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Korla Pandit

Updated on January 15, 2012

The Godfather of Exotica?

When I was a nine year old child and was watching our family's 12 inch, black and white Packard Bell Television, this very strange man with a silken turban on his head, and with hypnotic black penetrating eyes came on the screen, and he was playing a large electronic organ and patting the keys like a drum. Ladies and gentlemen.......this was Korla Pandit. Korla was actually on before Liberace and he made musical waves during the early 1950's . I'm old enough to remember his live show on what was a "new" medium: Television. In the early 80's I was lucky enough to meet and talk to Korla Pandit. A friend of mine invited me to a Comic Book Convention and Korla had a table set up with books and autographed pictures. He was very gracious and pleasant.

The Early Years.....

Korla Pandit was a musician and a Mesmerist, famous for his lips, his eyes, his turban with the Smokey Topaz jewel and hypnotic dangling Diamond, his beautifully-inspirational music, and the fact that for all his years on radio and Television, he never spoke a word, gazing dreamily, instead, into the camera and into the hearts and imaginations of millions upon millions of viewers over the years. Pandit was born John Roland Redd September 16, 1921 in St. Louis, Missouri, to Doshia O'Nina Johnson Redd 1885-1977, and Baptist Minister Rev. Ernest S. Redd 1883-1966. One of seven children, young John displayed incredible musical abilities by the age of two. In 1937 he graduated from high school in Columbia, Missouri, and moved to Omaha, Nebraska. In 1938 he moved to Ottumwa, Iowa, and worked for the Central Broadcasting Company in Des Moines, Iowa. By 1939 he was living in Los Angeles, California with his sister Frances, an actress in The Midnight Shadow, Sack Film Company, 1938, wearing what would become his trademark turban, similar to the one worn by Black actor John Criner in his sister's film, playing in clubs under the name Juan Rolando. He became known for playing both the organ and grand piano at the same time, the piano with his right hand and the organ with his left, and was first billed as Juan Rolando, the One-Man Combo. In 1941 Juan Rolando, nee John Roland Redd, yet to become Korla Pandit, met and developed a life-long love affair with statuesque blonde Beryl June DeBeeson, a Disney artist, whom he married on July 21, 1944, in Tijuana, Mexico due to the fact mixed marriages were not yet allowed in California.

He Never Uttered a Word...........

Under Beryl's artistic direction, Juan Rolando became Korla Pandit, and Korla Pandit in turn became the mysterious symbol for and creator of Exotica, in 1948 conjuring up musically on radio as organist for Chandu, the Magician, all manner of inventive, never-before-heard orchestration, first on the Nova Chord Organ, then on the Hammond C-3 Electronic Organ.) At the age of twenty-two, he was discovered by Television pioneer Klaus Landsberg, creator of KTLA Television Station, and in February of 1949 the handsome young man in a turban was captivating audiences as Korla Pandit with his own Universal Language of Music KTLA Television show, playing his self-styled music of the Exotic East with a blend of waltzes, tangos, cha-cha-cha's and other tunes of the 40s and 50s, as well as an occasional classic like Claire de Lune or The Swan. He never uttered a single word on his show, leaving the talking to an off-screen announcer who would quote poetry and introduce and close the program.

They Loved His Face.............

Viewers were entertained by alternating shots of Pandit's face, the musician seated at his instruments, and shots of Pandit's hands on the keyboards. He frequently played both organ and piano simultaneously. During this time he also supplied the music for Bob Clampett's hit KTLA-TV puppet show Time For Beany. When Korla split with KTLA, San Francisco Television station KGO signed him. His KGO Adventures In Music show was directed by newcomer Marty Pasetta, who would later gain fame directing the Academy Awards shows in Hollywood from 1970 to 1979. Six months after his show left the air in 1957, Korla Pandit's immense popularity was declared by his fan following when a TV Guide Most Popular Performer poll voted him the local personality most deserving of national recognition.

Pandit Precedes Liberace.....

Eventually Pandit was seen and heard around the world with his organ and piano music segments, by way of the fledgling Louis D. Snader Telescriptions filmed at Hollywood's Goldwyn Studios in August of 1951. It was on these filmed musical clips produced for Television that Pandit preceded Liberace, eventually giving the glitzy pianist his big break when the young organist broke ties with Snader, who then hired Liberace to take Korla's place. By the mid-seventies Pandit had for the most part disappeared from Television screens, but cashed in on his sizable fan following by performing live in theater organ concerts, giving lecture/concert seminars and individual instruction, in home organ concerts, and, eventually, playing at super market openings, automobile dealership promotional events, organ and piano trade shows, and popular Pipes & Pizza Parlours.



The Later Years.........

He appeared in several motion pictures, most prominent among them Tim Burton's 1994 Ed Wood starring Johnny Depp, with whom Korla Pandit shares a scene. In what can only be described as a comeback near the end of his life, he performed in small clubs and restaurants, then, in January of 1996, with entrepreneur Joey Seehee Cheezhee, headlined The Wonderful World Of Joey lounge revival show at Bimbos 365 in San Francisco, California, followed by similar shows at retro nightspots such as Kelbos, and the House of Blues jazz club, both in Southern California. His final public performance was February 14, 1997, at The Luna Park Club in Los Angeles, California. He passed away October 1, 1998, at the age of 76 in a Petaluma, California nursing home of myocardial infarction/coronary disease.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      Very interesting man. I don't think I ever heard his music, but I will look into it. Thank you for sharing.