Every time I see the jars of Peter Pan Peanut Butter on the grocery shelf I think of Sky King, not the TV show, but the radio show of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The radio show ran from 1946 to 1954, first as 15-minute continuing adventure serial Monday through Friday and later as a complete 30-minute story two or three times a week.
It was about 1947, a year after my family had moved to town from my grandmother’s small cotton farm in Northeast Mississippi. For the first time, we had an electric radio. At the farm, which did not have electricity, we had a Philco battery-powered radio.
To preserve the battery, my aunts and grandmother restricted the radio listening to their soap operas. I didn’t know that from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily, two radio networks—ABC and Mutual—broadcast adventure shows for youngsters.
The first radio shows I remember hearing during the adventure hour were Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates and Sky King. I got excited. I was well familiar with Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates.
My mother had started reading comic strips to me from the Memphis morning newspaper in the early 1940s. Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates were among my favorites along with Buz Sawyer.
But Sky King puzzled me. At first, I wondered if it were somehow related to King of the Royal Mounted, a comic strip created by writer Zane Grey.
But soon I learned that Sky was Schuyler King, a World War II Navy veteran who owned the Flying Crown Ranch near Grover, Ariz. (a fictitious town).
He had two airplanes—a propeller- driven plane, the Songbird, and a jet, the Flying Arrow. He had the care and custody of a young niece and nephew, Penny and Clipper. (They were younger on the radio show than their characters would be on the later TV show.) Sometimes the ranch foreman, Jim Bell, and his wife, Martha, joined in the adventures.
Sky and the youngsters were involved in all kinds of adventures, some of them involving cattle rustlers and other thieves and evildoers in the west but others involved spies, terrorists and other forces of evil in France, Ecuador and others parts of the world and country.
From time to time, the show offered premiums that consisted mostly of rings which played a role in catching the bad guys I recall ordering at least four premiums—a Magni-Glo Writing Ring, a Navajo Treasure Ring, an Electronic Television Premium Ring and a Sky King Detecto Microscope.
To get one of the premiums, you would send in a label from a peanut butter jar with a quarter. Sadly, I didn’t keep and preserve any of the premiums. (Most if not all of them are available today out there through eBay or elsewhere, but to get any of them or premiums from other shows, you would spend a great deal more now than their original costs.)
I believe these were the only radio premiums that I ever ordered. There were other Sky King premiums that I did not order. A friend of mine ordered a Sky King Teleblinker Premium Ring.
I always found most radio adventure shows more dramatic and exciting than their television versions that came later. Here is the dramatic lead-in to an exciting 30-minute Sky King episode that survives from April 17, 1951:
“Winging south, the Songbird is over border country, over the desert where the first cattle trails from Mexico crossed bringing into old Arizona the beginning of its cattle industry.
“Now the land is silent, sun-stricken, forgotten. But in the Songbird, Sky King is gazing down at a small red flicker which grows into tons of fire leaping out of the desert. Penny, Clipper and Jim stare down with unbelieving eyes.”
It is a ranch house burning. Penny thinks she sees a masked rider dressed in black riding a black horse.
As the story progresses, we are given the question: Has Todd O’Dell, who years ago owned a cattle empire, El Diablo, returned from death to unite his empire as he claimed he would? The once mighty empire has been broken into smaller ranches.
One of the current ranch owners is found unconscious and badly injured with a hoofmark on his face. The other ranch owners are frightened by what is happening.
Of the hundreds of episodes that were originally broadcast, only 15 have been found, including “The Mark of El Diablo.” The 15 can be found, listened to and downloaded from the Internet.
The announcer on the El Diablo episode and many others was a young fellow named Mike Wallace. Yes, he later gained much greater fame as an intrepid television newsman.
Several actors played Sky King during the run of the radio series. They included Roy Engel, Jack Lester, Earl Nightingale, John Reed King and Carlton Kadell.
While the radio show was still on the air, the television show was launched on NBC on Sunday afternoons on Sept. 9, 1951, running until Oct. 26, 1952. It ran on ABC on Saturday mornings from Nov. 18, 1952, until Sept. 21, 1953, and twice a month during August-September 1954.
Peter Pan dropped its sponsorship of the TV series after 19 episodes were filmed. Production was later resumed and a new sponsor, Nabisco, was found. Kirby Grant starred as Sky in all of the tv episodes along with Gloria Winters as Penny. Ron Hagerthy played Clipper in the first season but he and the character did not appear in the later productions.
The last of 72 shows that were produced was telecast on March 8, !959. CBS ran the series on Saturday mornings from Oct. 3, 1959, to Sept. 3, 1966.
Several episodes are on youtube.com and all of the episodes can be found on DVDs.
The Songbird in early episodes was a twin-engine Cessna T-50 Bobcat. It also was called the Bamboo Bomber. In later episodes, the plane was a more modern Cessna T-310B. The jet was in only one or two of the TV shows. Stock footage was used for its scenes.
The series was well produced and was popular with young viewers. It’s been reported that it led a number of the youngsters to choose aviation careers.
I interviewed Grant in Memphis on Aug. 3, 1973, when he was a guest star of the second Western Film Festival at the then Sheraton Peabody. I still have an audio recording of the interview.
Grant, who lived in central Florida at the time, was friendly and outgoing. He said he had acquired the films and all the rights to the show and characters from Nabisco. He talked optimistically about filming new color episodes with new younger actors playing Penny and Clipper.
He said the then greatly expanding cable television companies were interested in the series.
Also, he enthusiastically described plans for a Sky King guest ranch resort and residential development that he indicated was nearing construction in central Florida near Orlando.
Back in Memphis in 1975, for the Memphis Film and Nostalgia Festival, Grant continued to be enthusiastic about plans for new Sky King tv episodes.
However, the new episodes and guest ranch development never occurred.
On Oct. 30, 1985, Grant was driving to the Kennedy Space Center for what was to be the final successful launching of the space shuttle Challenger when he was killed in an auto accident near Titusville, Fla. A news report said one of the astronauts had invited him to the launching and that the astronauts had planned to honor him for his support of aviation and space flight. He was 73. During at least part of his time in Florida, he did public relations work for Sea World in Orlando.
Gloria Winters died on Aug. 14, 2010, In Vista, Calif., at age 78.
I don’t buy Peter Pan Peanut Butter much anymore, choosing instead the lower cost of the store brand or another brand if it is on special. But I still think it is the best peanut butter.