Although many years have passed since Mitch Agruss served as a popular, local TV cartoon host, he remains a legendary figure to thousands of people.
Mitch, who turned 90 years old last summer, won the hearts of children and others in East Sacramento and throughout the valley with his endearing presentations as Cap’n Mitch, and Cap’n Delta, “Skipper of the Valley Queen.”
In agreeing to be interviewed for this publication about his cartoon host days, Mitch also expressed a desire to speak about the oftentimes lesser known parts of his career.
“The people in this television market remember me for the hosting of the children’s cartoon shows, and that’s it,” Mitch said. “But that was, in Sacramento, from 1961 to 1989. From 1941 to 1961, I was back East. I was graduating from drama school, I was in New York, I was doing Broadway shows, I was doing off-Broadway shows, I was (working) in the live television era.”
While motioning toward a stack of old books sitting on a table in his home, Mitch said, “Those are ‘Theatre World’ books, in which either my name appears or my pictures are in from plays that I’ve done in New York,” Mitch said.
And in pointing out a particular page in one of the books, Mitch added, “That’s the page in which I appear in the same play with Katharine Hepburn.”
In that play, Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” Hebpurn played Beatrice and Mitch appeared in the role of Conrade.
A preview for that play, which was held at the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Conn. from June 22 through Sept. 8, 1957, included the following words: “Mitchell Agruss appeared on Broadway in ‘King Lear’ with the late Louis Calhern (1895-1956), and in ‘At War with the Army.’ He played in the off-Broadway productions of ‘The Clandestine Marriage,’ ‘The White Devil,’ ‘The Carefree Tree’ and ‘The Duchess of Malfi,’ appeared in all three festival productions last summer, and at the Phoenix (an off-Broadway theater in New York City) this winter.”
In further reminiscing about his early work in live theater, Mitch said, “It’s wonderful to realize that there was a time when I did those things.”
Mitch, who was born in Barnes Hospital (now Barnes-Jewish Hospital) in St. Louis, Mo., was the son of Nat and Rose Agruss. The family’s history in the United States began with Nat and Rose’s parents, who immigrated to America from Eastern Europe in the 1890s.
The Agrusses, Mitch noted, resided in “a very tightknit Jewish community in St. Louis, orthodox at the time.”
Mitch said that his interest in theater began while he was attending Clayton High School in Clayton, Mo.
“I got interested in theater when I was in high school, because I had a very encouraging teacher, mentor (named Blandford Jennings),” Mitch said. “(Jennings) encouraged me and was instrumental in having me go to the State University of Iowa (which is commonly known today as the University of Iowa) between my junior and senior years of high school to a special theater class to see how I took to it. He recommended and referred me – since I didn’t know the first thing about it and where to go to college – to what was then called Carnegie Institute of Technology. It’s now called Carnegie Mellon University. (The institution, which is located in Pittsburgh, Pa.,) has one of the country’s premier drama departments.”
In 1941, following his freshman year at Carnegie Tech, Mitch returned to his St. Louis home, where he received a telephone call from a classmate named Garry Davis.
The classmate – whose father was Meyer Davis (1893-1976), who led one of the nation’s all-time notable dance bands – told him that he was at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pa. and should join him working on the crew building sets and providing other contributions for the summer stock shows.
Mitch told his classmate that he could not afford to engage himself in that project. But Mitch quickly learned that the work was not unpaid labor, and instead would earn him $15 per week.
Mitch was surprised to learn that Bucks County Playhouse was one of the nation’s most celebrated summer straw-hat circuit theaters of that era.
“All the big names worked there,” Mitch recalled. “It was in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country, where so many famous theater people have their summer homes. And I was just an 18-year-old kid stepping off a train and walking into the most glamorous world any young theater person could be interested in. The people that were there were all fantastic. All summer long, I met so many people and I became one of the pets of the company. The theater moved because of (World War II) gas rationing into the ballroom of the Belleview-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, so I spent (the summer of 1942) working there. Each time I got a little bit better parts to play, as well as being a crew person, building sets and running the shows and stuff like that. My best part was in ‘Elizabeth the Queen,’ with a (British actress) named Flora Robson (1902-1984).”
Like many people, Mitch put his dreams on hold to serve his country during the war.
After joining the Army Air Corps and serving in California, he spent the last two-thirds of his three years of military service in Biloxi, Miss.
In 1946, Mitch was honorably discharged from his service and he once again attended Carnegie Tech, where he graduated a year later.
He then returned to Bucks County Playhouse, where he became the assistant stage manager.
Mitch said that it was during that time that he also obtained his Actors’ Equity card and began obtaining better roles in plays.
“I did a myriad of plays with very, very nice parts with more and more important people,” Mitch said. So, my summers were full. I worked with people who are maybe not well known now, but they certainly were well known then. Luise Rainer (1910-present) and Shirley Booth (1898-1992) and Moss Hart (1904-1961) and George Kauffman (1889-1961) and Harpo Marx (1888-1964), and Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) of all people. The summers were full and I was married there, as well, to (Katharine Thompson) who I had met in school.”
In 1948, Mitch and Katharine moved to New York, and Mitch began working in the aforementioned Broadway play, “At War with the Army,” which was later made into a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis film.
Agruss said that he was offered a role in that film, but added, “Whatever they wanted to pay me, I couldn’t afford to go from New York to California to do it.”
In reminiscing about that time in his life, Agruss said, “It’s amazing for a kid in New York (in) his first year to hit Broadway and be right there in the center of activity at the Booth Theatre, which is like the heartbeat of New York’s Broadway theater scene. That show had moderate success. We were there for about three or four months, then we toured in Chicago and here and there. We did something called the subway circuit in theaters. For months we did this in Brooklyn and the Bronx, in Queens and New Jersey and all around.”