Yesterday I mentioned that Korla Pandit leaving Snader Telescriptions circa 1951 opened the door for a Vegas pianist named Władziu Valentino Liberace to have a shot at television.
And the rest is history: Liberace’s energetic live performances quickly made him famous. He went on to become one of highest-paid entertainers ever.
He was known as “Lee” to family and friends, but as a showman he preferred to go by his Italian surname, pronounced lib-er-AH-chee. It can probably be traced back to the Latin word liber, meaning “free.”
And while the baby name Liberace has never been popular enough to appear in the SSA’s baby name data — I would have told you a long time ago if it had! — it has been used as a given name before. As you’d expect, most Liberaces were born in the early-to-mid ’50s. Here are some examples:
Behind today’s name is a fascinating story involving early television, exotic music, racial identity, and clever deception.
The name is Korla, which, along with variant Corla, first appeared in the SSA’s baby name data in 1951:
6 baby girls (5 in Calif.)
6 baby girls [debut]
8 baby girls [debut]
A bit of research reveals that most of these early ’50s Korlas and Corlas — mainly females, but also a few males — were born in California specifically. This location is already pretty telling, but the smoking gun is this middle name:
Karlo Pandit Lindsay, male, born in November, 1950, in Los Angeles
Korla Ponda Williams, female, born in March, 1951, in Los Angeles
Korla Pandit Lord, male, born in September, 1953, in San Francisco
So what’s the influence here?
Korla Pandit, the mystical musician whose Los Angeles-based TV show Adventures in Music made him famous, particularly on the West Coast, in the early ’50s.
Pandit first appeared on TV in the spring of 1949. In each episode of Adventures in Music, Pandit wore a jeweled turban and gazed hypnotically at the camera, never speaking — just playing otherworldly music on a Hammond organ. His show, which aired on KTLA, was soon picked up by other California stations.
Some early recordings of Korla prominently feature his name, but I’m not sure if the live show Adventures in Music did. (If not, this could account for why “Corla” debuted higher than “Korla” in the data.)
Korla Pandit was an immediate hit, particularly among suburban housewives. He received an impressive amount of fan mail.
He also started putting out albums, eventually releasing well over a dozen on various labels.
In 1951, after shooting hundreds of shows for KTLA, he left to film a series of short musical performances for Snader Telescriptions. These Snader clips introduced Pandit to a national audience.
But Pandit didn’t stay with Snader long, instead leaving to do other things (including start a new live TV show).
According to the 1952 ad below, his songs were “bringing dollars to the cash register and wild acclaim from feminine hearts.”
His music helped set the stage for the late ’50s Exotica craze. In fact, some people have since dubbed Korla the “Godfather of Exotica,” though the title has also been given to other musicians (including Les Baxter).
As the decade wore on, Pandit’s fame began to wane. But he did spend the rest of his life recording and performing — and always wearing that bejeweled turban.
He passed away in 1998, leaving behind his American wife Beryl and their two sons, Shari and Koram.
…But the story doesn’t end there.
Because, a few years after that, a Los Angeles journalist discovered that Korla Pandit was not the half-Indian, half-French man from New Delhi he had claimed to be. Instead, he was an African-American man named John Roland Redd from Columbia, Missouri.
Adopting a non-black identity had allowed Redd to have advantages that he couldn’t have had otherwise in 1950s America. He was one of the first African-Americans with a television show, but, ironically, if the public had known he was black, it’s highly unlikely that audiences (especially those entranced housewives) would have responded as enthusiastically as they did.
Redd took his adopted identity to the grave. Not even his sons were aware of their father’s true origin. (His wife must have known the secret, but she never openly admitted it.)
Notably, “Korla Pandit” was Redd’s second adopted persona. In the ’40s he had assumed the name “Juan Rolando,” which helped him get gigs during the Latin music craze of the time and, more importantly, allowed him to join the white L.A. musicians union as opposed to the black one, which afforded him more career opportunities.
It’s not hard to see how he got Juan from John, but I do wonder how he came up with Korla.
What are your thoughts on the name Korla? And on the story of Korla Pandit?
Desai, Manan. “Korla Pandit Plays America: Exotica, Racial Performance, And Fantasies of Containment In Cold War Culture.” The Journal of Popular Culture Aug. 2015, pp. 714–730.
I’ve been trying to piece together the stories behind the baby names Karil and Caril lately. Both of them saw increased usage in 1958:
Usage of Karil
Usage of Caril
8 baby girls
15 baby girls
7 baby girls
19 baby girls [debut]
10 baby girls
The similar names Carol and Karen were popular in the late ’50s, but I think something more specific would have caused both Karil and Caril to pop up all of a sudden like that.
Right now I have two working theories, and both involve murders (how uplifting!).
The first theory is Caril Ann Fugate, the 14-year-old from Nebraska who went on a killing spree with her boyfriend, 19-year-old Charles Starkweather, in January of 1958. The story stayed in the news for months: Starkweather was sentenced to death in May, Fugate received a life sentence in November, and Starkweather’s execution took place in mid-1959.
The second theory is Karil Graham, a Los Angeles woman who was murdered in ’55 and whose story was recounted (with a lot of embellishment) in the 1958 nonfiction book The Badge by Jack Webb, the creator of Dragnet. In late 1958, many newspapers ran Jim Bishop’s positive review of the book, which included the following excerpt highlighting Karil:
The way it is with so many women who live alone, life had held back on Karil Graham. She was likable and attractive, still a year on the sunny side of 40, sandy-haired, blue-eyed, trim-figured. But there was no husband — a marriage hadn’t worked out — no children, no other man in her lonely life.
Karil hid the hurt and filled the emptiness as best she could. Every day she went to work, on time, to her job as receptionist at a downtown Los Angeles art school. Nights, in her quiet apartment, she listened to music and dabbled in painting. She was just a dilettante, she know resignedly, but records and easel were gracious cover-ups for emptiness.
Do either of these theories seem like the primary answer to you? Do you think the answer could be a bit of both? Or something else entirely…?
Bishop, Jim. “Jack Webb: Drama in the Prowl Car.” Salt Lake Tribune 26 Nov. 1958: 24.