Sky King

"Sky King" was a 1940s and 1950s American radio and television adventure series featuring Arizona rancher and aircraft pilot Schuyler (or Skyler) "Sky" King. The series was likely based on a true-life person, Jack Cones, the Flying Constable of Twentynine Palms during the 1930s.

Although it had strong cowboy show elements, King always captured criminals and even spies and found lost hikers using his plane.

King's personal plane was called the Songbird. Though he changed from one plane to another over the course of the show, the later plane was not given a number (i.e., "Songbird II"), but was simply known as Songbird.

He and his niece, Penny (and sometimes Clipper, his nephew) lived on the Flying Crown Ranch, near the (fictitious) town of Grover City, Arizona. Penny and Clipper were also pilots, though still relatively inexperienced and looking to their uncle for guidance and mentoring. Penny was an accomplished air racer and rated multiengine pilot, who Sky trusted to fly the Songbird.

The musical score was largely the work of Herschel Burke Gilbert.

Radio

The radio show, based on a radio story by Roy Winsor, was the brainchild of Robert Morris Burtt and Wilfred Gibbs Moore, who also created "Captain Midnight", first aired in 1946. Several actors played the part of Sky, including Earl Nightingale and John Reed King.

Like many radio shows of the day there were many "radio premiums" offered to listeners. On November 2, 1947 in the episode titled "Mountain Detour" the Sky King Secret Signalscope was used. Listeners were advised to get their own for only 15 cents and the inner seal from a jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter (produced by 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 you could also see around corners and trees. [http://members.cox.net/skykingtv/skcollect.html] 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 2 inches long. Other notable premiums included the Magni-Glo Writing Ring, which had a luminous element, a secret compartment, a magnifier, and a ballpoint pen all in the crownpiece of a "fits any finger" ring. The radio show ran until 1954, being aired simultaneously with the television version.

Television

The television version starred Kirby Grant as Sky King and Gloria Winters as his teen-aged niece Penny. Other regular characters included his nephew Clipper, played by Ron Hagerthy, and Mitch the sheriff, played by Ewing Mitchell. Unlike many "lawman-acquaintance" characters on other shows, Mitch was competent, intelligent and skilled. He was always coming to Sky for help, due to friendship and recognizing the utility of Sky's flying skills. Other recurring characters included Jim Bell, the ranch foreman, played by Chubby Johnson as well as Sheriff Hollister played by Monte Blue and Bob Carey played by Norman Ollestad.

Many of the storylines would parallel those used in such dramatic potboilers 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 was particularly adroit at falling into the hands of spies, bank robbers (the best place to hide stolen loot was apparently in the Arizona desert) and other n'er-do-wells. After taunting the doomed Penny and mocking her uncle, they would invariably leave her tied up at the bottom of an abandoned mine with (take your pick) a ticking timebomb, rapidly rising water, collapsing ceilings, or crackling flames licking at her chair. Inexplicably, the bad guys would leave Penny in easy reach of a radio transmitter that would not only be turned on but switched to the frequency used by Uncle Sky who at that very moment would be circling above in the Songbird with an anxious Clipper at his side. Working the device with her shoulders and tongue, Penny would shout out "Help, Uncle Sky, Help Help!" Sky would shoot a quizzical look to Clipper and proclaim, "That's Penny!! And it sounds like she's in trouble!" Uncle Sky would make a steep bank and fly over the bad guys who would be instantly thrown into a state of complete confusion. All looking upward in complete anguish and fear, they would fire up at the Songbird in vain before losing control of their escape vehicle and plowing into a culvert where, through another set of incredible circumstances, Sheriff Mitch would be waiting for them after being alerted by Uncle Sky. The action would then cut back to the ranch where the happy throng is reunited without any explanation about how they found Penny and got down the mine without all of them getting killed. It was never explained why anyone would have an FAA spec radio transmitter at the bottom of an abandoned mine or how it would work 300 feet underground but such was the glory of imagination in the mid fifties!

Like most TV cowboy heroes of the time, Sky never killed the bad guys, even though one episode had him shooting a machinegun into his own stolen plane.

Largely a show for kids, although it sometimes aired in primetime, "Sky King" became an icon in the aviation community. Many pilots (including American astronauts) who grew up watching "Sky King" name him as an influence.

