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Skitch Henderson, 87; First Bandleader for 'Tonight Show' and Founder of New York Pops

November 02, 2005|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

Skitch Henderson, the Grammy-winning conductor who became the first bandleader of "The Tonight Show," died Tuesday at 87.

One of the most popular band leaders of his day, he worked with crooners Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby before founding the New York Pops.

Henderson died at his home in New Milford, Conn., of natural causes, said Barbara Burnside, director of marketing and public relations at New Milford Hospital.

Originally from England, Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson moved to the United States in the 1930s, making his living as a pianist, playing vaudeville and movie music in Minnesota and Montana roadhouses.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 05, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Henderson obituary -- The obituary of bandleader Skitch Henderson in Wednesday's California section said he had worked with three hosts on "The Tonight Show." Henderson was bandleader for Steve Allen and Johnny Carson on the show, but not for Jack Paar.

As for the nickname "Skitch," in 1953 he told an interviewer for the Canadian publication "Saturday Night" that he had no recollection of where it came from.

"I don't know how that name started, or when, but somewhere along the line I was tagged with it and it stuck," he said. "I think it fits me and it has a certain amount of distinctive publicity value. When I first signed up as a conductor for the NBC Symphony Orchestra, I debated whether to change it, because it might be too undignified. But I decided to keep it. It's pretty well accepted and it's easy to spell."

In his teens, Henderson moved to Hollywood, where he worked as a pianist and musical arranger while attending UCLA.

Before World War II, he worked with such big name bandleaders as Glen Gray, Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw. When the war started in Europe, he left Hollywood and joined the Canadian Air Force. And when the United States entered the war in 1941, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force and piloted B-29s in the Pacific theater.

After the war, Henderson toured with Sinatra as his musical director. He accompanied Sinatra to New York for the "Lucky Strike Show" and later worked with Crosby on "The Philco Hour," both on radio.

In 1954, NBC hired him as the bandleader for Steve Allen's "Tonight," bringing him into American living rooms in the early days of television. Over the years, he worked with Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson.

Henderson was soon in demand as a conductor for major orchestras throughout the United States and abroad. In 1955 he began sporting his now-famous Van Dyke beard.

Always a devotee of serious music, in 1983 he founded and conducted the New York Pops Orchestra, a group of 70 musicians who played regularly with the New York Philharmonic.

"I watch people like a hawk. If I see boredom, I worry," said Henderson. "There's perfunctory applause, there's light applause, and then there's real applause. When it's right, applause sounds like vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce."


Associated Press contributed to this report.

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