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Korla Pandit (September 16, 1921 – October 1 or 2, 1998), born John Roland Redd, was an American musician, composer, pianist, organist, and television pioneer of national notability. After moving to California in the late 1940s and getting involved in show business, Redd became known as "Korla Pandit", a French-Indian musician from New Delhi, India. However, Redd was actually a light-skinned African-American man from Missouri who passed as Indian. A pathbreaking musical performer in the early days of television, Redd is known for Korla Pandit's Adventures In Music; the show was the first all-music program on television. He also performed live and on radio and made various film appearances, becoming known as the "Godfather of Exotica". Redd maintained the Korla Pandit persona—both in public and in private—until the end of his life.
Early life, marriage, and family
In 1921, John Roland Redd was born in St. Louis, Missouri as one of seven children. His father, Ernest Redd, was an African-American Baptist pastor. Redd's mother, Doshia O'Nina Johnson, had Anglo and African ancestry. Both parents were descended from African-American enslaved persons. Redd had light skin and straight hair.
In 1922, Redd's family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, where they lived for nine years. In 1931, they moved to Columbia, where Redd's father was pastor of the second-largest Baptist church in town.[better source needed] Given the Jim Crow restrictions in the state, Redd and his siblings attended racially segregated public schools for children of color.
The Redd family later recalled John Redd as a musical prodigy from the age of three; he could hear a song once and have it memorized, and family members taught him to play piano from an early age. A contemporary of Redd's, the jazz pianist called "Sir" Charles Thompson, knew Redd from Columbia, where they attended high school together. Later in life, Thompson remembered that as a teenager, Redd was the better piano player of the two. The whole Redd family was musically talented; Redd's two sisters sang, and one played piano. His older brother, Ernest Redd Jr. (known as "Speck" for his freckles) (1913-1974), also became a jazz pianist and later a band leader in Des Moines, Iowa. John and Ernest Redd played in groups with their older brother Harry, who was also a musician.
In the early 1940s, Redd met his sister Frances's white friend and roommate, Beryl June DeBeeson, a Disney artist and former dancer. The two fell in love. They married in Tijuana, Mexico, as interracial marriages were then prohibited in California. Redd and his wife had two sons.
Career as musician and entertainer
Hollywood and the creation of Korla Pandit
By the 1940s, Redd had moved from the Midwest to Los Angeles for more opportunity. His older sisters, Ruth and Frances, had already moved there by 1939. Redd used the name "Juan Rolando" to gain a job playing the organ on the Los Angeles radio station KMPC. Passing as a Mexican allowed him to join the Musicians Union (which was not open to African-Americans) and opened up additional opportunities for studio and club work.
Redd and his wife, Beryl, created a new entertainment persona for Redd's use. They thought Redd could have exotic appeal by passing as an Indian because most Americans did not know much about people from India. Beryl designed the makeup and clothing Redd used, and Redd took the name "Korla Pandit". He developed an elaborate history and continued to add to it during his career. He stated that he had been born in New Delhi, India, to a French opera singer and an Indian Brahmin government official. Supposedly raised in an upper-class Indian household, Redd claimed to have studied music in England as a child, arrived in the United States at age 12, and studied at the University of Chicago. Redd used the Korla Pandit persona—in public and in private—for the rest of his life.
In 1948, Redd created and played background music as Korla Pandit for the revival of radio's occult adventure series, Chandu the Magician, achieving atmospheric effects on the Novachord and the Hammond CV (Ancestor of C-3) electronic organ. In 1949, he became a regular organist on Hollywood Holiday, a show that was broadcast from a Los Angeles restaurant.
In 1948, while performing as Korla Pandit in Hollywood at a furrier's fashion show, Redd and his wife Beryl met television pioneer Klaus Landsberg. He offered Redd a television show with the stipulation that the musician would also provide accompaniment for Time for Beany, Bob Clampett's popular puppet show. Korla Pandit's Adventures In Music was first telecast on Los Angeles station KTLA in February 1949; it was the first all-music program on television. Viewers soon became familiar with the musical opening, "The Magnetic Theme." Landsberg insisted that Redd refrain from speaking and gaze into the camera as he played the Hammond organ and Steinway grand piano, often simultaneously. "Not once in 900 performances did he speak on camera, preferring instead to communicate with viewers via that hypnotic gaze."
Redd—known to the public as Korla Pandit—became an overnight star and one of early television's pioneering musical artists. He widened the array of music associated with the organ and popularized its use. While never dropping his Indian persona, Redd acquired notable friends such as actor Errol Flynn, comedian Bob Hope, and Sabu Dastagir, known for his roles in the documentary Elephant Boy (1937) and the feature Thief of Baghdad (1940).
