Reginald Leigh Denny - Academy of Model Aeronautics

The AMA History Project Presents:
Biography of REGINALD LEIGH DENNY
November 20, 1891 – June 16, 1967
Transcribed by NR (08/2001); Formatted & Edited by SS (10/2002); Update by JS (04/2016)
Career:
 Famous actor of screen and stage
 Designed and sold the concept for a Radio Controlled drone to the military
 Manufactured and sold the Dennymite Airstream model engine
 Owned and operated a model hobby shop on Hollywood Boulevard in California
Honors:
 1983: National Free Flight Society Hall of Fame
 2005: Model Aviation Hall of Fame
The following is a three-part article about Reginald Denny, written by D.B. Mathews in his “Flying for
Fun” column, published in Model Aviation magazine July, August, and September 2004.
[Part 1 – July 2004]
The following material is excerpted in large part from an
interesting Web site www.ctie.monash.edu.au/hargrave/dennyplane_jr.html - which
was created and is maintained by Russell Naughton, who is a
staff member of Monash University in Victoria, Australia.
Who is Reginald Denny? One evening I watched Mr.
Blandings Builds His Dream House on the Turner Classic
Movies television station. This entertaining 1948 comedy stars
Cary Grant and Myrna Loy as the Blandings, and Reginald
Denny as their architect.
While I was watching it, it occurred to me that not many
Actor and modeler Reginald
modelers associate movie stars with our hobby. Some
Denny lived from [1891] until
collectors and some of us older guys recall Dennymite engines
1967.
and Dennyplane kits, but few fully realize their connection to a
successful actor. I thought that could be the basis of a few interesting columns if I could access
photos and articles on the subject.
Jack Maxwell wrote a two-part article about Reginald Denny’s association with Radio Plane one of the first firms to supply radio-controlled target drones to the military, in the late 1930s that was published in the July and August 1992 issues of MA. Jack had served in a Navy unit that
maintained and flew those drones during World War II.
Reginald Denny’s hobby shop on the north side of
Hollywood Boulevard was open from 1935 until 1963
under several owners who retained the name.
That article was supported with
numerous photos and data, so it was
obvious that the material existed
somewhere. I made a quick trip to the
Google Internet search engine and turned
up the aforementioned Reginald Denny
site. It includes several hundred photos
from what is obviously the Denny family
album and reproductions of material
published about Reginald Denny,
including a construction article for a
Denny Plane Jr. that I wrote which was
published in the January 1977 MA. Now
that’s flattering!
Reginald Denny was born in Richmond, Surrey, England, on November 21, 1889, and he died in
the same place in June 1967 while visiting his hometown. He acted in more than 200 movies and
plays between 1919 and 1966. Both his parents were in the theater, and Reginald first appeared
on stage at age 7. His father once played in a musical comedy opposite Lilly Langtree. (Do you
remember the movie Judge Roy Bean?)
While surely posed, this photo
captures the excitement kids find in
hobby shops. Reginald Denny is
showing them some interesting
models.
Classic airplanes hang in Denny’s hobby shop. These
fuselages are the Jr. type. They were for sale as ARFs
in 1938!
Reginald quit school at 16 to pursue a full-time theatrical career. He was successful in numerous
roles in English Music Hall. He visited the US with a touring group in 1911 and moved here
permanently in 1914. A moderately successful career in silent films followed.
When World War I broke out, Reginald enlisted in the Royal Air Force and was sent to Hastings,
England, for pilot training. The war ended before he completed his training, so he saw no
combat. This service left him with a lifelong interest in flying full-scale and model aircraft.
Returning to Hollywood in 1921, Reginald was frequently cast as the all-American athletic type
since he was in excellent condition. The advent of talking pictures ended this illusion, but his
rugged good looks and sophisticated manner made him ideal for character roles - particularly
playing sophisticated Englishmen.
The list of Reginald Denny’s performances in movies is much too long to print here, but his more
familiar roles were playing Commander Schmidlapp in Batman, Henry Percival in Cat Ballou,
the police chief in Around the World in 80 Days, Frank Crawley in Rebecca, and Algy
Longworth in the Bulldog Drummond series.
