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.
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.
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.
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