Tom Kacich: When the bandleader had no band

Tom Kacich: When the bandleader had no band

Longtime television watchers — meaning those who remember when there were just four channels (or less) and programs were viewed in magnificent shades of black, white and gray — may remember Lyle "Skitch" Henderson.

He was the bandleader for "The Tonight Show" 50 years ago, and more, when the program was broadcast from New York City and when the host was either Johnny Carson or Steve Allen.

Henderson was an accomplished musician, born in England, whose biography stretched back to pre-World War II vaudeville, and later included a stint as a pianist and musical arranger for motion pictures. After the war, he was music director for both Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, when both were doing radio shows. In 1954, he successfully moved to television when he became Allen's band leader on "Tonight."

Even though he had a full-time gig on the nightly television show (then 90 minutes long), Henderson still toured with an orchestra on weekends, performing around the United States.

At least they were supposed to.

There was this time in Champaign, 50 years ago this month, when Skitch showed up but not his 14-member band.

They were to play a Saturday night show at the Champaign Armory for the Champaign Policeman's Ball.

About 1,500 people showed up, as well as Henderson. But at 8:30 p.m., 30 minutes before the show was to start, he started to worry.

"I told Sgt. Dean Dawkins that I was worried. I have three players who are always early and they weren't there," Henderson told The News-Gazette. Fifteen minutes later the frantic bandleader started making calls to booking agents and others who might know where the band, supposedly driving down from northern Wisconsin, might be. He could roust no one on that pre-cellphone night.

"It's the first time in my life that this has happened," Henderson said. "I'm at a loss to explain it. If it were foul play or an accident I'd have heard by now."

Henderson decided right there to reschedule the show for June 1 — how did he know everyone would be available three weeks later? — and said he would honor all the tickets and cover the costs.

"That's much better than making everyone wait around until 11 p.m. or midnight and completely ruining the evening," he said.

No one was ever able to thoroughly explain what happened to the band that night. One charming but unproven theory was that the band ended up in Urbana, Ohio. That was odd since the show here was to be in Champaign, not Urbana.

The official reason given weeks later by Henderson was that a "booking slip" for the band never made it throught the proper channels and the band never moved out of northern Wisconsin that Friday night three weeks earlier.

"The impossible happened," he tried to explain. "It's just one of those things that you think will never happen but does."

The turnout for the rescheduled show was good, the band showed up on time and everyone appeared to be happy, except perhaps Henderson.

That's show business.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at tkacich@news-gazette.com.

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