He created a role in the stage production of "My Fair Lady," and his last movie was Assault on a
Queen in 1966. During his career he acted in such varied movies as Abbott and Costello Meet
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953) and Romeo and Juliet (1936).
Chances are extremely high that you have seen Reginald Denny in a movie. You may not have
been able to put a name to the face, and you probably didn’t know of a connection between the
actor and model airplanes.
Reginald Denny, Modeler: Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic set off a
nationwide aviation craze, as has often been documented. Everyone young and old was focused
on aviation and aviation events, and this interest and enthusiasm extended to building and flying
model airplanes.
Numerous companies jumped into the activities with kits for rubber-powered models. As we
illustrated with our photo coverage of the local Jimmie Allen contests, any event involving
model airplanes generated huge crowds.
Combining his longtime interest and activities with full-scale aircraft, Reginald formed a
company to develop and manufacture model airplane kits in 1934. By 1935, sales through local
advertising were strong enough that he opened a retail model shop on the north side of
Jane Withers with a Dennyplane Jr. used
in her film Holy Terror. Jackie Cooper
received one as a gift from Reginald.
Child actor Freddie Bartholomew prepares to
fly a Dennyplane Jr. at Mines Field in
California.
Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California, just visible from the exit off the Hollywood
Freeway.
That location remained open until at least 1963 under the management of Peter Veer. Apparently
in 1963 (there is some contention on this date) the shop was sold to Col. Tom’s and combined
with a store farther south in West Los Angeles.
As was typical in that era, the shop was a special place for modelers of all ages but was
particularly magnetic to the young children in the neighborhood. Numerous modeling friends
who are 50 or older often relate what places of total fascination and dreams hobby shops were in
their youth. One of my favorite items that illustrates that phenomenon was an article published
many years ago centering on kids in hobby shops titled "How Much Are Your 10 Cent Gliders?"
Reginald enjoyed young people and was exceedingly accommodating to them in his shop.
Legend has it that no child was denied the joy of building a model airplane from one of his kits
just because he or she had no money.
Reginald also developed a wonderful reputation for presenting his kits or completed models to
child stars of the day. A photo on the cover of Mechanics Illustrated several years ago showed a
young Mickey Rooney launching a Dennyplane. And as you can see from the photos I’ve used,
several other child stars had those models.
In 1937, Reginald added a realistic looking "gas" design called the Dennyplane to his rubberpower kit line. This original version was notable because of its all-sheet-balsa tail surfaces;
aluminum-tube wingtips; and two-piece, plug-in wing.
The Dennyplane also used an experimental engine that was apparently developed and produced
by Major Mosely’s Aircraft Industries in Burbank, California - the same company that made and
sold Baby Cyclone engines. A modeling-press advertising campaign, most notably in Model
Airplane News, generated worldwide sales.
Later versions of the Dennyplane were designed around the Dennymite engine that Walter
Righter developed and manufactured and Reginald sold under license. This power plant,
although crude in some ways, started and ran reliably, and it was sturdy - more than could be said
about many of its counterparts.
The Dennymite was not produced during World War II, but it was sold again in the late 1940s.
The advent of glow plugs and fuel brought the curtain down on it because it was not robust
enough to stand such use.
A source of confusion for many years is the "Jr." version of the Dennyplane. This was a design
featuring a one-piece wing, simplified landing gear, and overall simplified construction. It was
sold as a lower-priced kit, eliminating much of the deluxe hardware and liquids of the more
expensive Dennyplane.
Both designs could hardly be thought of as "Duration" models, particularly when compared with
contemporary East Coast and upper Midwest designs of the era. The popular competition events
for Free Flight Power in the California area placed emphasis on appearance and realistic flight,
presenting appearance points combined with points for realistic takeoff, landing, and flight path.
This preference is easily detectable when you look closely at the designs of Joe Weathers, Barney
Snider (Model Craft), Danner Bunch, etc.
