offering up what Gale describes as a vivid (and far-fetched) account of kidnapping, betrayal, and a frantic mother’s twelve-year search for her children. She would enjoy her spot in the limelight, along with extravagant gifts from her adoring daughters, for the next two years before vanishing completely from the public eye.

In 1934, her film career waning, Kitty announced her marriage to Detroit sugar industry heir James Edgar, Jr., proclaiming her wedding day the happiest in her life. Her poise and charm—not to mention her experience modeling luxury fashions—would serve her well in her new role as a well-placed socialite. Sadly, her sugar daddy proved to be no sweetie. In addition to alleged abuse (reliable reports, Gale notes) and a fraught divorce, he instigated a dubious “stolen love” lawsuit that played out in public and left no stone unthrown.

At Long Last Love

Not one to languish, Kitty continued to give theatrical performances, touring in the US and Australia. She eventually embarked on a new career as an interior decorator, her design talents netting clients among the rich and famous (e.g., Barron Hilton and Mary Pickford) and credit in Architectural Digest. She successfully filled this role for decades. Latter-day romance came her way in 1970, when she married engineering industry magnate Ralph M. Parsons. (Their shared epitaph would read “Somewhere there’s a place for us.”) A wedding day photo shows a sixty-two-year-old Kitty beaming beneath a towering updo, an elaborate structure of curls and coils—unapologetically blonde.

Kitty left the scene in 1980 (taken by cancer). She reemerges as a vital presence in Gale’s Kitty (appropriately subtitled Grit and Mirrors). His saga speaks to life in the Twin Tiers in the early twentieth century, as well as his subject’s Hollywood heyday, when movies began to talk. Kitty debuts June 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Deane Center for the Performing Arts Coolidge Theatre in Wellsboro, with additional shows on Friday, June 9, at 7:30, and Thursday, June 15, at 8 p.m. Admission is donated to the Deane Center. There are mysteries to explore, and surprises in store. Kitty did not lead a dull life.

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