SHOOTING A DOCUMENTARY ON KORLA PANDIT

KORLA_AND_ME_TWO

Yesterday I was interviewed and filmed by John Turner, a retired TV producer, for his upcoming documentary about Korla Pandit. If you don’t know who Korla Pandit is, you’re excused, but you’re not excused for not visiting www.korlapandit.com and finding out. The documentary, entitled “Korla”, will be screened in 2014 in the USA and featured me as talking head about Korla, the official website and his music. It also features a browse through some of the memorabilia I have collected over the years. We’re also discussing Verne Langdon, a great friend of Korla (and me) and initiator of the official website. Verne passed on in 2011, but would be thrilled by the idea of an indepth documentary about Korla. That’s Korla on the left and Verne on the right. Korla is holding his life mask as made by Verne (who was a famous horror movie mask maker in Hollywood). Keep your eyes peeled!

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6 responses to “SHOOTING A DOCUMENTARY ON KORLA PANDIT

  1. I knew Korla Pandit in my early teens in San Francisco, and he lived in my neighborhood, near l5th and Minna.
    He was me and my friend Barbara Pollak’s heart throb of our adolescents, and I followed him for many years, seeing him in person many times. He played Hammond Organ at a wonderful pizza parlor near Palo Alto, CA. I believe it was in San Carlos, Burlingame, around there. Also saw him in Marin County, San Rafael. Whenever he was announced, I would take my daughters to see him. I have somewhere in my keepsakes an autograph album for a birthday. When he died I left my name at his website, but didn’t go back. The NPS article is ok, but not the essence of Korla Pandit who was from another world perhaps of heart and soul and of his/our making, a world we wanted it to be because the world we lived in was off kilter choosing not beauty and love and that was what he offered in his music and person. He created a world of mystique and magic out of one that was gray. We heard the rumors that he was not Indian but black but that did not matter to us, we appreciated his spirit and that lives on!

    • Dear Dorinda,
      Thank you for your comment! Very soon a Kickstarter campaign will start in order to further finance the documentary. Interviewing the people who knew and loved Korla and getting their stories on film is now most important. Thank you for your memories! I would be most interested in viewing the autograph album or any other memorabilia you may have by Korla.
      Kindest, Freek Kinkelaar

  2. Hello again,
    I am finally going to view the documentary: Remembering Korla Pandit at the Community theater in West Los Angeles, August 6, 2015.
    How lucky am I, to view this film. I am one of the interviewee’s in the film. I will come back with a review. I get to see this for my 76th birthday gift to myself August 8th, 1939. To have followed this master of the organ in my youth and survive to see him from early television when he broke boundaries, to his life on film. Making history indeed!
    Dorinda Moreno, Santa Maria, California
    .

    • Hello Dorinda,
      Thanks for getting back! I am very curious about the documentary, but first of all: happy birthday to you! I know it’s a bit early, but I wish you all the best and of course a lot of fun watching Korla. I haven’t yet seen the documentary – despite being, briefly I guess, in it, but a copy has been sent, so looking forward to it a lot. Do let me know your thoughts on the documentary – would love to hear from you!
      Kindest, Freek Kinkelaar

      • Dorinda Moreno

        Hi Please let me know if you still receive messages at this blog?
        Am confident that you have received this. I still continue doing promotion for ‘Korla’
        proud of John Turner and everyone who contributed. Great accomplishment.
        Dorinda Moreno

        805 934-3884
        I would love to meet you one day.

        What It Means to Be American
        A National Conversation
        Identities
        America’s First ‘Indian’ TV Star Was a Black Man from Missouri
        Stymied by Hollywood Racism, Korla Pandit Reinvented Himself as a Mystical Brahmin Pianist

        Korla piano and organ WIMTBA

        By John Turner
        April 26, 2016

        Turning on the TV in Los Angeles in 1949, you might have come face-to-face with a young man in a jeweled turban with a dreamy gaze accentuated by dark eye shadow. Dressed in a fashionable coat and tie, Korla Pandit played the piano and the organ—sometimes both at once—creating music that was both familiar and exotic.

        According to press releases from the time, Pandit was born in New Delhi, India, the son of a Brahmin government worker and a French opera singer. A prodigy on the piano, he studied music in England and later moved to the United States, where he mastered the organ at the University of Chicago. Not once in 900 performances did he speak on camera, preferring instead to communicate with viewers via that hypnotic gaze.

        He became one of the first TV stars, ever, with friends like Errol Flynn, Bob Hope, and Sabu, the Elephant Boy. He eventually ceded his TV performances over a contract dispute to the young pianist Liberace. And the way he came to fame is one of those only-in-America fables where the audience and the performer are both invested in the illusion.

        I first got to know Korla Pandit in 1990, while I was working at KGO TV in San Francisco. I was producing a series on Bay Area eccentrics and a colleague at the station mentioned that Pandit had a live show on KGO in the ’50s.

        I tracked Pandit down to a private residence in the Napa Valley, where I was greeted by a man who appeared much shorter than the pianist I’d seen on faded television clips. He was elegantly dressed in a grey Nehru jacket, a turban, and highly polished shoes. As he spoke to me in a soft but high-pitched voice, Korla regaled me with stories of India, Hollywood, and sold-out concerts, cleverly salted with “Indian pearls of wisdom.” He told me that in India a song never dies but materializes into beautiful forms and that he had played at the funeral of his famous friend Paramahansa Yogananda. I had no reason to doubt his integrity or question his philosophy. He seemed like a gentle soul.

        Although his face was sunken and his gaze less alluring, he was able to take me back in time, much like the character Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. After we got the necessary footage of him playing the organ and a great shot of him walking off into the sunset, we left, promising to stay in contact.

