You have questions. I try to have answers.
Q: In Salt Lake City in the 1970s-’80s, on CBS or NBC, words from the poem “High Flight” were used in the nightly sign-off. Can you tell me the name of the music that played with it?
A: I don’t generally answer questions specific to a single city, but yours reaches beyond Salt Lake City — and includes TV and literary history.
The mention of High Flight probably resonated with night owls and insomniacs around the country who remember when TV stations would actually go off the air for a bit in the wee hours, leaving behind static or a test pattern. Before the stations signed off, they would run something ceremonial like an image of a waving flag and the sound of The Star-Spangled Banner. And another sign-off standard was a reading, with musical accompaniment, of John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s poem High Flight.
You might know phrases from the poem like “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” which were used in then-President Ronald Reagan’s tribute to the crew of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 following its explosion. (Among the dead was Judith A. Resnik of Akron.) The poem itself is much older. Magee was a U.S. citizen serving as a Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot when he wrote the poem and sent it to his family in September 1941; his aunt had it published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that November.
Then, in December, just days after Pearl Harbor, 19-year-old Magee died in a collision with another aircraft. As reporters covered Magee’s death, the poem became more widely known, Indeed, the website of the Library of Congress — which has Magee’s original manuscript — says, “Within days of Magee’s death, ‘High Flight’ had been reprinted in newspapers across the U.S. Soon after, the RCAF began distributing plaques with the text of the poem to British and Canadian airfields and training stations. And before long, copies of the poem could be found in the pockets of many U.S., Canadian, and British fighter pilots.”
There have been audio recordings of the poem, among them one by Orson Welles; a 1957 movie inspired by it and a John Denver song adapted from it. Then there are the short films made by the Air Force showing different planes in flight to the accompaniment of music and readings of the poem. Those films were sent to TV stations and used as their sign-offs from the ’60s to the ’80s. In fact, a 2008 episode of Mad Men has a High Flight film playing on a TV set as Pete is in the middle of a late-night assignation.
It’s possible, then, that more than one TV station in Salt Lake City was using a High Flight piece as a sign-off, and that they used more than one version over the years. I have seen some mentions of the music, but not in an authoritative source. I also talked to Ray Haas, who has spent about 20 years researching High Flight and Magee for an upcoming book, and he has not tracked down the name of the composer either.
But you can still see some of the films on YouTube. And Haas sells a DVD collection of the films and of readings from the poem by Welles, Russell Crowe, John Glenn and others (You can find out more via www.highflightshop.com.)
Q: Is “Longmire” gone for good or will it be back next summer?
A: There will be a third season of the contemporary western, which is a big hit for A&E, although I have not seen a specific return date.
Q: The Hallmark Channel has been off AT&T U-verse since August 2010! Is there a possibility it will come back? AT&T customers are missing some good shows and AT&T does not seem to be concerned. AT&T will not respond to questions about the contracting or give an expected return date.
A: I have not seen anything indicating that the channel will return. In a statement on the U-verse website, AT&T says that its agreement for the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel expired. “Although we have worked on negotiating a fair agreement with the Hallmark Channels,” it adds, “the programming fees they are seeking are not reasonable.” Which simply means that U-verse did not want to pay it.
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Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter.