Friday, September 11, 2009

Korla Pandit (1921-98) and Iron Eyes Cody (1904-99)

Two of my childhood heroes on television during my childhood weren't who they said they were. Only after their deaths did the truth come out.

You probably remember Korla Pandit who was a mainstay at KTLA in Los Angeles from the station's beginnings in 1947 through the early 1960s. Korla was the fantastic organist who never spoke put played such great ethnic music. He wore a turban with a jewel and a stylish dress suit. The programs were 45 minutes long with no talking and no commercials. Even though the program lasted less than an hour, you wished it would go on much longer. Korla was born in New Delhi, India, to a Brahman priest and a French opera singer, who learned to play the organ as a child in France and England.

After his death, his website told the truth about Korla Pandit: He was born John Roland Redd in St. Louis , Missouri. His father, John S. Redd, was a Baptist minister. And they were black!

He began working in radio as a musician in 1938 in Des Moines, Iowa. A few years after this he moved to Los Angeles where his sister, Frances Redd, was working in a radio drama called the Midnight Shadow. John had been working as a musician under the name Juan Rolando. He married a fellow show business worker, Beryl DeBeeson, but because she was white, they married in Tijuana, as interracial marriages were illegal in California for many years after this. His wife came up with a new character, using one of the characters of his sister's radio series, Prince Alihabad. John's new name was Korla Pandit. Through their research they found it was a legitimate sounding name and Beryl would also be playing a role in this game and the Korla Pandit name change was made legal.

Iron Eyes Cody was famous around the world. If he was in a movie or a TV show, we knew it was authentic because he was a real Indian. We knew him to be of the Cherokee and Cree tribes and grew up in a Sioux reservation. We figured that's why the costume he wore had so many different patterns in it.

My ex-wife and I loved reading his autobiography, Iron Eyes Cody: My Life as a Hollywood Indian. He wrote about his work in Hollywood beginning in 1927 and service with the U.S. Military Academy, teaching about the history of the U.S. Army and the Indians in the Western United States. He was our hero!

Then he died. About a year after his death the story broke out that he was really the child of Italian immigrants who grew up in the town of Gueydan, Lousisiana, where his parents owned a mom and pop grocery store. We were sorely disappointed. Iron Eyes was no more an Indian than the local actors who were hired for spaghetti westerns made in Italy and Spain. His real name was Espera Oscar DeCorti.

An Indian and an Indian.. neither of whom really was...