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.