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Grant as Sky King with Gloria Winters as his niece, Penny, and Ron Hagerthy as his nephew, Clipper
|Theme music composer||Milton Raskin|
|Composer(s)||Herschel Burke Gilbert|
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of seasons||4|
|No. of episodes||72|
|Executive producer(s)||Stuart E. McGowan|
|Running time||25 minutes|
|Production company(s)||Jack Chertok Television Productions|
|Original network||NBC; ABC,|
|Picture format||Black and white|
|Original release||September 16, 1951citation needed] – March 8, 1959[|
Sky King was an American radio and television series. Its lead character was Arizona rancher and aircraft pilot Schuyler "Sky" King. The series may have been based on a true-life personality of the 1930s, Jack Cones, known as the "Flying Constable" of Twentynine Palms in San Bernardino County, California, although this notion is unverified.
The series had strong Western elements. King usually captured criminals and spies and found lost hikers, though he did so with the use of his airplane, the Songbird. Two twin-engine Cessna airplanes were used by King during the course of the TV series. The first was a Cessna T-50 and in later episodes a Cessna 310B was used till the series' end. The 310's make and model type number was prominently displayed during the closing titles.
King and his niece Penny (and sometimes her brother Clipper) lived on the Flying Crown Ranch, near the fictitious town of Grover, Arizona. Penny and Clipper were also pilots, although they were inexperienced and looked to their uncle for guidance. Penny was an accomplished air racer, rated as a multiengine pilot, whom Sky trusted to fly the Songbird.
The radio show began in 1946 and was based on a story by Roy Winsor, the brainchild of Robert Morris Burtt and Wilfred Gibbs Moore, who also created Captain Midnight. Several actors played the part of Sky, including Earl Nightingale and John Reed King.
"Radio premiums" were offered to listeners, as was the case with many radio shows of the day. For example, the Sky King Secret Signalscope was used on November 2, 1947, in the "Mountain Detour" episode. Listeners were advised to get their own for only 15 cents and the inner seal from a jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter, which was produced by the sponsor, Derby Foods. The Signalscope included a glow-in-the-dark signaling device, whistle, magnifying glass, and Sky King's private code. With the Signalscope, one could also see around corners and trees. The premiums were innovative, such as the Sky King Spy-Detecto Writer, which had a "decoder" (cipher disk), magnifying glass, measuring scale, and printing mechanism in a single package slightly over two inches long. Other notable premiums were the Magni-Glo Writing Ring, which had a luminous element, a secret compartment, a magnifier, and a ballpoint pen, all in the crown piece of a "fits any finger" ring.
The radio show continued until 1954, broadcasting simultaneously with the first portion of the television version.
The television version starred Kirby Grant as Sky King and Gloria Winters as Penny. Other regular characters included Sky's nephew Clipper, played by Ron Hagerthy, and Mitch the sheriff, portrayed by Ewing Mitchell. Mitch, a competent and intelligent law enforcement officer, depended on his friend Sky's flying skills to solve the harder cases. Other recurring characters included Jim Bell, the ranch foreman, played in four episodes by Chubby Johnson, as well as Sheriff Hollister portrayed by Monte Blue in five episodes, and Bob Carey, portrayed in ten episodes by Norman Ollestad.
Many of the storylines would parallel those used in such dramatic pot-boilers as Adventures of Superman with the supporting cast repeatedly finding themselves in near-death situations and the hero rescuing them with seconds to spare. Penny would particularly often fall into the hands of spies, bank robbers, and other ne'er-do-wells.
Sky never killed the villains, as with most television cowboy heroes of the time, though one episode had him shooting a machine gun into his own stolen plane. Sky King was primarily a show for children, although it sometimes broadcast in prime time. The show also became an icon in the aviation community. Many pilots, including American astronauts, grew up watching Sky King and named him as an influence.
Plot lines were often simplistic, but Grant was able to bring a casual, natural treatment of technical details, leading to a level of believability not found in other TV series involving aviation or life in the American West. Likewise, villains and other characters were usually depicted as intelligent and believable, rather than as two-dimensional. The writing was generally above the standard for contemporary half-hour programs, although sometimes critics suggested that the acting was not.
