Monday, March 1, 2021

Korla Pandit — Disguising Identity: From Black to Indian


 http://www.nwasianweekly.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/34_43/ae_korla.jpg

In searching the Internet for something interesting to blog about, I stumbled upon this fascinating celebrity named Korla Pandit. I'll start by saying before there was Liberace, there was Korla Pandit. Check out this captivating article by Andrew Hamlin from Northwest Asian Weekly
Two hands hold a large censer.  A voice speaks of wisdom and rubies.  A deep, slightly scraggly voice.  The action fades-in to a man in a turban with a jewel mounted between his eyes.  Fixing his eyes upon the camera, Korla Pandit begins his act.
And his act was the Hammond Organ, augmented with a Steinway piano to his right.  Playing mostly organ, occasionally piano, sometimes one with each hand, Pandit played for fifteen minutes on Los Angeles’ KTLA-TV from 1949 until 1951.  He did not rock and roll and he did not get down and dirty with the blues, but he flitted easily between all other types of music, playing popular tunes, show tunes, traditional, and ethnic music from around the world. He was one of the first television stars, but he never spoke on camera.  The narrator off-screen was someone else.
And Korla Pandit had reason to never speak.  Speaking might have given away his secret.
John Turner’s film “Korla” covers the organist’s life from start to finish, but not in that order.  He starts with the censer, the myth, the exotica (for Korla Pandit was a pioneer of “exotica”) and goes considerably into Pandit’s keyboard skills combined with his elegance and mystery, his easy way of wining over an audience.  Pandit’s work grew popular with folks who ironically were into tiki torches and vintage cocktails, folks who wanted to overlook rock and roll or step into a time machine and come out back before rock and roll first rolled.
But Pandit’s work, cheesy as it could get, transcended kitsch. He knew how to play to the camera and reach his audience through the camera, with his galvanizing eyes bolstered with the glinting jewel, the white of the turban combined with the milk chocolate of his skin.  He hammered down Hammond keys with the heel of his hand, his palms, and even his forearms. He took chestnuts such as “Over The Rainbow” and gave them fresh illumination with rapid runs, melancholy swells, double-time breaks, and piano intermezzos.
Pandit never admitted to anyone that he was not actually Indian—not from India or elsewhere.  He was not from the Far East or the Near East.  He was born John Roland Redd, in St. Louis in 1921.
The “exotic” persona came partially from his wife, a white lady Beryl June DeBeeson, and partially from a film the future Pandit’s sister appeared in—a film featuring a black man disguised as an Indian.  With a turban and a jewel.
And the fascinating, damnable thing was that passing for Indian worked wonders for him.  He was no longer a black man, but he was one of the first black men to have his own TV show.  His birth certificate lists him as “colored”; his death certificate asserts he was “white.”  His family appears to have gone along with his fake background, although his wife and older son have since died, and his younger son, for whatever reason, does not appear in the film.
He exploited the exotic background story for his own ends and to that extent must be deemed selfish.  But not solely selfish.  Many black people who could, passed for white.  And as Pandit/Redd demonstrated, passing as anything was preferable to being black.
He preached the universal language of music.  He was a fraud, but he was a spiritual optimist.  And as Carlos Santana remarks, he opened vortexes.  Anything seemed possible when he pressed the keys.  Any dimension, any identity.  Any form.  Any triumph.
I had never heard of Kora Pandit. Had you? Thanks for visiting and have a great week!

Monday, February 22, 2021

Dona Drake: Another Imitation of Life


I happened to stumble upon this interesting and talented actress who never quite became a big star. Her story is an interracial one, so of course I found it fascinating! Check out what IMBD says:

In a situation that closely recalls the Fannie Hurst story "Imitation of Life" in which a girl strives to pass for white, beautiful light-skinned African-American actress/singer/dancer/bandleader Dona (pronounced "dough-nuh") Drake, for the sake of her career, denied her heritage and passed for white (in her case Mexican) for the duration of it. While it did not make her a true star, her zesty talents and charm went a long way in the field of war-time music. Unlike the story, Dona, however, did not abandon her parents or deny her parentage.

Dona was born Eunice (nicknamed "Una") Westmoreland in Jacksonville (some references say Miami), Florida, on November 15, 1914, of African-American parents (Joseph Andrew Westmoreland and Novella Smith Westmoreland). A gifted child musically, her father moved his family and later opened a restaurant in Philadelphia. Five year old Eunice started to perform and play musical 
instruments there as entertainment. Following schooling, she moved to the Big Apple where (billed as Una Villon) she caught the fetching eye of Broadway and nightclub talent ("Murder at the Vanities" (1930)) and worked as various chorines on stage, nightclubs and Earl Carroll revues. Claiming she was Latino, she even went so far as to learn Spanish.

