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Means, Edna, 1887-1979



  • Existence: 1887 - 1979


Edna Means, nationally known "characterist" and dramatic reader, was born in Tama, Iowa, on February 24, 1887. Upon graduating from Tama High School at the head of her class, she taught for one year at a rural school before enrolling at Highland Park College in Des Moines, Iowa, where she earned a bachelor of oratory degree. Wanting further specialization she enrolled at Emerson School of Oratory in Boston, Massachussetts, graduating at the head of her class once again. She was then hired as a "teacher of expression" in the Chicago Public Schools (La Salle/Peru High School). Her speaking skills soon came to the attention of the Redpath Lyceum Bureau and for two years she travelled the lyceum circuit with violinist and character singer Eve Anderson. For sixteen weeks in 1911 they toured the deep South states of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

In the fall of 1911, Means returned to Des Moines, having been named Dean of the Oratory Department at her alma mater, Highland Park College. Here she organized an Oratory Club and thus came to coach and tutor Keokuk native, Conrad Nagel, who would later achieve huge success in Hollywood by starring in 225 movies over a period of forty years.

Means left Highland Park College after World War I to form her own company and began to make personal appearances around Iowa and the Midwest. Eventually she came to be booked in all states of the union. Beginning in the late 1910s until approximately the mid-1920s, Means spent each summer on the chautauqua circuits, traveling with the Redpath-Vawter Chautauqua units, managed by Keith Vawter of Cedar Rapids. Means collected as many press clippings as possible relating to her performances. Her diary for 1921-1923 contains the following clipping from the Albany (Mo.) Capital : "Miss Means' clever readings yesterday afternoon displayed a talent, in its wide range of characters portrayed and the faultless manner in which each was impersonated, that simply places her in a class by herself when it comes to furnishing laughs and sermons for an audience. Her faultless program caused some of us to positively regret that the 'males and minstrelsy' could not have been cut out and the job of entertaining the big night audience turned over to Miss Edna Means."

While on circuit, Means appeared often with Edgar Bergen, already a popular ventriloquist. Bergen admired Means so much that he had a puppet named "Laura" dressed up to look like her. The two frequently went swimming together after hot August afternoon performances. During the winter seasons Means at first stayed with her mother and stepfather in Tama and accepted speaking engagements around the Midwest. By 1924 her engagements had increased to such a point that she relocated to Chicago and hired Miss Eleanor Ogden, whom she had met on the chautauqua circuit, as her personal agent and business manager. They formed the Edna Means Dramatic Service and ran it for the next fifty-two years. Means had by now become a speaker of great fame throughout the country. Billing herself as a "characterist," she became a favorite of the national civic club and women's clubs speaking circuit, traveling to every state, often speaking to men's groups that had never before engaged a female speaker. From the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, Means accepted bookings with independent chautauquas through the Redpath Bureau in addition to those arranged by her own service.

The dramatic service was also formed so that Means could pursue another interest, that of publishing adaptations from famous literary works as well as her own original compositions, thereby providing material suitable for the newly expanding field of school speech study and contests. Means thus became a pioneer in promoting speech work in schools and her service became the nation's foremost publisher and supplier of readings, orations, and monologues for schools, colleges, and theater groups.

In 1952, after more than twenty-five years in Chicago, Means moved her service back to her parental home in Tama, Iowa. She was now sixty-five years old and with this move she was finally able to say "no" to the constant invitations to speak before organizations nationwide. Her mail order service continued to flourish and Means continued to write and adapt well-known writers' works for school speech materials for the next twenty-four years.

In 1956, while living in Tama, Means wrote an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" for Jean Seberg, then a Marshalltown High School senior, and coached her in its performance so that the Iowa oratorical champion would do well in her audition for the role of Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger's forthcoming movie of the same name. Miss Seberg was selected for the role and gained instant fame as an actress.

Means finally retired at age eighty-nine and died three years later, on November 12, 1979, at age ninety-two.

(Biographical data taken chiefly from the Waterloo Courier , Nov. 30, 1980)

Found in 2 Collections and/or Records:

Edna Means papers

Identifier: IWA0171

Characterist and dramatic reader, and chatauqua performer from Tama, Iowa organized her own talent agency.


A gift copy of James W. Foley's, Some one like you (1915), presented to Means by Elias Day in 1936, has been removed to the printed works collection and cataloged separately.

Dates: 1908-1986

Esther Gilbertson papers

 Collection — Folder 1
Identifier: IWA1087

Notes, nespaper clippings, and photocopied programs about Iowan "characterist" and performer Edna Means.

Dates: 1928

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