        When the piece ran a few days later on the evening news, Pandit called me at work to say that he was happy to reconnect with his Channel 7 fans. He continued to call me every four months or so for the next seven years. We usually talked about the clubs he was playing at in Los Angeles. He told me he had a new audience of tiki hipsters who canonized him by calling him the “godfather of exotica music.” And he told me about his cameo appearance in Tim Burton’s film about cult film director Ed Wood.

        When he called, I’d pick up the phone and hear a woman’s secretarial voice asking me if this was Mr. Turner. Then she’d say “Korla Pandit would love to talk to you.” After an acknowledgment, the line was usually quiet for 15 to 20 seconds until he came on with his familiar greeting of “Namaste, John.” It was straight out of a ’50s noir film.

        In 1996, he invited me to attend a San Francisco concert held at Bimbos 365, an atmospheric club with ’50s-style booth seating. This was the only time I got to see him perform before an audience and boy, was he great. He played songs from his 29 albums. The crowd was on their feet for the whole performance.

        In October of 1998, a viewer called the station to say that Pandit, age 77, had died that day at a hospital in Petaluma, California, of heart failure. We showed 20 seconds of him playing at his height in the ’50s, as well as something from the interview. I thought that closed the chapter on Korla Pandit. It didn’t.

        In June of 2001, a friend sent me a story in Los Angeles Magazine written by R.J. Smith called “The Many Faces of Korla Pandit.” I started reading the article with excitement, which was soon followed by a clouded curiosity and later capped with a disclosure that shook what I knew about him (which apparently wasn’t that much because the name he was born with was John Roland Redd). I shared the article with a fellow KGO producer, Eric Christensen, who grew up in San Francisco and remembered his mother saying she was mesmerized by Pandit’s eyes, which seemed to see right through her.

        We agreed that Pandit’s true story was astonishing, tragic, and yet illuminating—the foundation for a movie and a true American archetype of self-invention. Unbeknownst to the rest of us, he had actually been one of the first African-American television stars. Twelve years later, when we were both retired, Eric and I decided to use our pensions and social security to make that movie.

        We started by filming Smith, the author of the magazine piece, who had known Pandit in the early ’90s. Only years later, as he was interviewing musicians for a book on L.A.’s great African-American music clubs in the ’40s, did Smith begin to uncover Pandit’s true history. When Smith complimented a piano player of note, Sir Charles Thompson, Thompson said offhandedly that while he thought he was a decent piano player, there was another musician from Columbia, Missouri, who was much better, a fellow named John Redd. He went on to say that when he was working in L.A., he turned on the television and lo and behold, there was John Roland Redd, running over the keys while wearing a turban and going under the Indian name of Korla Pandit. Well, this was a real shocker to Smith, and of course to us.

        Smith confirmed that Pandit was indeed John Roland Redd, one of seven children born to Baptist pastor Ernest Redd and Doshia O’Nina Johnson, in Columbia, Missouri. His love of music took hold in childhood and he played a mean boogie-woogie piano. Smith learned that Frances, one of Redd’s sisters, had preceded him to Hollywood, where she found work as an actress on an all-black film called Midnight Shadow in which a shifty villain wore a turban. When he first came to L.A., Redd changed his name to Juan Rolando, because at that time, Mexican music was in vogue and Mexican musicians had an easier time then African-Americans getting studio and club work.

        Frances had a white roommate who was a Disney artist named Beryl DeBeeson, whom she set up on a date with her brother. Their relationship eventually led to a Tijuana marriage, as interracial marriages were illegal in California at that time. Beryl helped John become Korla Pandit, doing his eye makeup and designing his sets and wardrobe.

        Korla Pandit with his wife and children.

        Korla Pandit with his wife and children.

        One of Redd’s childhood friends filled us in on what life was like for African-Americans living in Columbia in the ’30s. There wasn’t much mingling between the races, as Jim Crow laws were in effect. Blacks weren’t served at the soda fountain and if you wanted to buy clothes at the department store, you couldn’t even try them on. A nephew told us that John was asked to play the piano before the local chapter of the KKK. He also recounted a humorous story about Redd hypnotizing a fellow grade school student for fun. Redd’s childhood friend felt that John’s move to California, after graduating from high school, only helped him.

        We asked our interview subjects if John’s version of passing or reinvention was dishonest. Almost all responded that he did what he had to do to navigate the existing racism in the U.S. This overall sense of approval seemed to ring true because while many of the members of his father’s congregation knew of his transformation from John to Korla—as did numerous musicians—no one outed him. He was able to take his secret with him to his grave.

        Hollywood was also kind to shape shifters who’d invented their biographies. And Pandit and his wife understood that Americans knew very little of India outside of the magical rope-climbing swamis or men-of-mystery they saw in the movies. With their sets and music, they created an exotic escape in people’s living rooms. Female fans of Pandit have told us that he was their first teenage crush. He was an image that came through their TV screens that they could safely fantasize about.

        Korla Pandit understood—far more than anyone realized—that what we saw on TV wasn’t real, but it could be a whole new kind of reality.

        John Turner has curated numerous shows on folk and outsider art and has written a biography on the self-taught artist, Howard Finster. For more information about the documentary Korla, visit korlathemovie.com or korlathemovie on Facebook.

        Primary Editor: Lisa Margonelli. Secondary Editor: Jia-Rui Cook.

        *Photos courtesy of Freek Kinkelaar.

      • Hello Dorinda,
        Thank you for your mail and the information as posted online. John Turner also mailed me this highly personal account of the documentary – I found it a rather touching story… Feel free to mail me, but maybe it is easier if you contact me via mail at info@beequeen.nl
        Hoping you are well, kindest, Freek

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