Interviewed By: Dianna Freeze
One day, as Gloria Winters was in her car, a song came on the radio that caught her completely by surprise. In “Pencil Thin Mustache,” Jimmy Buffett reminisced about the past, when he was “bucktoothed and skinny,” and sang of the memory of “writin’ fan letters to Sky’s niece Penny.”
“I thought, ‘That’s me!” Winters exclaimed. “I was driving along the main street of Vista, on my way to the bank. I heard this music, and was tapping my foot–not accelerating though. I pulled into the driveway and sat there. I got the biggest kick out of that! It’s not every day that someone sings a song to you!”
In December 2004, three decades later, Carson Cooper, from Buffett’s Radio Margaritaville, located “Penny” with help from Airport Journals, and requested she come on the air. Excited to talk about “Sky King,” the television series that affected so many lives, Winters was happy to oblige.
Based on a popular radio show, the TV show first aired on NBC in 1951, in black and white. Each Saturday morning, it began with the familiar opening of “From out of the clear blue of the western sky comes…Sky King.”
Kirby Grant, a real-life pilot, played Schuyler “Sky” King. The wealthy gentleman rancher helped the sheriff of Grover, Ariz., catch bad guys by tracking them down in his airplane, “Songbird.” Early in the series, “Songbird” was a Cessna T-50. Later, it was a twin-engine Cessna 310B.
Sky King’s beautiful teenaged niece, Penny, lived with him at the Flying Crown Ranch, and often helped Sky and the sheriff in their efforts. It was also common for her uncle to come to Penny’s rescue, since on various occasions she found herself in the hands of bad guys.
The early years
When Winters describes her acting career, she says every day was “playtime.”
Winters had been acting for several years before landing her role on “Sky King.” She grew up in the San Fernando Valley of the Los Angeles area, but later moved to Hollywood with her family. She said that when she was little, being a child star was “the thing to do.”
“A friend of my mother’s said, ‘They’re having interviews at Twentieth Century Fox. You should take Gloria over there,’” she remembered. “I made my debut when I was about 5.”
“I came running out to Shirley Temple, and she was supposed to help me, like I had just gone to the little girls’ room,” she remembered. “I thought about it a little later; it was rather risqué! They got a great close-up of my fanny.”
Winters also did a Pete Smith movie.
“I had to come down on a slide, wave at a little black Scottie dog and fall down on the grass,” she said. “The little dog was to come on cue and lick me on the face. They got the dog to do that by putting ice cream on my face. It was played in all the schools, because it was a Pete Smith specialty.”
As a child, Winters also did an “Our Gang” feature, appeared in some stage shows and attended classes in tap dancing, becoming an accomplished singer and dancer. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, she was cast in various Westerns, including small parts in the movies “El Paso” and “Driftwood” and damsel-in-distress roles in TV series such as “The Lone Ranger” and “The Range Rider.”
In 1949, she was cast in “The Life of Riley.” Jackie Gleason played Chester A. Riley, an aircraft plant employee, in the first 26 episodes (1949-50) of the TV series.
“William Bendix, who played Riley on the radio series, couldn’t get out of his contract at first,” Winters said. “So Jackie Gleason played him at the beginning.”
Winters was cast as Chester Riley’s daughter, Babs. The part prompted her mother to make a big decision.
“That was the beginning of a lot of television shows,” Winters said. “I remember my mother saying, ‘Well, we’re going to have to buy a television set now.'”
“The Life of Riley” won an Emmy in 1950 for “best film made for and viewed on television,” beating “The Lone Ranger” and “Your Show Time.” When Bendix replaced Gleason, some cast members stayed on, such as Rosemary DeCamp, who played Chester Riley’s wife, Peg. Others departed, including Winters.
She made her TV singing debut on “The Gene Autry Show” in 1951, in an episode titled “Warning! Danger!”
“I loved working with Gene,” she said. “I liked his work. He was an opportunist. That’s why he was such a good businessman and so successful in everything he did. If you had a talent, he wanted it to be used in the film. I was supposed to call out a warning to him as he walked down the street in this deserted town. But then he heard I was a singer, and asked me to sing the warning.”
Besides being cast in films including “Gambling House,” starring Bendix and Victor Mature, in the early 1950s, Winters also won the part of Penny in “Sky King.” Still today, it’s hard for fans not to think of her as Penny.
“It’s been great all these years,” she said. “I’ve received tons of mail from admirers.”
Many of those letters have been from pilots who say that “Sky King” inspired them to learn to fly.
“Before that show, TV had no real aviation shows to impress you as a young person,” she said. “After that, a lot of people became pilots, from every part of the world. I get fan mail from so many places, saying that the series was the reason they became pilots.”
Winters recalled a pleasant surprise she had on a memorable commercial flight.
