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John Kelly's Washington

Answer Man: Boy ISO Government Girl

By John Kelly
Monday, September 20, 2004; Page C11

P erhaps you, with the help of your readers, can solve a Washington mystery. In my new book, "Private Eyelashes: Radio's Lady Detectives," I chronicle the history of 44 network series that featured a feminine sleuth. I had to turn in my manuscript before I had solved the mystery of one of them, a series from the early 1940s called "Helen Holden, Government Girl." This series was the only network crime drama produced in Washington. I could find no surviving audio copies, original scripts, nor background information on the cast or crew. Perhaps some of your readers could help fill in the blanks.

Jack French, Fairfax

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Whenever Answer Man despairs that he has devoted his life to something that is wispy, fleeting, evanescent, whenever, in short, he feels that he has wasted his modest talent by toiling in a medium -- newsprint -- that is tossed in the trash each night or bundled by the curb each week, he consoles himself with one thought:

At least I'm not in radio.

This is not to slam radio, just to make the observation that it is something that, almost quite literally, goes in one ear and out the other, existing only for the instant that its invisible sound waves vibrate the ol' tympanic membranes.

This is especially true of old-time radio. Much of it has been preserved in various forms, but much remains almost mythically elusive. That's the case with "Helen Holden, Government Girl."

When he reviewed the show after its Dec. 9, 1940, debut, Post reviewer Richard L. Coe said Helen Holden's adventures were "representative of those of the many girls who seek employment, excitement and pleasure in Washington. And romance!"

So it was sort of the "Alias" of its time, if "Alias" was filmed in the District and Jennifer Garner had cut her teeth at Signature Theatre. But unlike "Alias," which can be Tivoed till the cows come home, no trace exists of "Helen Holden, Government Girl." And this drives such radio buffs as Jack French mad with desire.

Jack has been enraptured by radio crime drama since he was a boy. He thinks that might be one reason he embarked on a career as an FBI agent. Now retired, he's active in old-time radio circles and has just published a book on detective shows that featured female protagonists.

"Just what Helen Holden actually accomplished in her year on the air as a Government Girl is still unknown," he writes. "The cases she worked, the mysteries she solved, and the evildoers she may have put behind bars remain a puzzle for vintage radio researchers to discover."

He's hoping Answer Man's readers can help solve that puzzle.

I asked Jack what his "Helen Holden" Holy Grail would be.

"First would be if any of the relatives of this cast and crew have a transcription disk," he said. Transcription disks, which looked a bit like LP records, were audio copies of radio shows that could be sent out and played by stations across the country. But "Helen Holden" was performed live -- five days a week from Mutual Broadcasting's WOL studios at 16th and K streets NW -- so it's unlikely such disks were made.

It's more likely that cast members might have asked a studio engineer to record a show as it happened, making a sort of audio souvenir known as an aircheck.

"It was the custom in those days that on your first network show, you made sure you got at least one" aircheck, Jack said. "Then you could use this in auditions."

If there aren't any actual audio copies, Jack thinks printed scripts or scrapbooks full of publicity material or radio magazine articles might sit in a family member's basement or attic. "Those would be very helpful," he said.

Ed Walker, host of "The Big Broadcast," a show devoted to radio's golden age, which airs Sundays at 7 p.m. on WAMU-FM, remembers hearing "Helen Holden."

"I grew up with radio," said Ed, who was born without sight. "Since I don't see, radio was everything to me: comics books and everything."

Vintage radio shows continue to be discovered, and when they are inexpensive, cassette or CD copies are made available to buffs.

"It's like people [who] collect antiques," Ed said. "We happen to collect old radio shows."

Here's what Answer Man was able to discover from a search of The Post's archives: The original star of the show was Nancy Ordway, a local performer who seems to have been a bit of a debutante. (Her name showed up frequently in The Post's society column, "Top Hats & Tiaras.") She was the daughter of an Army colonel and lived on 35th Street in Georgetown. In 1949, she married Joseph Walton Marshall Haight and moved to New York.

Others in the cast included Nell Fleming and Robert Pollard, who were affiliated with the Blackfriars Guild theater troupe, and Rudolph Justice Watson. About halfway through the show's run, Ordway was replaced in the title role by an actress named Frances Brunt. Lee Warren was the show's juvenile lead and Tommy Johnson the organist. The show was written and produced by Dan Beattie.

Having retired from the FBI, Jack French is now an actor, working on local stages and occasionally in film and TV. I asked him if he'd ever done any radio serials.

"No," he said. "But I haven't because there aren't any. I was born 30 years too late."

Do you have any information on the whereabouts of "Helen Holden"? Or do you just have a question for Answer Man? E-mail answerman@washpost.com. Or write 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company