Henderson was educated at Juilliard and the University of Califonia. He was a student of Malcolm Frost, Roger Aubert, Albert Coates, Fritz Reiner, and Arnold SchÃ¶nberg.
He began his career as a pianist in American saloons. He was somewhere in the Midwest in the 1930’s, playing a hotel, when he encountered Judy Garland. He stepped in when her regular accompanist became ill. In 1937, he played on an MGM promotional tour with Garland and Mickey Rooney, and eventually joined the MGM music department.
In 1938 he played piano for “The Bob Hope Pepsodent Show” on radio. Two years later, Mr. Henderson enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. When the United States entered the war in 1941, he joined the Army Air Corps and became a fighter pilot.
After his discharge in 1945, he organized his own dance band and toured the United States. He worked with Bing Crosby on the radio and was also music director of Frank Sinatra’s “Light-Up Time” radio show. Crosby gave Skitch his nickname, a shortening of the phrase “sketch kid,” so called because of Skitch’s ability to sketch out a musical score in different keys.
Hired to be a D.J. on WNBC radio in New York, Henderson started doing nightclub dates in New York and took over as the master of ceremonies of “Talent Search” on NBC.
From 1961 on, he was the musical director for NBC Radio and NBC Television. He was a mainstay of the “Tonight” show, conducting the studio band and swapping stories with Steve Allen beginning in 1954 and later with Johnny Carson. He devised the “Stump the Band” routine, in which members of the studio audience would suggest obscure song titles and challenge the band musicians to play the tunes.
He was a guest conductor for a number of symphony orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic and the London Symphony, and orchestras in San Diego, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Tulsa and Stamford, Conn., and for quality pops orchestras in Virginia, Florida and Kentucky. He was also music director for the New York opera “Street Scene” and made many recordings.
Joining ASCAP in 1958, his instrumental compositions include “Skitch’s Blues,” “Minuet on the Rocks,” “Skitch in Time,” “Come Thursday,” and “Curacao.” and serving in World War II, he became music director for NBC Radio and NBC Television, leading the Tonight Show band.
In 1983, he founded the New York Pops, the city’s first permanent symphonic pops orchestra.
Henderson led hundreds of recordings, winning a Grammy in 1963 for a recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with the RCA Orchestra and Leontyne Price as the main soloist. His CDs included With a Song in My Heart: The Great Songs of Richard Rodgers, featuring vocalist Maureen McGovern and the Pops, and a duo recording with jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, on which Henderson played the piano.
Henderson was presented with the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal by the Smithsonian Institution in January; he received the Handel Medallion from the City of New York in 1997. The following January, a celebrity-filled gala was held at Carnegie Hall to honor him on his 80th birthday.
In 1972, Henderson and his wife Ruth, whom he married in 1958 moved to Hunt Hill Farm in New Milford, CT. They transformed the buildings on the 200-acres of pasture and woodland into a mecca for the arts and culture and the Silo Cooking School, Store and Gallery.
Mr. Henderson passed away at the age of 87 in 2005. He is survived by his wife, the former Ruth Einseidel Michaels; a son, Hans Henderson; a daughter, Heidi Maria Henderson; six grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
Ruth Henderson was born Jan. 12, 1930. She trained to be a physical education teacher in Germany but had established herself as a fashion model before coming to the United States in 1951.
In 1958, she married Skitch, then music director and conductor of The Tonight Show. For more than a decade, starting in the early 1960s, the couple operated four restaurants including the famed Daly’s Dandelion in New York City.
During that time, Ruth served as a director on the New York State Restaurant Association and was an original member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
She also served in New York City as chair of the Friends of City Center and as an active volunteer with the American Symphony Orchestra.
In 1968, Ruth and Skitch bought a farm in New Milford, CT. Ruth and her business partner and friend, Louise King, transformed the farm’s old barns and silos into a store, gallery and cooking school called The Silo, which opened in 1972. The cooking school has featured talent like Jacques Pepin and Guiliano Bugialli and the gallery has exhibited established artists like Joy Wolke, Peter Poskas and Wendell Minor as well as emerging artists.
Ruth served on the New Milford Parks and Recreation Commission, was a founding member of the New Milford Commission on the Arts and a founding director of The New Milford Bank and Trust from 1975 until its sale in 2000. She co-chaired for nearly two decades, the New Milford Hospital Foundation. In May 2002, she received the President’s Medal from Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, CT, for outstanding service to the university and to the community.
In 1983, the Hendersons established the New York Pops Orchestra, which is based at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Until her death, Ruth served as president of the orchestra, the largest independent pops orchestra in the United States. In 1991, Ruth started Kids in the Balcony to provide free tickets to students for Pops performances at Carnegie Hall. So far, more than 31,500 students have benefitted.
