Helbros Electric (PUW 1)

Helbros Watch history

This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.

From The Shadow and His Competition to a Stripper:
Guest Detectives on QUICK AS A FLASH
by Karl Schadow, © 2005
(From Radio Recall, December 2005)

That novel quiz program with the mystery twist, debuted over the Mutual network Sunday, July 16, 1944. Created by director Richard Lewis and emcee Ken Roberts, the program offered listeners thirty minutes of fast-paced entertainment. Along with Lewis, the program was produced by Bernard Prockter with scripts penned by Gene Wang. Six contestants chosen from the studio audience competed for cash and other prizes sponsored by the Helbros Watch Company. Historical events, movies, works of literature and famous situations were dramatized in short skits or by musical selections conducted by Ray Bloch and the Helbros Orchestra. The highlight of each program was the Helbros Derby which featured a guest detective from one of radio's mystery programs. However, radio sleuths were not the only invitees, as this survey will reveal of the more than fifty who participated during the seven year run of the program.

Radio Sleuths
In the initial broadcast, Jay Jostyn was featured as Mr. District Attorney, who, over the next several years made an annual visit. Many other officials were invited. Warden Lewis E. Lawes presented dramas of his criminal cases. Former NYPD Commissioner Lewis J. Valentine in his role of Gangbuster's narrator was featured on the episode of December 2, 1945. The Sheriff, as portrayed by Robert Haag, then later by Don Briggs, was a regular on the program appearing at least fourteen times.

That master of accents and disguises, Karl Swenson as Mr. Chameleon made numerous performances. Dr. Benjamin Ordway (Everett Sloan and House Jameson) presented trials from the Crime Doctor series. Conversely, Scotland Yard's Inspector Burke (Basil Rathbone) hosted only one whodunit. Of interest is that Burke appeared a mere ten days following the start of his own Mutual program on January 21, 1947. It seems that the Network was seeking additional publicity for one of its own programs. Along with the guest fee, publicity was one of the benefits of being a guest.

Several other sleuths also made just one appearance. On the program of September 17, 1944, Raymond (of Inner Sanctum) displayed his horrific wit. Did CBS allow him to bring the creaking door, or were the Mutual soundmen charged with a most difficult task of creating a duplicate? Before portraying Mark Chase, Don Briggs played that revered attorney, Perry Mason in his lone appearance on April 21, 1946. In the milestone 100th episode of December 8, 1946, Hercule Poirot (Harold Huber) voiced his sole escapade. Richard Keith was cast as Special Investigator Frank Brock and also as True Detective Mysteries Editor John Shuttleworth on the programs of April 13, 1947 and May 23, 1948, respectively.

Nero Wolfe (Luis van Rooten) and Peter Salem (Santos Ortego) were two additional sleuths whose tenure was limited to a single performance. Victor Jory from radio's Matinee Theatre was cast as "Casanova" in the episode of October 22, 1944. It's currently unknown why certain characters only appeared once. A scheduling conflict among programs was the "case" for David Harding-Counterspy, who, during the 1944-45 and 1945-46 seasons appeared on at least six occasions. In the fall of 1946, his program was slotted directly opposite Quick As A Flash at 5:30 p.m. When ABC juggled the schedule for the 1948-49 season, not only did Don MacLaughlin return to being a regular, he delighted all associated with the program by bringing back many listeners that had left with him.

Two members of the "Press" who appeared often were Casey-Crime Photographer (Staats Cotsworth) of the Morning Express, and the editor of Big Town's Illustrated Press, Steve Wilson (Ed Pawley). A "host" of many a Helbros Derby was Geoffrey Barnes (Roc Rogers followed by Bernard Lenrow) of Mystery Theatre.

As a group, private eyes, both amateurs and those on the professional side were featured most frequently lead by the grandfather of them all, Nick Carter (Lon Clark). Other notables included: Mr. Keen (Bennett Kilpack), Charlie Chan (Ed Begley and Santos Ortega), Sidney Smith as Ellery Queen, Boston Blackie (Dick Kollmar) and Jack Scott Smart as The Fat Man. The Falcon was portrayed by three actors: James Meighan, Les Tremayne and Les Damon. Arguably, the character most associated with the program was The Shadow. During the initial season of 1944-45, John Archer portrayed this illustrious crime fighter nearly once a month, including the episode of May 20, 1945 after the network run of his program had ended for the season.

However, The Shadow would continue to be heard throughout the summer on many stations across the country (and abroad) via transcription. Moreover, The Shadow was a favorite of emcee Ken Roberts who had been an announcer on that program for over a decade. The program of March 16, 1947 (courtesy of Jack French) is one of two extant episodes and features The Shadow (Bret Morrison) in "Murder Is A Deadly Mistake." In this tale, a switchboard operator's error sets Lamont Cranston on the trail of a blackmailer. Margo Lane does not appear in the skit. It's unknown if other side-kicks or assistants appeared with the main honoree.

Guest duos did however, play various roles on Quick As A Flash as husband and wife teams. The Norths appeared more than a dozen times. According to the script of April 6, 1946 (provided by Nathan Berman), Pam and Jerry North discover a corpse in a phone booth in "The Compass Points To Murder." At the close of the program announcer Cy Harrice states that "... Alice Frost and Joseph Curtain may be heard as Mr. & Mrs. North on the Woodbury program." There is no mention of day or time, and certainly not of rival network NBC. This was in stark contrast to The Shadow which immediately preceded Quick As A Flash on Mutual and was, naturally, the recipient of...

Stage & Screen Stars
Although few in number as conveyed by Ken Roberts in his introduction of Hollywood actress Martha Vickers, the ladies earned well-deserved appearances, as is evident from the program of March 9, 1947. In this other extant program (courtesy of Jack French), Miss Vickers presents "The Case Of The Dangling Man" as investigated by private detective Phyllis Marlon. A take-off of Philip Marlowe, perhaps? However, Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled character would not begin his first radio series for three months. Miss Vickers does not precisely reveal the origin of the lavish Miss Marlon. Of course at the close of the program, listeners were encouraged to see Martha in her latest Warner Bros. release, "That Way With Women."

Source: www.mwotrc.com
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