Skitch Henderson, founder of the New York Pops, long-time “Tonight Show” band leader and World War II aviator, died Nov. 1 at his home in New Milford, Conn. He was 87.
Born in England, Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson moved to the U.S in the 1930s, eking out a living as a pianist, playing vaudeville and movie music in Minnesota and Montana. He got his big break in 1937, when he filled in for a sick pianist touring with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. When the tour wrapped up in Chicago he used the original pianist’s ticket and went to Hollywood, where his career was launched.
Already a private pilot, Henderson joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940 and later, after becoming a U.S. citizen, the U.S. Army Air Corps. He served as a fighter pilot in the European and Pacific theaters.
His love of flying was life-long and passionate. He had a vast collection of aviation memorabilia at his home, which was something of an aviation museum. Until his death he was an active member of the Wings Club in New York.