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Helen C. Lewis (1915 - ? )  

Helen Lewis CBS actress, chooses a valentine hat of roses and tulle (1942).






Birth: 1915 -
Height: "Petite"
Mother:  Helen E. Joslin (1885 - 1949 - ?)
Brother: John Hammond Lewis (1913-1949)
               killed in a car accident
Marriages:  
(1) J. David Penn (March 12.1943 - 1952 - )
(2) Roland Winternitz (aka Winters),  actor, "Charlie
     Chan" (1960 - 1964 -  )

Above right: Helen Lewis CBS actress, chooses a valentine hat of roses and tulle (1942)


Helen spent part of her youth on an Indian Reservation. Her (step)father Samuel Lees Joslin
(New Hampshire, March 21, 1879 - Reno, October 5, 1933) was a doctor. As Harvard Medical School student he started his practice in New England, but answered the call of the West and came to Nevada. In January 1932 he was seriously injured in a auto-train crash where he suffered severe bruises and an eye gash when his automobile collided with a boxcar. Believed to have been despond, because of ill health, on October 5. 1933 he fatally shot himself at his home on South Virginia street, Reno.

As a Junior at the University of Nevada Helen followed language and geology studies, but also enjoying extra-curricular activities -  she was prominent in Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and the
Dramatic Club.

In Reno's Little Theater she played the lead in Goodbye Again
(November,1935) "She was an excellent actress". Edwin S. Semenza recalls, "There was a cat that lived on the Reno High School stage, and it was very much interested in our production, and insisted on wandering out on the stage. We were all trying to keep that cat from getting onto the stage (this was the opening night performance). And nothing would do. When somebody’s back was turned, it just went trotting out onto the stage. She put the cat outside the door a number of times. One time, in a very dramatic scene, the cat came onstage again. So she picked him up, went over to the window and put the cat out. Now, this was supposed to be twenty-three stories above the street! It just brought down the most tremendous house!"

After one performance Max Reinhart came up to her and asked her to read a part of Midsummer Night’s Dream and subsequently to play Hermia in his traveling production. "After a night spent convincing my mother that I didn't want to finish college and be prepared for a teaching career, I departed the next day to join the show. To say I have never for one moment regretted the move is a strong understatement. I know that it's sound judgment to prepare yourself so that you have something to fall back on. In my case, however, I think it might have been disastrous, for had I finished college and obtained my teaching license, I'm sure there would have been a number of occasions in my struggles in the theatre when I would have felt forced to give up and 'fall back.' But since I had no secondary means of earning a living, when the sledding got tough, I merely gritted my teeth, ate less and hung on. For which I thank my lucky stars!"
In Hollywood she was cast as understudy for Olivia De Havilland in the Shakespearean fantasy. After only four performances De Havilland left the company and Helen Lewis took over. Leading parts on stages in Chicago, Milwaukee, St.Louis soon followed and she even turned down three Hollywood contracts. After the tour ended she returned to Reno and worked for a while with the Reno Little Theater.

In 1938 she arrived in New York with less than 25 dollars. "I had saved a little money and I lived at the Rehearsal Club which is endowed by rich women for young women stage hopefuls. I remember I barely managed to pay the rent and I was always hungry." There she met Marion Shockley one of her roommates. They both tried out for the role of Nikki Porter in The Adventures of Ellery Queen which went to Marion.

Helen Lewis and Robert Lynn. On TV she was seen in a light romantic comedy "The Noble Lord" is about a young girl (Helen Lewis) who pretends to be drowning so that she can attract the attention of a nobleman (Harold De Becker). He saves her and learns of her deception. Pretending to be his own valet, he tests her motives (also starred Robert Lynn) (April 1938).Her first pay-check there was for a one-and-a-half-minute "commercial". She went from theatrical agent to agent but didn't run into much luck. "I remember one producer looked at me and told me one of my eyes was smaller than the other. Then I thought, 'Now I've heard everything." She managed to exist by posing for fashion artists, handing out campaign leaflets on street corners and by working at Spaldling's.