Though plot lines were often simplistic, Grant (being a pilot) [ [http://members.cox.net/skykingtv/skykingt.html Who Was Sky King? ] ] was able to bring a casual, natural treatment of technical details which led 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 shown as intelligent and believable, rather than as two-dimensional. The writing was generally well above the standard for contemporary half-hour programs, though sometimes the acting was not.

The television show was notable for its dramatic opening with an air-to-air shot of the Songbird banking sharply away from the camera and its engines roaring, while the announcer proclaimed "From 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 dry lake, then pulling up into a steep climb as it went away. 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 to the left and turning away (similar to the opening shot).

Another memorable feature was Penny's radio calls from the ranch to Uncle Sky. They started like this: Penny- "Flying Crown to Songbird,Flying Crown to Songbird, come in Uncle Sky". Uncle Sky would then respond by asking Penny what she wanted. Penny would then say something like: "Uncle Sky, there are rustlers on the south forty." Then we would see the plane bank sharply as Uncle Sky would once again save the day.

The show also featured spectacular, low-level flying, especially with the later Songbird. Many shots showed the Cessna "down amongst the rocks and the trees," a way to show the speed of the plane as the desert flashed by in the background.

The television show began airing on Sunday afternoons on NBC between September 16, 1951 and October 26, 1952. These episodes were rebroadcast on ABC's Saturday morning lineup the following year November 8, 1952 until September 21, 1953, when it made its prime-time debut on ABC's Monday night lineup, before it aired twice-a-week in August and September of 1954, before ABC pulled the plug on it. New episodes were produced when the show went into syndication in 1955. The last episode, Mickey's Birthday, aired March 8, 1959. CBS began airing reruns of the show on early Saturdays 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 series have been released on DVD in North America. [http://skyking.com/]

Production notes

At the beginning of the television series, Sky flew a Cessna T-50 twin-engine "Bamboo Bomber." The plane was made of wood and eventually became unsafe to fly.

The best-known Songbird was a twin-engine Cessna 310B. There were actually four of these planes, one which crashed (killing the pilot) and three others, one of which had its markings modified for filming so that the numbers would match stock footage of the plane which had been lost. One of the other 310s was used as a camera ship, thus to match the flight characteristics of the plane being filmed as well as providing an additional backup plane, and the other was primarily used for promotional purposes (such as visits to air shows).

The Cessna T-50 and one of the 310Bs belonged to Kirby Grant, who did much of the flying himself. Legendary Hollywood pilot Paul Mantz flew the Songbird in other flying scenes.

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. [ [http://www.timepassagesnostalgia.com/&searchkeywords=sky+king+cereal+premium+figure&sis=1&rdir=1 (2) 1956 Sky King Character Nabisco Cereal Prize Play Set Toy Figures - TPNC ] ]

Though set in Arizona, the series was filmed in the high desert of California. The ranch house used for exterior shots of the Flying Crown Ranch is an actual home in Apple Valley, California. 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" studio.

While expensive for a kids' show, most of the budget went into aircraft, vehicles 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, actors actually did taxi aircraft rather than the more common (but time-consuming, thus costly) method of simulating movement by towing or dolly shots.

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 were seen in mirror-image.

The black-and-white film masked the actual paint scheme of the Cessna 310 Songbirds, which were done in a rich multi-color pattern of gold, bronze, black and white.

The show was filmed and shown during three periods as sponsors changed: 1951-52 (Derby Foods), 1955-56 and 1957-62 (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. There are 72 episodes available for sale on DVD.

The series Sky King ended production in February 1959. There were no additional episodes filmed after that date.

There has long been a rumor that a vault fire destroyed the only prints of 64 other episodes. This is incorrect, though. There were only 72 episodes produced in total. [http://www.skyking.com/about.htm] [http://www.epguides.com/SkyKing/]

Remarkably, Nabisco sold rights to the series to 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.

Regular cast

*Kirby Grant as Schuyler "Sky" King
*Gloria Winters as Penny
*Ewing Mitchell as Sheriff "Mitch" Mitchell
*Ron Hagerthy as Clipper

References

* [http://www.americanflyers.net/entertainment/skyking.asp American Flyers.net - Free "Sky King" episodes available for viewing] -- these are early episodes, featuring the T-50 Bobcat, mixed with later episodes (out of order)
* [http://www.skyking.com SkyKing.com - "Commercial website" - includes DVD boxed sets for sale]

References


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