“After we’d taken off, the pilot came on the intercom and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there’s someone onboard who is responsible for me becoming a pilot,’” she remembered. “He introduced me from the cockpit as Sky King’s niece, Penny. Later, people started coming up, wanting pictures, and told me they remembered the show–after all those years!”
Winters said that being the only woman on the set had certain consequences.
“I always got along with the crew and anybody that was around on the set,” she said. “Once, for a scene, the crew tied me up. As soon as they got that shot, they left the set and called ‘lunch.’ They said they’d be back in about an hour. I was yelling and screaming at them, but they left me tied up. But that was OK. It meant they loved me. You can’t be the only girl on the set and not get teased.”
The petite actress laughingly recalled other struggles, like having to constantly climb into the saddles of horses that were always too tall.
“They’d always give me the tallest horse in the world,” she laughed.
Winters revealed that although Grant was a pilot, the actors never really went up in the aircraft.
“They didn’t have enough insurance, and they didn’t want to lose their star,” she said. “In the air, when you saw me talking to Sky King, we were never in the plane. We’d be in the mock-up.”
She recalled famed stunt pilot Paul Mantz served as aerial advisor on the series and piloted “Songbird” on early shows.
“The first plane could hardly get off the ground,” Winters said of the Cessna T-50. “Studio people don’t really go to town and try to give you the best. But somehow, Paul Mantz got it off the ground for the first couple of shows. Later, they lent us a brand new Cessna 310.”
Winters and Grant, who was also a song-and-dance person, spent a lot of time together in the off-season as well. They traveled the state fair circuit around the country as headliners, performing as a team.
“He had a lovely wife and two wonderful children,” Winters said. “He enjoyed going out and meeting people, and so did I. It was a lot of fun traveling all over. People would come up and hug us. They treated us just like one of the family. Kids would come up and say, ‘Why don’t you come to my house? My mama will fix you a good dinner.’”
Winters has an especially wonderful memory of the Texas State Fair.
“We were signing autographs,” she remembered. “The line went around the arena. Along came Gus Grissom, Pete Conrad, Alan Shepard and Wally Schirra, with their children. They were the heroes of that time, and they were standing in line, behind all these children. They could have broken rank.
“In fact, somebody said, ‘I’m going to go and bring them ahead.’ He went back and talked to them and they said they wouldn’t go ahead of the kids. When they came up, and we autographed the programs for them, that was probably the biggest thrill I ever had. How often do you get together with astronauts?”
After Sky King
The last episode of “Sky King” was filmed in 1962. Following that, Grant toured with the Carson and Barnes Circus until 1970, as a featured performer.
“He was one of the most likable people in the world,” Winters said. “He was always smiling, everybody’s friend.”
Grant died in 1985 in an automobile accident while on his way to watch a launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger at Cape Canaveral. He was to be honored by the shuttle astronauts for his achievements in encouraging aviation and space flight.
“He was really looking forward to that,” Winters said. “Another car came up next to him while he was on the causeway, and caused him to go off of it. He was knocked out and drowned in about three feet of water. Two physicians saw the whole thing, waded out there and pulled him in, but they couldn’t revive him.”
Over the years, Winters has also remained friends with Ron Hagerthy, who played Clipper King in the first few years of the series.
“He lives down in Orange County,” she said. “I see him every Christmas, at least.”
In the early “Sky King” years, Winters continued to make feature films. She played another Penny in the comedy, “Hold That Line” (1952), starring the Bowery Boys, and was cast in “She Couldn’t Say No.” TV appearances included roles in “The Roy Rogers Show,” “Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok,” “General Electric Theater,” “Stories of the Century” “Brave Eagle,” “Judge Roy Bean,” “Four Star Playhouse,” “Sheriff of Cochise,” “Richard Diamond, Private Detective,” “Frontier Doctor” and “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.”
After “Sky King” wrapped up, Winters retired from show business. The fan mail she received throughout the years wasn’t the only constant reminder of her years on the series. Beyond offering her adventure, the series also provided romance. Her relationship with Dean Vernon, a sound engineer on the series, turned into a marriage that lasted for more than four decades.
“We were on location up in one of these western towns,” she said of how the courting began. “Dean asked if he could sit with me, and I said, ‘Oh, sure.’ That was the beginning of something special. We had a wonderful life together.”
Vernon initially thought he wanted to be a rancher.
“All the big movie stars had bought ranches,” Winters said. “Bing Crosby had a ranch, and Bob Hope invested in land. They were smart. But how could a young guy going to college buy a piece of property or a ranch like that?”
While attending Cal Poly, Vernon, who was a pilot, did crop-dusting to make extra money. He also earned extra money as a rodeo cowboy, and later, a rodeo clown. Although he wanted to be a rancher, he eventually decided it “wasn’t in the cards.” After leaving Cal Poly, he entered the motion picture business.
“One of his first sound jobs he was called on to do was over at Columbia,” Winters recalled. “It was ‘Guys and Dolls.’”
