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Henderson Leads A Pops Program

November 21, 1986|MARC SHULGOLD

Being back in Los Angeles refreshes many old memories for Skitch Henderson--not all of them happy.

"Just driving through here last night, I started thinking about all those supermarket openings I did in the '40s," he says without a trace of nostalgia.

Patience and a lot of hard work have paid off for the 68-year-old conductor, who leads the Glendale Symphony in a pops program at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Saturday night.

Though he received his formal musical training from such "serious" musicians as Arnold Schoenberg, Albert Coates and Fritz Reiner, the English-born Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson found his metier--not to mention that far more catchy stage name--in the world of show biz. Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra both suggested he drop his stuffy moniker in favor of Skitch, but it was Arturo Toscanini, of all people, who gave the conductor his big break.

"When I assumed the full-time music directorship at NBC (at Toscanini's recommendation in the '50s), the position gave me an image I could never have put together." Soon, he joined Steve Allen on "The Tonight Show" in New York City, heading the house band--a post that gave the goateed conductor wide recognition during the early Johnny Carson years.

"Whatever I did, I always maintained a level of integrity, even on 'The Tonight Show,' " Henderson stresses, pointing to a TV appearance by pianist Van Cliburn before he went on to glory at the Tchaikovsky Competition. The quality of music-making was always top-notch, he continues. "Everyone in the orchestra was a classic player from the big band school."

In 1972, Carson and crew moved to Burbank, and Henderson followed, but only for a few months. "My life and my family were in New York," he says. "The city has always been my lucky star." A nice sentiment, but not entirely accurate. In the '50s, Henderson had made an ill-fated attempt at success in the then-burgeoning world of symphonic pops.

Arthur Fiedler, the godfather of the genre, had served as a role model for Henderson in those days. "We had talked quite a bit back then, and I told him my plans to lead pops programs with the New York Philharmonic. He threatened me with extinction."

As things turned out, Fiedler needn't have worried. "Those concerts were conspicuous by the absence of an audience," Henderson says with a chuckle.

Still, the same year he left "The Tonight Show," he took a gamble: Quietly, he registered the name New York Pops. And waited.

In 1983, Henderson's time finally arrived. The orchestra conceived on paper was finally born. Currently it enjoys such success that in future seasons the number of concerts will be doubled. Henderson has since taken posts with pops orchestras in Virginia and Florida. Might the Glendale Symphony--currently searching for a music director--be added to the fold?

"Right now, that's the last of my worries," the conductor replies.

Henderson will lead the Glendale and Phoenix Chorale in a program dominated by the work of Oscar Hammerstein, "before Richard Rodgers. He wrote some incredible lyrics then, covering the whole spectrum: 'The Last Time I Saw Paris,' 'When I Grow Too Old to Dream.' "

As he rattles off his busy schedule, Henderson pauses briefly to ponder a question about retirement to his farm in Connecticut. "I'm lucky in a way. I enjoy, honestly, 80% of my concerts and, as you know, this is not a profession of total ecstasy.

"I'm scheduled to appear at the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Hall in 1992. After that, I'll probably go to my tractors." For total retirement? "Oh heavens no," he responds quickly. "I could never do that."

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