Ruth and Skitch co-authored, with Judith Blanick, two cookbook/lifestyle books based on their life, gardens and entertaining on the farm called “Seasons in the Country” and “Christmas in the Country” and they created Hunt Hill Farm Trust to preserve the farm’s land, buildings and archives. It is home to the Skitch Henderson Museum and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.
In 2004, Hunt Hill Farm Trust partnered with the Town of New Milford, the Trust for Public Land, Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust, CT Farmland Trust, the State of Connecticut and some private individuals to preserve the 130 acres surrounding the barns. The farm’s historic buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
During an event on the farm, Ruth once described the Silo barnyard as her favorite spot in the world, because she could remember her summers spent on a farm in Eichigt in Germany, near the Czechoslovakian border, which had belonged to her Great Uncle Edwin Krauss before World War II.
“I absolutely remember the animals - the smell of the stable - the haying - the meals all shared - family - farm help - children on a long table - bowls of simple food.”
She said that she and her husband wanted to preserve the heritage of the American farm and the simple rituals of farm life so future generations would keep in touch with the land “that nourishes us all and not with food alone.”
That day, Ruth described how she only returned once, with Skitch, to her home town of Plauen, which had been reconstructed after being destroyed by bombs in World War II. A couple of elders out walking recognized her.
“After all those years, I felt welcome and, that shows the soul of farm people - land people - keeping daily life in focus, making every day count.”
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations be made to Hunt Hill Farm Trust, 44 Upland Rd. New Milford, CT. 10019.
The Henderson American Music Archive contains materials collected by Skitch Henderson during his very unique and meaningful career. His personal and professional collection of rare originals, first edition and student â€œminiâ€ scores, and his list of research and performance scores create an impressive music library. The collection contains over 450 unique reel-to-reel magnetic and film tape recordings and approximately fifty other analog recordings of Skitch Henderson performing and rehearsing with such classical music icons as conductors Dmitri Mitropoulos and Maestro Arturo Toscanini, legendary pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, the universally acclaimed violinist Jascha Heifetz, Wagnerian soprano Lotte Lehmann, and â€œFirst Lady of Radioâ€ Kate Smith. It also includes an extensive representation of popular radio, music, film and television legends such as Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Spike Jones, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dorothy Lamour, Jane Mansfield, and Tony Bennett.
The Henderson American Music Archive is unique in its scope and depth, but it does not stand alone. The Archive is now part of the Hunt Hill Farm Trust, an Affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, and includes items such as the Steinway grand piano from Skitchâ€™s tenure at NBC, photos of Skitch with many of the artists he worked for and performed with, advertisements, publicity and other ephemera closely associated with this music collection. Many significant events in the history of American popular culture are documented by photographs, analog recordings, and scores. Together the music archive and the holdings of the Hunt Hill Farm Trust represent an incredible resource not only for scholars but for anyone interested in twentieth-century American cultural history.
The only remaining three-sheet from the Steinway centenary concert, which was most recently borrowed for the 150th Anniversary Steinway concert. The three-sheet, printed in three separate parts, appears to give Skitch separate billing, but in reality he was just very fortunate. During this concert, every one of the musicians listed had a Steinway to play on stage at Carnegie Hall.
An Arthur Anderson Bear carousel figure c. 1912, most likely manufactured in Bristol, England. It is one of four carousel animals in the studio that the Hendersons collected.
A painting of Mickey Mantle, which was done by the famous sports artist Leroy Nieman in 1966. A gift to Skitch from Ruth, the painting was also autographed by Mickey Mantle himself, â€œTo Skitch - My Best Wishes - Mickey Mantle 9.13.89.â€
A marble soda fountain, which was purchased by the Hendersons in 1972 from the Marbledale General Store. Made by the Combination Soda Fountain Co. in Decatur, Illinois, this example dates to post-1908 because of the labeled pump faucets for the syrup. (Skitch had a soft spot for soda fountains because it brings to mind visits he made to Ginger Rogersâ€™ house - which had in the â€˜playroomâ€™ a soda fountain instead of a wet bar. To be invited over for ice cream was a sign one met with the approval of Gingerâ€™s protective mother.)
In addition, photos, correspondence and other ephemera from: Dmitri Mitropoulis, Director of the New York Philharmonic, Irving Berlin, Arturo Toscanini and more!
The Skitch Henderson Museum is open by appointment for individuals and groups during Gallery hours (Wednesday through Saturday, 10:00 - 5:00 and Sunday noon - 5). Visitors should look for a Silo employee or Hunt Hill Farm Trust docent for admittance. For more information please call (860) 355-0300.
Would you like to help us further the goals of The Henderson Cultural Center and gain invaluable experience while having fun? Join us as an intern and earn credits toward your education.
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