As a consequence, the Dennyplane series has never been popular with those who fly old-time
designs competitively. However, its undeniable eye appeal made the Dennyplane series quite
popular with the Free Flighters back then who had more interest in aesthetics than duration.
The Dennyplane Jr. lends itself very well to conversion to three- or four­channel RC; the original
hinge lines can be retained, and the round cowl can be selected from stock of several aftermarket
fiberglass suppliers. (Mine used one designed for the old VK Nieuport 17 kit.) Check the catalog
for Fiberglass Specialties, 51200 Milano Dr., Macomb MI 48042; Tel.: (810) 677-0213.
Construction plans and drawings of the Dennyplane Jr. are available from the AMA plans
service.
Next Month: There is such a huge volume of material about and photos of Reginald Denny - the
modeler - that I want to share; I will continue this theme in the August column.
[Part 2 – August 2004]
This is the version of the Dennyplane
Jr. that the author had published in
the January 1977 Model Aviation.
IN THE JULY 2004 column I
provided a quick look at Reginald
Denny’s theatrical career and tried to
connect it to his involvement in the
early days of modeling. Performing in
more than 200 movies and stage plays
between 1919 and 1966, he played
comic and dramatic roles alongside the
greatest stars of the day.
A February 1937 Model Airplane News ad features a
large selection of rubber kits and an early ad for the
Denny Jr.
However, less well known were Reginald’s hobby shop, his kit production, his mail-order
business, and his involvement in developing and
distributing one of the first reliable ignition engines for
model airplane use.
A Clever Promoter: As I mentioned last month, Reginald
was successful in placing his Dennyplanes in the hands of
the prominent child actors of that time. This was a clever
marketing move because it exposed young people to gaspowered models and subsequently generated good
publicity and a positive image of model airplanes. This
was in a time when many parents were concerned about
the safety of "gas" models for their children.
Additio
nally,
the late
Robert Montgomery with
1930s
Dennyplane finished to resemble
Luscombe Phantom. Test explains
was a
difference between it and Denny Jr.
time
dominat
ed by
dreams for most youngsters, since most
families could not afford model airplanes, gas
engines, or many of the other nonessential
things of the era. We dreamed of someday
owning an engine. There were even popular
rubber-powered kits available with dummy
cylinders and devices to make "engine" sounds
as the propeller turned, thus creating the
illusion of a gas engine.
While dreaming of models with real engines,
we put our maximum craftsmanship and
efforts into rubber-powered models in
preparation for that "someday." In some ways,
the real gas model was the carrot dangling in
front of many young modelers of that era, and
it motivated them to keep building in spite of
some poor-quality kits.
April 1938 MAN ad for Dennymite deluxe
version including metal engine mount with
holes for coil and clip for condenser.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the ironies of those dreams. As I noted, very few young
modelers could afford gas engines in the 1930s. However, as the nation recovered from the grips
of a major recession (depression, really), disposable income increased, allowing families to
splurge a bit in the 1940s. Unfortunately, when we finally had the money, the wartime shortages
This flight shot of a Dennyplane landing at Mines
Field in the Los Angeles Basin was extraordinary
for 1938.
made it impossible to buy that dream engine,
kits, or much of anything else.
January 1938 MAN ad shows line of rubberpower kits that Reginald Denny marketed.
Notice the inflatable air wheels.
Well, not quite impossible. Some engines and
kits were available during the World War II
years, but they were mostly junk! I can recall
some of my contemporaries’ awful, crushing
disappointment when they scraped, saved, and
sacrificed until they had enough money to send
off for a GHQ engine, only to quickly learn that
their money had been stolen from them.
These engines were available because of a bureaucratic mess-up. The War Production Board was
advised that the future US mechanics and aircrews would need model airplanes on which to train.
The bureaucrats decided that a manufacturer should be selected and provided with scarce and
strategic materials to continue building model engines, and the way to determine which unit was
the most "popular" was to check sales figures. Since the GHQ sold for less than half of the other
brands, it did indeed sell more.
