When Learjet was called Hollywood East

By Al Higdon
Former Beech and Learjet Communications Executive
Cofounder of the Sullivan Higdon & Sink Ad Agency

Television personality Johnny Carson, seated at Bill Lear's desk, with Al Higdon looking on, hosted an impromptu press conference with members of the Wichita media corps in 1966.

With their personalities and having earlier been based in Los Angeles, Bill Lear and his wife Moya attracted famous people like bees to honey. Moya's added magnetism was in her heritage as daughter of Ole Olsen of the famed vaudeville team of Olsen and Johnson.

This thread to the worlds of show business, politics and athletics in 1962 led to the unlikely non-glitzy town of Wichita KS. Here, the Lears brought their traveling road show to set up shop to build the world's first jet airplane designed specifically for business.

Actress Susan Oliver was an active private pilot who unfortunately died at an early age. She's shown here with Al Higdon while attending Learjet flight school.

One-by-one and two-by-two they came, in seemingly a never-ending line, to visit with the Lears and to touch this incredible machine that would soon make history.

Because it was our job in public relations to attract as much favorable publicity as possible to the product and its manufacturer, with permission from the visitors, we called out the local Wichita media to meet, interview and photograph virtually each of these luminaries.

Early-on, the local press corps dubbed the Lear Jet plant "Hollywood East." And we didn't shy away from this identity.

From the entertainment world came the likes of Fred Waring, band leader of "The Pennsylvanians;" Milton Berle, who was "Uncle Milty" of television; Frank Sinatra, owner of one of the early Learjets; Danny Kaye, movie star and pilot who for a time was named a company vice president by his friend Bill Lear, and who flew a Learjet on a nationwide tour raising funds for UNICEF; George Peppard, also an actor and a pilot who attended Learjet flight school and flew with company pilot Hank Beaird on a multi-city tour promoting his WW I film "The Blue Max;" singer Andy Williams and composer Henry Mancini; singers James Brown and Bobby Rydell; entertainer John Denver, who was also a Learjet owner; television personality Johnny Carson; movie producer Blake Edwards; and a dozen or so others.

Famed World War II "Doolittle Raider" leader Gen James Doolittle was flown via Learjet to Wichita for a speaking engagement in 1969. He's being greeted by Al Higdon in the photo. Behind Doolittle is Malcolm Harned, Learjet vp and general manager.

The world of sports was represented by ex-heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano, baseball hall of famer Mickey Mantle, and golfers Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, of course, also a Learjet owner.

News personalities stopping by on different occasions included ABC aerospace reporter Jules Bergman, anchor Peter Jennings, and correspondent Howard K Smith. Political representation had a definite GOP bent, including later-to-be President Richard Nixon and Arizona Senator and once Presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater, a pilot, but also included Senator and former astronaut John Glenn.

Long-time US Senator from Arizona and 1-time Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater, was an experienced pilot and committed champion of general aviation. Shown with Al Higdon.

Each of these well-known guests generated an air of excitement through the facility, as most were ushered on tours and many spent time talking to workers. It made everyone feel a part of a larger picture and proud that they were working for Bill Lear, who these folks wanted to see.

Most met or far exceeded my own expectations of approachability and friendliness. Only a couple did not and their identities are confined to my closest friends.

All in all, it was a fun run, owing to the magic of a couple who so many wanted to spend time with, and an airplane that was fast becoming the subject of conversation, both inside and outside of the industry.

Al Higdon spent 12 years as a public relations executive with Beech and
Learjet before co-founding an advertising/pr firm that represented more than a dozen clients in aviation, including Learjet and Cessna, over a 25 year period before his retirement at 60 in 1996.