Later episodes of the television show were notable for the dramatic opening with an air-to-air shot of the sleek, second Songbird banking sharply away from the camera and its engines roaring, while the announcer proclaimed, "Out of the clear blue of the Western sky comes Sky King!" The short credit roll which followed was equally dramatic, with the Songbird swooping at the camera across El Mirage Lake, California, then pulling up into a steep climb as it departed. The end title featured a musical theme, with the credits superimposed over an air-to-air shot of the Songbird, cruising at altitude for several moments, then banking away to the left.
The show also featured low-level flying, especially with the later Songbird, highlighting the desert flashing by in the background.
- Kirby Grant as Schuyler "Sky" King
- Gloria Winters as Penny King
- Ewing Mitchell as Sheriff Mitch Hargrove
- Ron Hagerthy as Clipper King
Notable guest stars
The television show was first broadcast on Sunday afternoons on NBC-TV between September 16, 1951, and October 26, 1952. These episodes were rebroadcast on ABC's Saturday morning lineup the following year from November 8, 1952 through September 21, 1953 when it made its prime-time debut on ABC's Monday night lineup. It was telecast twice-a-week in August and September 1954, before ABC cancelled it. New episodes were produced when the show went into syndication in 1955. The last new episode, "Mickey's Birthday", was telecast March 8, 1959. "Mickey" was a kinsman of Sky King portrayed in three 1959 episodes by child actor Gary Hunley. Thereafter, Sky King surfaced on the CBS Saturday schedule in reruns until September, 1966.
Syndication and DVD release
CBS began airing reruns of the show on early Saturday afternoons (at 12 pm Eastern/Pacific times; late Saturday mornings at 11 am Central/Mountain times) on October 3, 1959, and continued to do so until September 3, 1966.
All 72 episodes of the TV series have been released on DVD in North America, available from Sky King Productions. The CBS reruns were sponsored by Nabisco.
King originally flew a Cessna T-50 Bobcat, a twin-engine wooden-framed airplane some called the "Bamboo Bomber". The craft was a World War II surplus UC-78B, owned by legendary Hollywood pilot Paul Mantz and flown by employees of his Paul Mantz Aerial Services for filming the flying sequences. At least two other T-50s are known to have been used for on-ground and in-the-cockpit scenes. The T-50 was grounded after episode 39 due to rot in the wooden frame. Songbird I was de-registered by the FAA in March of 2018.
The best-known Songbird was a 1956 twin-engine Cessna 310B used in episodes 40 through 72. It was the second production 310B (tail number N5348A), provided by Cessna at no cost to the producers and piloted by Cessna's national sales manager for the 310, Bill Fergusson. Fergusson got the job after the motion picture pilot already selected was deemed unqualified to land the airplane at some of the off-airport sites required. Some months after a library of stock footage had been compiled, additional sequences were filmed using a different airplane. Cockpit sequences were filmed using the static test fuselage, also provided by Cessna. The original 310B was eventually destroyed in a crash at Delano, California, in 1962, which killed its owner-pilot. A 1962 310D took its place. A third 310, “Song Bird III,” was used for publicity photos. It is still flying today, making appearances at airshows in a modified Sky King livery.
As of early 2012, the Songbird's old tail number N5348A was assigned to a Cessna 320C (a turbocharged 310), owned by a corporation in Jacksonville, Florida.
A unique introduction featured the triangular Nabisco logo flying across the screen, accompanied by the sound of the Songbird flying past. Nabisco included plastic figures of characters from the show and the Songbird in packages of Wheat Honeys and Rice Honeys breakfast cereals.
The series was set in Arizona, but actually filmed in the high desert of California. The ranch house used for exterior shots of the Flying Crown Ranch is an actual residence in Apple Valley, California, although it has been extensively remodeled since its use as headquarters of the ranch. Other locations were shot in and around Apple Valley and the nearby San Bernardino Mountains, George Air Force Base, and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. Interior filming was done at the General Service studios in Hollywood.
It was expensive for a children's show, but most of the budget (about $9,000 per episode) went into aircraft, vehicles, fuel, and sets. This meant that some standard production methods had to be abandoned, giving the series a more realistic look. For instance, in some shots, pilot Bill Fergusson actually did taxi the 310B rather than the more common (but time-consuming and costly) method of simulating movement by towing or dolly shots. Plymouth provided several 1951 woodie station wagons for the series.
The budget issue also forced the frequent reuse of stock footage, sometimes flipped over to show planes banking the opposite direction, thus sometimes letters and numbers (especially wing and tail numbers) were seen in mirror-image.
The black-and-white film masked the actual paint scheme of the Cessna 310B, which was done in a rich multicolor pattern of Coronado Yellow, Sierra Gold, and White, with a gold interior.
The show was filmed and shown during three periods as sponsors changed: 1951–1952 (Derby Foods), 1955–1956 and 1957–1962 (Nabisco, though the copyright notices continued to name Derby Foods). It continued in syndication for years afterward, and was a staple on Saturday morning television into the mid-1960s.
Nabisco sold the series complete with all rights to Kirby Grant in 1959. In later years, Grant considered bringing back the series and even a "Sky King" theme park, but nothing ever happened on either of these projects. At least one writer has boilerplated a Sky King film, but none has been produced.
On May 20, 2008, Kirby Grant III confirmed that his father was a pilot and that he flew with him many times. This was confirmed by e-mail to Officer Glenn E. Kresge, United States Department of Defense Police (and by Kent Volgamore and by Guy Maher, article below). Grant, however, had been turned down for pilot training during World War II because of color blindness.
The Cessna T-50 used in the first episodes of the series was provided by Paul Mantz Air Services and flown by several pilots, and the Cessna 310B used in later episodes was provided at no cost by Cessna and flown by Cessna employee Bill Fergusson. In the article "310 B Goes To Hollywood", Mr. Bill Fergusson from the Cessna Corp. recalls how Kirby Grant flew the 310B like a real pro in no time. Thus, he was referring to the transition from the T-50 to the 310B. The newspaper article can be found at Kae Vee's Place.
Numerous references to Grant's flying skills came from co-workers, personal friends, and historian Kent Volgamore, who wrote the book for the Sky King DVDs. Volgamore states that Grant was a pilot and started his flying career in a Waco 1929. In a 2006 interview with Airport Journal, Gloria Winters recalled that both Grant and her late husband were pilots. Her husband was also a crop duster.
Grant and his wife Carolyn had three children. In the early 1970s, they moved from California to Florida. After he left show business, he became the public relations director for Sea World in Orlando, Florida.
Kirby Grant was killed in a car accident near Titusville, Florida, on October 30, 1985, at the age of 73. He was driving east on Florida State Road 50 to attend the launch of the space shuttle Challenger when he was forced off the road into a canal. Grant was ejected from his vehicle and, according to Florida Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Kirby, he was not wearing a seat belt. This was the Challenger's final successful mission. Mr. Grant had received an invitation from one of the astronauts on that flight and was also going to be honored by the astronauts for encouraging aviation and space flight. He is interred in Missoula, Montana.
- Freeze, Christopher. "A Real Life "Sky King"". EAA Sport Aviation. Experiment Aviation Association. Retrieved 24 March 2012.
- Godlewski, Meg."Flying Songbird III", General Aviation News (September 22, 2009).
- Sky King Memorabilia Archived 2007-10-22 at the Wayback Machine.
- "Sky King Productions official web site".
- Rob Word (December 12, 1976). "Kirby Grant as still active pilot has fond memories of Sky King". The Ledger. p. 46.
- FAA aircraft registration file, NC67832.
- Aircraft logbook, NC67832.
- Interview of Bill Fergusson, 1996.
- Article from Cessna Cessquire magazine, issue unknown.
- National Transportation Safety Board Aircraft Accident Database.
- FAA on-line database, accessible via http://www.landings.com
- (2) 1956 Sky King Character Nabisco Cereal Prize Play Set Toy Figures – TPNC.
- Cessna production record, s/n 35548; Cessna 310B sales brochure.
- Lips, Jerry. "From Out of the Clear Blue of the Western Sky Comes...Sky King", Airport Journals (January 2006).
- "Kirby Grant, `Sky King,` Killed In Auto Accident". The Orlando Sentinel. October 31, 1985.
- "Kirby Grant Hoon (1941–1985)". Family Album Stories. Missoula, Montana. Retrieved July 26, 2014.
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