However, they didn’t bother asking the opinion of anyone who knew anything about model
engines, nor did they set up performance criteria. Had the government conducted even the most
rudimentary test, it would have quickly learned that the GHQ wouldn’t run.
Many young people of the 1940s were misled by those who sold these engines. They were so
poorly built that they seldom produced more than an occasional "pop." And if by some miracle
they did run, they wore out immediately. Consider how many potential modelers were driven
away from the hobby, never to return, as a result of this grossly dishonest marketing.
Reginald Denny recognized this "build rubber power until you can afford gas" phenomenon; his
ads featured several attractive rubber-powered models. I’ve reproduced a couple of the ads to
give you a feel for them.
Notice that the Bullet was advertised as "crack-proof." This sort falls into the same category as
other ads of the era that claimed a model was "guaranteed to fly." What was one to do if a model
cracked or didn’t fly?
The Dennymite: When Reginald introduced the Dennyplane, it featured wing halves that
plugged into the fuselage top, a rather complex undercarriage, a solid-sheet empennage, and wire
wingtips.
As I wrote last month, early on Reginald sold an engine made for him by the same factory that
was producing the Baby Cyclone. For whatever reason(s), only a few were produced and sold.
In 1937, Reginald conducted a bidding contest seeking an engine that was suitable for the
Dennyplane. Several backyard shop machinists/entrepreneurs (who were likely unemployed at
the time) entered engines for testing.
An engine of .573 cu. in. displacement that Walter H. Righter designed and built was selected as
the most reliable and easiest to start. Walter built the prototypes in his backyard and then in a
small shop at 4695 San Fernando Road in Glendale, California, but soon moved to larger
facilities at 800 South Flower Street in Burbank.
Marketed through Reginald’s shop and mail-order business, and at least postwar through jobbers,
the Dennymite proved to be a fairly successful seller and went through several modifications to
its outside appearance and shape. It all led up to a teardrop-shaped cylinder head and exhaust
stack called the "Airstream," which was the final version and sold postwar for a while. A total of
slightly more than 10,000 of the engines were sold.
This and many other engines of that era utilized a cam on the crankshaft to open and close the
ignition points as the cylinder traveled up and down. This sent an impulse through a coil, which
magnified the amperage from the dry-cell battery to produce a spark in a miniature spark plug.
These engines ran on two parts white (unleaded) gasoline and one part SAE 70- weight oil.
Heavy oil was needed for lubrication and to fill in the loose fit of the parts.
Once the engine was started, one advanced the ignition timing by raising the lever on the points
while leaning the air/fuel mixture with the needle valve. I described that much faster than the
starting process usually was. One could identify gas-engine fliers by their enlarged deltoid
muscle from flipping propellers. We had no electric starters until much later.
I’ve included photos of the Dennyplane and the Denny Jr. this month to clarify the differences.
The model presented to Robert Montgomery is a Dennyplane, as is the flight shot. It featured a
two-piece wing, functional wing struts, and (not visible in the photo) an undercarriage which was
internally sprung. Some variation of the vertical fin’s outline is also apparent.
This design was available in a standard and a deluxe kit. Both were well equipped with hardware
such as a pre-bent aluminum tail-wheel bracket, but the deluxe kit also included air wheels, silk
for covering, and dope.
Roughly a year after the Dennyplane’s introduction, a simplified version called the "Denny Jr."
was introduced. Fred Hardy designed it. As can be seen in the picture, it used a one-piece wing
with balsa tips and a plain bent-wire undercarriage.
However, this model was not cheaply done; it included a spun-aluminum cowl and metal aft of
the firewall. I may have added to the confusion on this matter by publishing a Denny Jr. but
identifying it as a "Dennyplane." The extra-wide fuselages, round cowl, etc. are reminiscent of
one of the Howard DGA series or perhaps a Fairchild 24W.
The Dennyplanes are undeniably far more attractive than most other gas-powered kits of the era.
If you want to construct one, my drawings and construction article from the January 1977 MA are
still available. A short kit (cut parts only) is available from Klarich Custom Kits, 2301 Sonata
Dr., Rancho Cordova CA 95670.