In 1956, Redd moved to San Francisco and performed as Korla Pandit on San Francisco's KGO-TV. He began speaking on his show, espousing a spiritual blend of ideas that entranced many of his fans. After returning to Los Angeles, he became friends with Paramahansa Yogananda, Indian spiritual leader of the Self Realization Fellowship. The leader wrote an introduction to liner notes for one of Redd's records. This was a time of seeking for many Americans, with Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley becoming more prominent intellectuals in California. Redd read widely and incorporated a variety of thought in his talks. In 1967, Redd and his family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, to prevent his sons from being drafted in the Vietnam War.
After moving to Canada, Redd returned regularly to the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas for work. In the 1970s, as his television popularity waned, he supplemented his income with a variety of increased personal appearances and performances. Continuing to use the Korla Pandit persona, Redd performed at supper clubs, supermarket openings, car agencies, music and department stores, pizza restaurants, lectures, music seminars, private lessons, and the theater organ circuit. He made a cameo appearance as Korla Pandit in Tim Burton's biographical film about the director Ed Wood (1994), which drew renewed attention to him.
Redd's career was revived in the 1990s, and he attracted a new generation, taking them under his wing. "The Tiki-lounge music revival gave Korla one last career resurgence and cult following. He recorded with The Muffs." Redd also performed a sold-out show at the legendary Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco.
Death and revelations
During his life, Redd kept in touch with his family of origin, but he wore his turban and did not bring his sons when visiting with them. According to Redd's nephew, Ernest Redd, "'Among the family we knew what he was doing and very little was said about it. There was times when he would come by, and it was kind of like a sneak visit. He might come at night sometime and be gone before we got up. He had to separate himself from the family to a certain extent. They would go to see him play, but they wouldn’t speak to him. They would go to his show and then they would leave, and the family would greet him at a later time'". Allyson Hobbs, assistant professor of history at Stanford University, wrote A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life (2014). Having met members of Redd's extended family of origin, Hobbs has said that they "felt he was very authentic and were very close to him". Redd's sons heard rumors about their father's background, but were only told of his (and their own) African-American heritage after his death. Shari Pandit died before the publication of Smith's 2001 article, and John Pandit rejected Smith's findings.
Intrigued by the Smith article, John Turner and Eric Christensen, retired TV producers who had each known Redd in his later years, made a documentary entitled Korla (2014). The duo wrote and produced the film together and Turner directed it. The duo interviewed an array of friends, fellow musicians, and family, discussing Redd's life and achievements and exploring the complexities of racial identity. After Korla was widely released, various media outlets commented on Redd's history, casting it as a classic American story of self-invention.
- Something to Live For (1952) - Hindu Man (uncredited)
- Which Way Is Up? (1977) - The Hindu
- Ed Wood (1994) - Indian Musician
- Adventures in Music (television series) (1948)
- All Star Revue (television series) (1952)
- KTLA at 40: A Celebration of Los Angeles Television (television movie) (1986)
- Korla (documentary) (2015)
- Ed Wood (performer/writer/arranger: "Nautch Dance") (1994)
- Adventures in Music (television series) (1948)
- Time for Beany (television series) (1951) (episode #1.421)
- Wilder, Amy (November 22, 2015). "Man of mystery: Documentary sheds light on enigmatic Columbia entertainer". Columbia Daily Tribune. Retrieved March 18, 2020.
- Smith, R. J. (June 2001). "The Many Faces of Korla Pandit". Los Angeles. Emmis Communications. 46 (6): 72–77, 146–151. ISSN 1522-9149.
- Liesl Bradner, "How a Black Man from Missouri Transformed Himself Into the Indian Liberace", New Republic, 18 September 2015.
- de Clue, David. "Epilogue". History, part two. KorlaPandit.com. Retrieved September 13, 2012.
- Turner, John (June 1, 2016). "America's First 'Indian' TV Star Was a Black Man from Missouri". What It Means to Be an American: A National Conversation. Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square. Retrieved June 1, 2016.
- Costantinou, Marianne; Staff, Of the Examiner (October 5, 1998). "Korla Pandit, keyboardist and star of early TV". SFGate.
- Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (Revised ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 148–149. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3. Retrieved 2019-11-13.
Chandu the Magician, juvenile adventure Korla Pandit.
- Muth, Deborah (October 21, 2016). "Korla Pandit, 50s legendary performer". Tank Town Media. Retrieved March 18, 2020.
- Nichols, Chris (August 5, 2015). "Slide Show: Korla Pandit Documentary Screens Thursday at Cinefamily Los Angeles Magazine". Los Angeles Magazine. Retrieved March 18, 2020.
- Epstein, Dan (November 12, 1998). "Korla Pandit, 35 B.C.? - 1998 A.D." LA Weekly. p. 57. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
- "Korla Pandit Documentary 7/22/15", Emmy San Francisco Events, July 2015.
- Zack, Jessica (15 August 2015). "Exotic Korla Pandit hid race under swami persona". SFGate. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
- "Korla Pandit". IMDB.com. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
- Korla Pandit performing: "Silver Bells"
- Korla Pandit performing: "Miserlou" (on YouTube)
- Korla Pandit performing: "Kumar" (on YouTube)
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