By John C. Alsedek:
I guess most of us have go-to movies, films that we can watch dozens of times and not get tired of. For me, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space is one of those—to the point where I can act out entire sections verbatim. And my verrrrrrry favorite sections are the narrations done by The Amazing Criswell!
Born Jeron Criswell Konig in Princeton, Indiana, on August 7th, 1907, Criswell was a larger-than-life character with his Bill Haley–style spit curl and sequined tuxedo. But Criswell didn’t set out to become a famous TV psychic. In fact, when he moved to Los Angeles in the early fifties, he had no showbiz aspirations of any kind; he wanted to market his "Criswell Family Vitamins," about which I can’t find any information but I’m guessing was a bit sketchy. He bought airtime on local television to run infomercials, and he started doing Criswell Predicts as a time filler. As a former radio announcer and trained musician, he was comfortable with the on-camera work. Well, the vitamins soon fell by the wayside as Criswell’s flamboyant psychic act took off, and Criswell Predicts was picked up as a nationally syndicated program.
In Hollywood, he became an offbeat celebrity and a favorite of some older silver-screen stars such as Mae West, who considered him to be her personal psychic—he even predicted that she would be elected president! Such wild predictions became his stock-in-trade, and he ended up being a regular on The Jack Paar Show and later on The Tonight Show, going on about mass outbreaks of cannibalism, space rays, the assassination of Fidel Castro, and the end of the Earth in 1999. Criswell claimed an 87 percent success rate with his predictions, which was . . . um, generous at best. However, there’s one prediction that Criswell got right: on The Jack Parr Show in March of 1963, he stated that John F. Kennedy would not run for a second term because of something that would happen to him in November 1963. And we know how that turned out. . . .
But what Criswell is best remembered for today is Plan 9 from Outer Space, in which he does his Criswell Predicts shtick as the film’s narrator; the combination of Criswell's stagey delivery and Wood’s sublimely awful dialogue is something to behold. Something that’s less well known, though, is that Criswell did two other films with Ed Wood: Night of the Ghouls and Orgy of the Dead. Night of the Ghouls was written as a sequel of sorts to Wood’s earlier Bride of the Monster; in it, Criswell does an expanded version of his narrator role from Plan 9, only this time from a coffin! That trick was Criswell’s idea: he claimed to sleep in a coffin at home, a habit he developed during childhood as his family had owned a funeral home and he would sometimes take a snooze in the showroom models. Though Night of the Ghouls was filmed in 1957, it wouldn’t be seen for thirty years due to the most Wood-esque of reasons: Wood didn’t have enough money to pay the film’s lab bill.
As for Orgy of the Dead . . . well, that was a somewhat different animal than the other two films Criswell did with Wood. At this point, Wood had given up on his Hollywood dreams and had moved into writing softcore pornography, both novels and scripts. Orgy of the Dead was what was known as a "nudie cutie," with the most minimal of plots connecting a series of dances by mostly nude women. Criswell’s role was as "The Emperor (of the Night?)," who sat on a throne in a murky cemetery and witnessed the dances. It was by far the largest role Criswell had assayed in one of Wood’s films; unfortunately, he was forced to read all his dialogue off cue cards, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that he couldn’t see them without squinting. Fortunately, the target audience for Orgy of the Dead probably didn’t even notice. Criswell himself joined the dead in 1982 at the age of 75.
One of Criswell’s best friends in 1950’s Hollywood was someone even more mysterious than Criswell himself: a French-Indian pianist/organist named Korla Pandit. The turban-clad musician was a groundbreaker in two different ways. One was widely known at the time, as Korla Pandit’s Adventures in Music was the first all-music program to ever run on the new medium of television. As for the other, that wouldn’t come out till years later. For you see, Korla Pandit wasn’t French-Indian at all. . . .
Korla Pandit was actually John Roland Redd, a light-skinned African American from Missouri. Redd had moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s, getting a job at radio station KMPC playing the organ; however, to get the job, Redd had to pass himself off as Mexican so that he could join the Musicians Union, as African Americans weren’t eligible. This experience planted the seed for the persona that would make him a minor national celebrity.
Redd and his wife, Beryl, concocted a whole new identity for him; he would be known as Korla Pandit, the son of a French opera singer and an Indian Brahmin government official who had been educated in England and the U.S. Korla Pandit quickly got the job of composing and performing the background music for the radio revival of Chandu the Magician in 1948. The next year, Pandit joined Hollywood Holiday as the show’s organist. However, it was later in 1949 that he got his big break. Pandit was offered his own show on KTLA, with the stipulation that he would also perform the music for the Time for Beany children’s program (the predecessor to the hugely successful Beany & Cecil). He accepted, and Adventures in Music came to the Los Angeles airwaves, both as the first all-music TV show and the first show starring an African American, though of course no one would know the latter for decades.
Starting each of the show’s 900+ episodes with "The Magnetic Theme," Pandit never once spoke on the air, instead letting his serene expression and widely varied music do the communicating for him. Playing both the Hammond organ and Steinway grand piano (sometimes simultaneously) the virtuosic Pandit also provided his own beat via unique percussive effects on the organ keyboard. He quickly earned a strong local following and became a popular Hollywood party guest, making friends with stars such as Errol Flynn and Bob Hope; he also released over two dozen albums between 1950 and 1970.
Pandit moved to the Bay Area in 1956, and he continued his television career on KGO-TV in San Francisco. Already interested in the teachings of the Self Realization Fellowship and having been friends with Paramahansa Yogananda prior to the guru’s death in 1952, Pandit began speaking during the show, sharing a variety of spiritual ideas with his audience. He and his family remained in the Bay Area until the latter part of the sixties, when the staunchly anti–Vietnam War Pandit, fearful that his sons would be drafted, moved the family to Vancouver, while he himself continued to work in California.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Pandit’s fame had declined to the point where he was scratching out a living performing at pretty much anyplace that paid: store openings, supper clubs, car lots. But with the exotica music revival of the nineties, Pandit was discovered by new generations, and he underwent a career renaissance. He appeared as himself in the Tim Burton biopic Ed Wood, recorded with The Muffs, counted Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of The Cramps as huge fans, and did a sold-out show at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco.
Pandit passed away in October 1998, at which point the truth about his life began to come out. R.J. Smith of Los Angeles Magazine published an article about Pandit/Redd’s background in 2001; parts of it were disputed by both the Pandits and Redds, but it inspired a documentary film entitled Korla that really laid out just what Pandit/Redd had accomplished, and what he’d had to give up to get there. I’ve seen it, and it’s both a heck of a watch and a tribute to a true pioneer.
While John Roland Redd became a nationally known star as a result of a change in identity, the late, great Nat King Cole became even bigger while being just who he was—even though it was a bumpy road to get there. We’ll be talking about that next time; until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.