Next month I’ll take a look at the virtually unknown major contributions to full-scale aviation
that Reginald Denny and Walter Righter made.
[Part 3 – September 2004]
MUCH OF THE following was excerpted from the article "Launch Count: 15,000 Drones, One
Babe" by Stephen Joiner in the April/May 2003 Air & Space and Web site
http://www.ctie.monash.edu.au/hargrave/denny.html
What We Didn’t Know About Reginald Denny: As is almost any modeler with an interest in
our hobby’s history, I was aware of Reginald Denny’s important contributions to the success of
aeromodeling in the 1930s. In the
previous two columns I have
attempted to share information
about those model-airplane
contributions and his theatrical
career.
But as I explored the Web site
from Monash University in
Australia, I learned that Reginald
Denny is truly the father of
remotely piloted model airplanes!
Reginald Denny with his early RP-1. Power plant is a
Righter horizontally opposed twin (ungeared). This drone
bears a strong resemblance to the Denny Jr.
From the beginnings of aerial
combat, antiaircraft gunners
practiced marksmanship by
shooting at target sleeves, which
were essentially large windsocks
towed behind airplanes. Such flying duty was not highly prized, yet even though the target was
towed in a straight line, few hits were ever recorded on the sleeve or tow airplane.
The military thinkers doubted that enemy aircraft would oblige with such broad-sided targets. In
1935, Reginald Denny heard an antiaircraft officer complaining about the inadequacy of the
target sleeves. "I told him I saw no reason why a target plane couldn’t be sent up by radio
control," he later told a Los Angeles Herald Express reporter. That was the defining moment for
the development of what we refer to today as Remotely Piloted Vehicles, or RPVs.
Reginald’s offhand remark was visionary and well ahead of the development curve. As far as can
be determined, at that time no one had made repeatable radio-controlled flights - or at least not to
the point of being commercially viable.
The production line at Radio Plane: a
sophisticated mass-production facility that grew
out of a home workshop.
Unorthodox Righter twin’s gearboxes provided
contra-rotation of two propellers. Can you
imagine hand-cranking it?
The AMA Nationals did not even have a Radio Control event until 1937, and the few successful
flights then were essentially controlled crashes. Clinton De Soto won flying a radio-controlled (at
least occasionally) glider.
On the other hand, the Good brothers, Chas. Siegfried, Chet Lanzo, Clinton De Soto, Joe
Raspante, Jim Walker, and a few others could see the potential for commercial and military
applications for their pioneering radio-controlled model activities. But they lacked the financial
backing of a movie star or the technical resources of a large body of unemployed technical people
from the aircraft and movie industry. As a result, their radio control developments were limited
to single models and the available commercial engines.
Hobby Becomes Obsession: Reginald converted his home workshop into a remote-piloting lab.
"My dad devoted most of his time to the development of radio control, and took acting jobs only
to support his family and the drone project," said his son, Reg Denny.
With the help of several ham radio operators and Walter Righter, who built the two-cylinder
engine, Reginald produced the first radio-controlled miniature target drone in 1936: the 9-footspan RP-1. "RP" stood for
"Radio Plane." (See photo.)
The RP-1 used toy train motors
to move the control surfaces
and a rotary telephone dial to
encode signals in the RC
transmitter. Chas. Siegfried and
Jim Walker also used a phone
dial for this purpose, leading to
the conclusion that there must
have been a flow of
information between these
three pioneers. Chas. Siegfried
worked for the telephone
company here in Wichita, and I
saw him, in 1948, dialing for
control, albeit rather sluggish
and inconsistent.
A restored OQ-2 drone before complete covering. Notice the
stamped aluminum wing ribs and two propellers on one shaft
contra-rotating via a gearbox.
These primitive technologies did not produce
acceptable results for several years. Undeterred
by numerous early crashes, Reginald continued to
finance prototypes by playing movie roles
opposite such diverse talents as Greta Garbo and
Abbott and Costello. Thus his late-night research
and development continued on Vine Street.