On TV she was seen in a light romantic comedy The Noble Lord is about a young girl (Helen Lewis) who pretends to be drowning so that she can attract the attention of a nobleman (Harold De Becker). He saves her and learns of her deception. Pretending to be his own valet, he tests her motives (also starred Robert Lynn) (April 1938) (Picture right).

On radio she was heard in "The Affairs Of Anatol" part of Mercury Theatre On The Air (with Orson Welles) (Aug 22.1938), The Mighty Show (as Sally of the high wire) (1938-39), Aunt Jenny's Stories (CBS, 1939), Big Sister (as Sue Evans Miller) (1939) and The Road of Life (als Maggie Lowell).
"I also appeared in The March of Time and Cavalcade. And you might be amused to hear I was Miss Television of 1938. TV was exciting then. You saw new experiments tried out every day."

 "Miss Television 1938" posing in front of a camera - note the amount of lighting required! One of the receivers on display. "Miss Television 1938" looks on with interest.
Above left: "Miss Television 1938" posing in front of a camera - note the amount of lighting required!
Above right: One of the receivers on display. "Miss Television 1938" looks on with interest.


She was called in for television after an audition for regular radio work. She played television's first long-run show, a dramatic sketch that ran 14 performances. Lewis had this to say on television: "There is something very intimate about a camera gazing at you several feet away and all the world watching through its lens. Compared with stage and radio, I think television gives the actor a greater Incentive for emotional expression."

Lewis served as an M.C. (Mistress of Ceremonies) whenever the studio needed her. "M.C." jobs however, weren't frequent.  So in a 1939 interview she said "You don't get paid much in television. Nothing like what you get in radio. The hours and the way you work are much harder. I suppose I'm in television because I want to be among the first in something. The old pioneer spirit, I guess. There isn't enough television work to make a career of it yet." Which is probably why we continue to see Helen in radio and fashion gigs.

Then she found a satisfactory niche in radio and later in television. She did Ma Perkins (as Gladys Pendleton) for 15 years on radio.
As "Ma Perkins" she frequently was seen in TV commercials. A pretty woman with tawny hair, bright brown eyes and a trim figure and she is a delightful person.

In 1939 the drama series Kate Hopkins, Angel of Mercy, starring Helen Lewis, Peggy Allenby, Constance Collier, and Clayton "Bud" Collyer began a 2½-year run on CBS Radio (Clayton later married Marion Shockley). She also played the part of the dew fairy in performances of Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel (1939), had the leading role in The Pirates of Penzance, and has been soloist with the Schenectady Choral Club and took the lead in a production of the Light Opera Company, My American Cousin.

    She played in CBS' "Kate Hopkins, Angel of Mercy" (1940) opposite Clayton Collier.Helen Lewis models hair styles for a portrait in New York City. She has a role in the soap opera "Kate Hopkins, Angel of Mercy" (April 7, 1941)Helen Lewis models hair styles for a portrait in New York City. She has a role in the soap opera "Kate Hopkins, Angel of Mercy" (April 7, 1941)
Above left: She played in CBS' Kate Hopkins, Angel of Mercy (1940) opposite Clayton Collier (who would later marry Marion Shockley).
Above middle and right: Helen Lewis models hair styles for a portrait in New York City. She has a role in the soap opera Kate Hopkins, Angel of Mercy (April 7, 1941)


When Helen started rehearsing for an Office of War Information show she met J. David Penn. A whirlwind courtship — met in August, 1942, and married seven months later on March 12, 1943 in New York.  The ceremony was performed at a Fifth Avenue church in New York, where four years ago her brother, John Lewis, and Miss Jess Roy of Reno were married. The simple ceremony was attended by a few close friends and the attendants were Miss Alice Smart and Mr. Marty Elaine, who have been associated with the bride in radio work in New York.

