Watch This: The Narcotic Exotica of TV’s Mysterious Korla Pandit
If you were one of the statistically rare people who owned a television in 1949, and you lived within range of the broadcasting tower of the Los Angeles TV station KTLA, you might just have tuned in one night and witnessed a remarkable sight – and sound. That was the date of the first episode of KORLA PANDIT’S ADVENTURES IN MUSIC. The show became a major hit for KTLA and audiences tuned in regularly to enjoy the hypnotic organ sounds – and equally mesmerizing eyes – of the man who, as the story propagated by KTLA went, was an immigrant from India, son of a high-caste government official and a French opera diva.
After years of success in Los Angeles, Pandit and his family moved to San Francisco, where he was also a hit with Bay Area audiences. He began to add mystical readings to his musical programs and, as the late ’50s zeitgeist began to pick up more Eastern Spirituality, he added more of it to the mix.
It’s already a fascinating story, but that’s just the beginning. The man who called himself Korla Pandit was actually a black man named John Roland Redd, who came to California from Missouri to seek better career opportunities in the less segregated West. Soon he found that even in sunny California his racial identity was an impediment, so he at first changed his performing name to Joan Rolando, in hopes that he might find more acceptance as a Mexican-American. This opened a few more doors for him, but his next transformation – into the exotic Korla Pandit – changed everything. He was still the same person, with the same musical virtuosity, but now he was able to gain a much greater foothold with white audiences and entertainment gate-keepers.
For many years after his television fame ended he played club engagements and turned out self-pressed records which he signed in the tens of thousands for adoring fans. Many years later he was rediscovered as an exotica music icon and had a last blush of fame, even appearing in Tim Burton’s film ED WOOD, before his death in 1998 at age 78.
Those original live TV shows were never videotaped, but there are some kinescopes and transcriptions of some of these performances. We think you’ll agree that these are unique and fascinating – somewhat narcotizing – artifacts of broadcast history.
There is a fine documentary from 2015 called KORLA about the man and his music that is well worth your time. It is currently streaming on Fandor. Watch the trailer here.