Do you know the 1st African American to have a TV show to himself had to pass as Indian?

Mildred Europa Taylor March 31, 2022
Korla Pandit by organ. Courtesy John Turner, Fair use image

History says that even after slavery was outlawed, the Jim Crow Era perpetuated racism and discrimination. Occurring in the Southern states of the United States from the end of the Reconstruction Era in 1877 to the 1950s, Whites and Blacks were required to remain separate while utilizing public transportation, parks, theatres, restaurants, and so on.

It was meant to further fuel the ruling of “separate but equal” as was the conclusion in the famous court case, Plessy V. Ferguson (1896). Cleverly or deceitfully, depending on one’s perspective, some Black men found a tactic to evade the effects of the Jim Crow laws on Blacks. Korla Pandit was one of them. He used the Indian symbol to escape segregation in the 1950s.

As a TV entertainer, he played the piano and the organ, sometimes both at once, on TV, creating exotic compositions and wowing national audiences as he did so. Television in Los Angeles featured him in about 900 episodes of his show “Korla Pandit’s Adventures in Music”, where he appeared smartly dressed in a suit and tie in a jeweled turban with a captivating gaze that got women swooning over him.

Known as the “Godfather of Exotica” (a musical genre that became popular in the 1950s), the mysterious Indian man and his wife and two children lived in the former Hall McAllister mansion in Kentfield. He said the house reminded him of his affluent background in New Delhi as the son of a Brahmin priest father and a French opera singer mother.

But it was all a lie he kept secret until his death in 1998. In 2001, journalist R.J. Smith exposed Pandit’s true identity in a 2001 article in Los Angeles Magazine, “The Many Faces of Korla Pandit.” People reacted with shock after finding out that Pandit was not born in Delhi and was not even an Indian. His real name was John Roland Redd and was born on September 16, 1921, in Columbia, Missouri.

A light-skinned African American, he was the son of a Black Baptist preacher and a mother of African, English, and French ancestry. While growing up in Missouri, he attended a segregated school where he discovered his talent as a pianist and an organist. Actually, at just three years old, he could learn a song once and have it memorized, according to reports.

In the 1940s, Pandit moved to Los Angeles and first adopted a persona named “Juan Rolando,” a Mexican performer. This allowed him to join the Musicians Union and obtain a job playing the organ on the radio station, KMPC.

When he met his future wife, a White woman named Beryl June DeBeeson, they both decided that he would now live and work as Korla Pandit, an Indian performer of French and Indian ancestry. He started off with his daytime show “Adventures in Music” on local station KTLA.

“He’s credited with probably being the first African American to have his own television show, even though he did it as an Indian,” retired KGO-TV producer Eric Christensen told Marin Independent Journal in 2018 after helping to produce a documentary about the life of Pandit. “As Dr. Harry Edwards points out in the film, he did it for economic reasons because of the Jim Crow laws. Lassie could get a show on TV but Nat King Cole couldn’t.”

While performing on TV, Pandit never said a word but his dreamy eyes while playing music he called “the universal language of love” mesmerized his audience, particularly women. Musician Steven Halpern even called Pandit’s music “a sonic dildo.” He went on to earn national fame as his show was franchised on stations around the country. But after a contract dispute in 1953, another young pianist known as Liberace replaced him. Curiously, Liberace took the same set and the same kind of act, Christensen said.

“I found it kind of ironic that both of them were keeping secrets, one more successfully than the other.”

Perhaps the two succeeded in their acts because many Americans did not know much about the Indian culture and customs, especially without the internet.

From KTLA, Pandit’s show was picked up by KGO and as he continued to earn praise in the Bay Area, he was signed by Fantasy Records, releasing 13 Korla Pandit albums in three years. By the 1960s, Pandit’s music career was on the decline. He started playing at pizza palaces and supermarkets, attending speaking engagements and teaching piano, as stated by The New Republic. One of his last performances was a sold-out show at the Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco.

“It was a sold-out crowd, and it was a lot of fun to see him in his full glory in front of a roomful of adoring fans who gave him a standing ovation. He did an encore and afterward met his fans backstage, clasping his hands together and saying, ‘Namaste’,” retired KGO-TV producer John Turner told Marine Independent Journal, adding that besides Pandit’s false story, he should be honored for his musical accomplishments.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 31, 2022


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