David spent two-and-a-half years in the Army. Then at the close of the war he entered the State Department as a Special Press Advisor to the International Conference Division, a position he has held ever since. "It's a wonderful and really exciting job, but it is the reason we're so much and so often apart." Helen confided in a 1952 interview.

 

   CBS Radio actress Helen Lewis wearing a WWII U.S.Civil Defense Air Raid Warden outfit and testing an "Imitation Poison Gas Odors" kit. Helen Lewis , at CBS with studio lights (September 14, 1944. New York, NY).
Above left: CBS Radio actress Helen Lewis wearing a WWII U.S.Civil Defense Air Raid Warden outfit and testing an "Imitation Poison Gas Odors" kit. She portrays Gladys Pendleton in the soap opera Ma Perkins (Oct 16, 1942).
Above right: Helen Lewis , at CBS with studio lights (September 14, 1944. New York, NY).


For a short while Helen Lewis takes over the role of NikkiThere's a human interest story of friendship, loyalty - and special talent - When Marion Shockley was seriously ill for nine weeks, her roll of Nikki Porter went right on, with few listeners realizing that Marion herself wasn't at her usual place behind the mike. So in the fall of 1944 she played Nikki Porter in Ellery Queen (Picture right). Helen took over the difficult job of impersonating - not only Nikki - but Marion Shockley playing Nikki! Helen is a gifted mimic who has imitated Queen Elizabeth, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ginger Rogers and many others on The March of Time. In this case she had the special benefit of long, close friendship with the subject of her impersonation.

Her involvement in radio continued with roles in series as This Is Your FBI (1945 - 1947), Adventures of the Falcon (1946), Matinee At The Meadowbrook (1946), Dick Tracy (as Tess Trueheart) (1947), Mystery of the Week (1947), The Man Who Played God (1947).

On one or two occasions Helen has gone along on trips with her first husband David Penn. In 1947 she went along to the Inter-American Defense Conference held in Rio, where—aboard the USS Missouri—she had the happy experience of meeting President Truman and General Marshall. It was on that same trip that she met the late much-publicized Evita Peron, once the first lady of Argentina. Domestic life was less glamorous since they had a small, compact, but attractive apartment in Manhattan. For whatever reason the marriage didn't last.

 Promo for Radio's "Adventures of the Falcon" June, 1946.Helen Lewis with husband David Penn (1952).
Above left: Promo for Radio's Adventures of the Falcon, June, 1946.
Above right: Helen Lewis with husband David Penn (1952).


Roland Winters (famous for Charlie Chan) had already met Helen when both were in radio, he saw her first with Agnes Moorehead sitting on top of a grand piano playing jacks. Almost unknown nowadays but they were married in 1960.

When she and Winters travelled to Durban, South Africa in 1964 they played together (a rare event)  in Never too Late a comedy presented in several South African cities at the invitation of Theatre International of Johannesburg. In Summer they love to spend some time in their summer house in Martha's Vineyard.

When Roland died in 1989 only his first wife is mentioned in the obituary. Not much is known of Helen since 1964. 

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References
(1) 'Perpetual Honeymoon' Radio & Television Mirror, Nov 1952
(2) 'American Television Drama The Experimental Years', 1986
(3) 'Here is Television', Thomas H. Hutchinson , 1946
(4) 'A Candid Talk with a Television MC', John Durham, Times Daily,  Oct 26, 1939
(5) 'Life on the Air, March of Time', Life Magazine, 1938 Aug 8
(6) The Niagara Falls Gazette, Oct 7. 1938
(7) RUSC

Additional video & audio sources
(1) Old time radio downloads


This actor profile is a part of the Ellery Queen a website on deduction. The actor above played Nikki Porter in an Ellery Queen radio series.


Page first published on Sep 1. 201 
Latest update November 17, 2018
  

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