In 1935 Dona changed her name to Rita Rio to emphasize her "ethnicity" and spiced up her image even further when she earned a featured spot in Eddie Cantor's film Strike Me Pink (1936). While it did not lead to more film work, it did enable her to form her own glitzy and glamorous all-girl band, Rita Rio and Her Rhythm Girls [aka The Girlfriends], which toured successfully.

On her own, Dona did a few short films and two-reelers, sang on the airwaves and revved up her image signing on radio. Good friend 
Dorothy Lamour assisted in getting her signed up to Paramount, where the studio changed her name to "Dona Drake" and built up her Latino background by sending out studio resumes that she was christened Rita Novella, was of Mexican, Irish and French descent and born and raised in Mexico City. Dona's first picture for the studio was in the Dorothy Lamour vehicle Aloma of the South Seas (1941). She then pepped up the Bob Hope starrer Louisiana Purchase (1941) as well as an Arab girl in the Hope/Crosby/Lamour comedy Road to Morocco (1942). Unable to break out of her typecasting as a spicy singing support, her contract was dropped after a sparkling big band singing lead loanout to Monogram entitled Hot Rhythm (1944). Around this time she married the Oscar- and Emmy-winning costume designer William Travilla.

Dona freelanced in Without Reservations (1946), co-starred with Kent Taylor in Dangerous Millions (1946) and was featured in Another Part of the Forest (1948) (as a girlfriend to weaselly Dan Duryea), Beyond the Forest (1949) (as Bette Davis' Indian maid), The Girl from Jones Beach (1949) (as Eddie Bracken's paramour) and as the gold-digging second lead in So This Is New York (1948). After her marriage and a daughter, Nia Novella, was born, she toned down her filmmaking but returned in the mid-1950s to some film and TV parts before retiring in 1957 due to health and emotional issues (heart ailment, seizures/epilepsy). She and Travilla separated in 1956, but never divorced and still appeared together at functions on occasion. Dona died of pneumonia and respiratory failure in 1989 with Travilla dying one year later.

I had never heard of Dona Drake. Had you?  Check her out on Youtube singing "Wha' D'ya Do when it Rains?" Thanks for visiting and have a great week!

Monday, February 15, 2021

Frederick Douglass and Interracial Marriage


February marks Black History Month, and one of the most influential individuals in Black history, as well as American history in general, is Frederick Douglass. Douglass, who had no accurate knowledge of his age or birth date, chose to celebrate it on February 14. Also, he estimated the year of his birth to be 1818.

For those unfamiliar with Frederick Douglass, here's a brief summary from Wikipedia:

Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, c. February 1818 – February 20, 1895) was an African-American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing. He stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders' arguments that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.  

Frederick Douglass is indeed a fascinating and heroic figure in American history. To read more click here

Douglass was married to Anna Murray, a black woman, for forty-four years (1838-1882).  After she died from complications due to second a stroke, Douglass married again--this time however, his wife was white! 

According to Wikipedia:

In 1884, Douglass married again, to Helen Pitts, a white feminist from Honeoye, New York. Pitts was the daughter of Gideon Pitts, Jr., an abolitionist colleague and friend of Douglass. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College (then called Mount Holyoke Female Seminary), she worked on a radical feminist publication named Alpha while living in Washington, D.C. The couple faced a storm of controversy with their marriage, since Pitts was both white and nearly 20 years younger than Douglass. 

... Douglass (a "child of the master") responded to the criticisms by saying that his first marriage had been to someone the color of his mother, and his second to someone the color of his father.
Frederick and Helen Douglass, seated, and
Helen's sister Eva, standing

A commentary from Syracuse.com written by Leigh Fought of Le Moyne College says this regarding the marriage:

...On Jan. 24, 1884, 60-year old Frederick Douglass and 46-year-old Helen Pitts defied the expectations of their families and Washington society by joining in interracial matrimony.

Neither black nor white communities offered many congratulations.

The Washington Grit called the marriage “a national calamity” and “the mistake of his life.” Others considered his choice to be that of a dotty, old man who had rejected his race. The groom’s children never hid their disdain for his new wife, believing the marriage betrayed their late mother, Anna, who was black. His daughter-in-law even sued him. The bride’s sisters and mothers embraced her new husband, but her father and uncle never accepted that a black man they once admired had joined the family. One of her old classmates at Mt. Holyoke simply exclaimed, “How could she?”

True friends, on the other hand, noted that the marriage was not only one of affection but also one that emerged from their principles. Another old classmate insisted that Helen “was true to her convictions to the last,” while a reporter for the IndianapolisLeader pointed out, “Mr. Douglass has simply put into practice the theories of his life.” Douglass himself demanded, “What business has the world with the color of my wife?”