Finally -- Predictability! Four years of hard
work and frustration later, in 1939 the home-built
servos were replaced with units from Bendix, and
a joystick replaced the phone dial. When the 12foot-span RP-4 finally auditioned for the military,
its big break almost became a disaster.
"Unbeknownst to the military that day, the
aircraft went completely out of control," wrote
Reginald’s son. "The brass was extremely
impressed with the wild aerobatics, while my
father and his group were terrified that the drone
might dive into the reviewing stands."
This young lady was working in the Radio
Plane factory when a twist of fate changed
her life forever.
The RP-4 spun into the ground, but Reginald returned to Hollywood with a government contract.
The Army designated the improved RP-5 the "OQ-2," and the Navy designated its drone the
TDD-1, for "Target Drone Denny." The
specifications were a one-hour flight to
5,000 feet, and then a parachute recovery
with minimal damage.
Albert Robinson restored this drone, which is on
display at the [National Model Aviation] Museum.
Open hatch is for recovery parachute release.
In June 1940, the Radio Plane Corporation
moved from the Denny household to a Van
Nuys, California factory. Nearly 15,000
Denny drones were produced during World
War II.
Reginald continued to refine the designs,
adding aileron control, larger engines, and
increasingly more-reliable radio
equipment. The last iteration was the longlived KD-2R5, which reached a production
run of more than 85,000, surpassing that of
any full-scale aircraft ever manufactured!
Yet by the nature of their intended use,
very few drones remain. That makes the
OQ-2a on display in the [National Model
Aviation] Museum in Muncie, Indiana, a
unique exhibit.
The rail apparatus used to lauch drones from a
limited space without attempting to take off
unassisted.
Construction and Power: Early versions
of the drones were constructed much like
large model airplanes; that is, they were
built mostly from wood and were covered with lightweight muslin, which was sealed with nitrate
dope. As the series evolved, a welded steel-tubing fuselage was combined with stamped
aluminum wing ribs and a welded empennage.
The early series was powered by various twin engines designed and manufactured by Walter
Righter, who had built the Dennymite model airplane engines for Reginald. Some of these early
twins were, to put it mildly, "unusual," as you can see in the photo.
Those were later replaced by more traditional horizontally opposed twins that featured an updraft
carburetor, a single ignition, and, in some instances, gearboxes that provided contra-rotation of
twin propellers in an effort to counter torque.
Next month I will show you the launching method used and the parachute recovery system.
That Photo: In 1945, Sergeant David Conover Sr. was a photographer assigned to the 1st
Motion Picture Unit stationed at Universal Studios. In an effort to improve the troops’ morale,
this unit provided newsreel footage of support on the home front to be shown as part of the
informational (read: propaganda) movies for the troops program.
The commander of this unit was a friend of Reginald’s, and he sent David out to Radio Plane to
take some footage and stills of the activities there. The commander was Ronald Reagan.
David immediately noticed a photogenic young lady doping OQ-3 panels and asked her if she
would pose for him. A 19-year-old Norma Jean Dougherty reportedly asked, "Am I really
photogenic?" David thought she was to the point where he arranged a test and subsequent
contract with a modeling agency for her. Those first commercial photos led to an extraordinary
career for this Radio Plane worker - particularly after she went blonde and changed her name to
Marilyn Monroe.
When I saw the photo in Air & Space, I contacted the editor, who referred me to David Conover
Sr.’s son, who runs a bed­ and-breakfast on an island in the Frazier River in British Columbia,
Canada, near Kamloops. You are looking at the first commercial photo ever taken of Marilyn
Monroe! Who would have thought it possible to use a photo of Marilyn in a column about model
airplanes?
This PDF is property of the Academy of Model Aeronautics. Permission must be granted by the AMA History
Project for any reprint or duplication for public use.
AMA History Project
National Model Aviation Museum
5151 E. Memorial Dr.
Muncie IN 47302
(765) 287-1256, ext. 511
historyproject@modelaircraft.org