Dean sold his plane shortly before he and Winters got together. But she heard plenty of stories about the plane he rebuilt for himself.
“It was an older Cessna,” Winters said. “He took it down to zero, just a skeleton, and rebuilt it. He took it up with two parachutes on. I told him that if I had known him then, I wouldn’t have gotten so serious with him. He was so crazy!”
In the late 1980s, Vernon was nominated for an Emmy for his work on a “Columbo” TV movie. His other credits include “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” and the Johnny Whitaker version of “Tom Sawyer.”
For years, the couple lived in the San Fernando Valley.
“We had a lovely home out there,” Winters said. “We had a large piece of property, and Dean always liked to garden. But the heat out there can be unbearable. You just stopped doing a lot of things if it was a really hot summer.”
When Vernon retired, they decided to move. Close to a decade ago, after a little research, they moved to their own Camelot–Vista, Calif., in San Diego County.
“Vista is documented by the government as having the finest weather in the country,” Winters said. “And it’s true. The weather is lovely here. It’s just right. Once in a while, you’ll get a hot day, but you always get a very special Vista breeze.”
Vernon died Aug. 3, 2001, at the age of 75.
“He was well liked by everybody,” Winters said. “He always had a quip.”
The couple never had children, but that doesn’t mean they were alone. “Happy,” a fun-loving German shepherd, has been a fixture in the Vista home for the better part of a decade.
Winters continues to enjoy her life in Vista.
“It’s a really nice piece of property, and I treasure my lovely home,” she said. “I have good neighbors and a wonderful view.”
As an actress cast in various westerns, Winters received several honors within the genre. She received the Golden Boot Award in 2002 and her likeness is on display at the Autry Museum.
“They have models of western stars in this big glass case, wearing the clothes that were worn on the shows,” she said.
It’s thrilling to Winters that somewhere in the world, “Sky King” is always playing. She smiles when she recalled friends who came back from China and told her they saw her on TV there, “speaking Chinese.”
Although she doesn’t like to leave “Happy” alone, Winters does often consent to speaking engagements.
“I get up and wave and talk and answer questions,” she said. “I try to accommodate everybody, because I’m having a good time, and I have very good memories. I’m lucky in every way. I can’t complain at all. My life is great.”
From Out of the Clear Blue of the Western Sky Comes…Sky King”
By Jerry Lips
I remember as a boy, getting up on Saturday mornings to watch my favorite television shows. Among them were “Fury,” the story of a horse and the boy who loved him, “The Lone Ranger” and other black and white half-hour adventure series, including my favorite, “Sky King.”
Based on a popular radio program, “Sky King” first aired on NBC in 1951, and then moved to ABC in 1952. Schuyler “Sky” King, a formal WWII Naval aviator, lived on the Flying Crown Ranch in Arizona, with his niece, Penny, and in the earlier shows, his nephew, Clipper. The three of them always had an exciting time, saving the good and foiling the bad guys. Somehow Sky King’s plane, “Songbird”–a twin-engine Cessna T-50 in earlier episodes and a Cessna 310B in later shows–was always involved, watching what was going on from above or getting somewhere just in the nick of time.
Kirby Grant played Sky King. Born in Butte, Mont., Nov. 24, 1911, Kirby Grant Hoon Jr. was interested in music from an early age. His skill as a violinist and a soloist won him a scholarship to the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Upon completing his formal education, Grant was involved in performances on radio, on stage and in movies. He did recordings for established stars including Bing Crosby. The crooner wasn’t good at reading music, so Paramount Studios hired Grant to learn the songs, record them with the studio orchestra and then teach Crosby the songs for “Pennies from Heaven.”
Kirby’s flying career began in a 1929 Waco. During the early 1940s war effort, Grant made repeated attempts to serve his country as an aviator, but his color blindness destroyed those hopes. Upon his military release, he was placed under contract to Universal Studios. Grant started his career under the name of Robert Stanton, and made more than 50 pictures between Universal, Columbia and Allied Artists.
When casting began for “Sky King,” Grant’s agent approached Kirby with the part and set up a screen test. Grant was notified that he had been selected several weeks later.
Seventy-two episodes were filmed. The episodes were filled with excitement and danger. The fantastic flying sequences made the series a hit.
Grant and his wife, Carolyn, had three children. Grant was killed in a car accident on Oct. 30, 1985, while on his way to watch a launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger at Cape Canaveral. He was to be honored by the shuttle astronauts for his achievements in encouraging aviation and space flight.
Although Kirby Grant is gone, the real “Sky King” lives on. As he and other cast members touched the lives of those who watched the show, so will those they encouraged to become pilots touch the lives of those around them.
To revisit “Sky King,” a boxed set of all 72 episodes is available on DVD at [http://www.skyking.com], or you can acquire individual volumes of four episodes or the entire collection on VHS at www.SkyKing.com.