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Happy Birthday, Helen Mack!

In 1949, RKO re-released She (1935)—a motion picture based on the series of H. Rider Haggard novels and starring Randolph Scott and Helen Gahagan (as the title character).  She, a science fiction-themed film that the studio had hoped would enjoy the same success as the earlier King Kong (1933), lost money in its original run…but the re-release proved a bit more lucrative at the box office.  So much so that several movie executives actively sought to sign the other leading lady from the film, Helen Mack—born Helen McDougall in Rock Island, Illinois on this date in 1913—to a movie contract.  These “suits” had apparently not been paying attention: Helen Mack was doing quite well for herself at this stage of her show business career, notably as one of the few female director-producers in radio.

Before establishing herself as a prolific presence during Radio’s Golden Age, Helen Mack began her career in entertainment as a child actress.  She appeared in several silent features, notably Success (1923) and Pied Piper Malone (1924)—where she was billed as “Helen Macks.”  Mack also graced the cast of the occasional Broadway stage production, such as Neighbors (1923) and Yellow (1926).  Helen took on these assignments while attending NYC’s Professional Children’s School from 1921 to 1929.  (The school, founded in 1914, is still in operation today; its famous alums [along with Helen] include Sarah Michelle Gellar [Buffy the Vampire Slayer] and Holly Marie Combs [Charmed].)

Helen Mack’s hard work would pay off in a screen test with Fox Film in March of 1931. Three weeks later, she was officially employed on the studio lot in movies like The Silent Witness (1932) and While Paris Sleeps (1932—her first film as a leading lady).  (Helen also had a role in D.W. Griffith’s final film, The Struggle, released by United Artists in 1931.)  A move to RKO really expanded Mack’s career as she added titles like Sweepings (1933), Melody Cruise (1933), Blind Adventure (1933), and Christopher Bean (1933) to her celluloid resume.  One of her high-profile film roles was as the leading lady in The Son of Kong (1933), which (like She) also hoped to recapture the King Kong thrill (as a direct sequel).  Undaunted, Helen continued to make onscreen magic in features like The Lemon Drop Kid (1934), College Rhythm (1934), Four Hours to Kill! (1935), The Last Train from Madrid (1937), The Wrong Road (1937), and Mystery of the White Room (1939).

In the 1936 Harold Lloyd comedy The Milky Way, Helen Mack portrayed Harold’s sister (Lloyd is a milkman who becomes an unlikely boxer).  Classic film fans probably know Helen best from His Girl Friday (1940; as “heart-of-gold” hooker Molly Malloy), one of the most perfect of motion picture comedies.  By this juncture in her career, however, Mack had tied the knot with second husband Tom McAvity, who worked in radio as an executive with Lord and Thomas, a major advertising agency.  The actress decided to change her focus to the aural medium. Helen was no stranger to radio, having previously worked for Arch Oboler and appearing on such shows as Hollywood on the Air and The Lux Radio Theatre.  She beat out two hundred actresses to win the role of “Marge” on the popular radio soap Myrt and Marge after the original Marge, Donna Damerel Fick, had an untimely death.  (Fick’s mother, Myrtle Vail, continued to play “Myrt.”)  Mack said goodbye to her film career with 1945’s Divorce and Strange Holiday (a movie director by her friend Oboler).

Helen Mack had a very good friend in writer Aleen Leslie, who began her movie career as a scribe in Columbia Pictures’ short subjects department (The Nightshirt Bandit [1938]) before graduating to features like The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) and The Stork Pays Off (1941).  Aleen wanted to create a radio show for her chum, but by the time the production was ready to take flight Mack had to bow out due to her pregnancy.  The show went on as A Date with Judy, a sitcom that premiered over NBC on June 24, 1941 as Bob Hope’s summer replacement.  Helen might have missed out playing the title role that would be essayed at various times by Ann Gillis, Dellie Ellis, and (most famously) Louise Erickson but she got a nice consolation prize: she became director-producer of the program when husband Tom asked her to take it off his plate (he had his hands full with Judy’s competitor, Meet Corliss Archer, and Joan Davis’ show).

While overseeing A Date with Judy, Helen Mack was also in charge of The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show—a spin-off from Fibber McGee & Molly.  With the untimely death of star Hurt, a situation comedy starring Agnes Moorehead, Calamity Jane, was the quick replacement (and was also supervised by Mack).  Jane lasted three weeks before being nudged out by The Amazing Mrs. Danberry, a sitcom that also featured Aggie as star and Helen as director. (In this one, Moorehead played a widow who assumed responsibility for her late husband’s department store.) In the fall of 1946, Mack was the director on The Affairs of Ann Scotland—a crime drama (whose titular female character was described as a “private eyelash”) starring future What’s My Line? panelist Arlene Francis.  After A Date with Judy forfeited its sponsor, Helen took over as director of Alan Young’s radio show.  Throughout the 1940s, Helen Mack had a claim to fame as radio’s only female director…and she was good, too. Her work on Judy and Beulah netted her recognition from Radio Life in April of 1946 with one of their Distinguished Achievement Awards.

With the start of the 1950s, Helen Mack continued to work in radio—staying true to her sitcom roots by directing the show that once employed her husband, Meet Corliss Archer.  But she also expanded her range with assignments on The Man from HomicideThe Adventures of the Saint, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective.  Mack dabbled a little in television, serving as a script supervisor on the 1955 series Homer Bell and later contributing teleplays to the likes of Daniel Boone and Julia.  Helen tried her hand at writing stage plays—one of which, Mating Dance, was written under her married name, Helen McAvity, and had a very brief Broadway run.  Mack’s husband Tom died in 1974, and Helen moved in with her friend Aleen Leslie shortly afterward.  She succumbed to cancer in 1986 at the age of 72.

Here at Radio Spirits, you can celebrate Helen Mack’s natal anniversary by checking out our new The Bob Bailey Collection, where you can hear Mack co-star with Bailey in an episode of To The President titled “Miracle in 3-B.” You may also consider our collections of Richard Diamond, Private DetectiveDead MenHomicide Made Easy, and Mayhem is My Business—all of which feature her work “behind the scenes.”  Helen also directed the pilot episode (with Charles McGraw) of The Man from Homicide, and one of her outings from The Adventures of the Saint (“The Horrible Hamburger”) is available on Great Radio Detectives.  Mack’s signature series, A Date with Judy is represented on Great Radio Comedy and our newest mirth compendium, Great Radio Sitcoms.  Happy birthday, Helen!

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