Seems that Frederick Douglass and his new wife received both praise and prejudice, as well!  Although I must add, more of the latter than the former that time around. 

Were you aware of Frederick Douglass' interracial marriage? Thanks for visiting and have a great week!

Originally posted 2/3/14 

Monday, February 8, 2021

Frederick Douglass' Irish Book Tour

February is Black History Month, and many, including me, wonder why this particular month was chosen. Well, it's because the birthdays of the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln fall during this month.

Speaking of Frederick Douglass, I found an interesting article in The Irish Examiner that discussed his lecture tour in Ireland back in 1845 to promote his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I never imagined him going on a book tour, let alone to Europe! 

Irish author Colum McCann used this part of Douglass' life in his novel TransAtlantic, a National Book Award Winner. Here's more from The Irish Examiner:

The renowned Irish novelist Colum McCann emigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s. He spent almost two decades publishing big, imaginative novels about characters like ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev as well as the high-wire artist Philippe Petit in his masterpiece Let The Great World Spin before returning to write about Ireland and its history in his novel, TransAtlantic.

At the heart of TransAtlantic is Frederick Douglass’s story. Douglass visited Ireland for several months on a lecture tour to promote his best-selling autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, and to raise awareness and money for the abolitionist movement in the United States. The timing of his visit is noteworthy – Douglass arrived in Ireland in autumn 1845, just as the Great Famine was sweeping through the country.

“I thought it was an incredible story – and one we needed to hear, especially in Ireland,” says McCann about the spark for his novel. “Here was the story of a man, 27 years old, a visionary, an abolitionist, yet still a 'slave', arriving in Ireland just as the Famine began to unfold. He had already published his memoir but there was an Irish edition forthcoming. And he landed among the gentry of Ireland, largely the Anglo-Irish. He toured around the country. His few months in Ireland were among the happiest in his life. ‘I breathe,’ he said, ‘and lo! the chattel becomes a man.’ ”

Douglass, who was born in 1818, escaped a live of slavery in Maryland by making a break for the north where he became an anti-slavery activist. Interestingly in later life, he was on the ticket as a vice-presidential nominee for one of the candidates in the 1872 US presidential election race, a century and a half before Kamala Harris became the first person of colour to get the job.

His Irish lecture tour was a success: he spoke to packed crowds in several cities, including Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Waterford.

In Cork, he spoke at the Imperial Hotel to an audience that included John Francis Maguire, the founder of this newspaper (The Irish Examiner). The hotel has a plaque commemorating his visit. Douglass did not, however, critique the handling of the Famine during his lectures, which is perhaps a surprise given he was a human rights activist.

“At first I was surprised that he did not speak out about the Famine and the conditions that the Irish were forced to suffer under British rule,” says McCann. “He remained largely silent about it. But gradually I began to understand why – he was in Ireland in order to further the cause of the three million of his people still enslaved in the United States."

For the complete article click here:

I found this fascinating! Did you know Frederick Douglass toured Europe to promote his autobiography? Thanks for visiting and have a great week!

Monday, February 1, 2021

Paul Robeson as Othello

Laurence Olivier, a white British actor played Shakespeare's Othello, an African, onscreen in 1965, but back in 1930, African American actor Paul Robeson played Othello onstage in London.

Portrait of Paul Robeson as Othello

                                                         Laurence Olivier as Othello

Here are some interesting facts about Paul Robeson's performance that I thought would be fascinating to share. This is from American Treasures of the Library of Congress:

A leading British Shakespearean critic, John Dover Wilson, called the performance of Paul Robeson the most notable Othello of the twentieth century.
With Peggy Ashcroft

The son of an ex-slave,Robeson became an All-American football hero as well as an actor and singer. He first played Othello in London in 1930, with noted British actress Peggy Ashcroft (1907-1991) as Desdemona. As the first time since the 1860s that a black actor had played the title role, the production marked a turning point that opened the way for other blacks to play the part. 
With Jose Ferrer and Uta Hagen

In 1943, Robeson played Othello in New York in a production directed by Margaret Webster and starring Uta Hagen (1919-2004) as Desdemona and her husband Jose Ferrer as Iago. According to the New York Times, Robeson "gave to the role a majesty and power that had seldom if ever been seen on the American stage. The performance won Robeson the 1944 Donalson Award (a forerunner of the Tony). 

After running on Broadway for 296 performances, longer than any previous Shakespeare play, the production made a lengthy and triumphant North American tour.

Robeson was truly a great actor, but I'm sorry to say I've only seen him in just a bit of The Emperor Jones when it was on TV one time. Have you ever seen any of his movies?

Thanks for visiting and have a great week!