Kay Kyser and His College of Musical Knowledge
Unless you are over the age of 65, you may not recognize the above name and the the name of his radio and television show which enjoyed tremendous national success in the 30s and 40s.
We elder statesmen and ladies remember Mr. Kyser well from the multitude of hits produced by his orchestra, principally during World War 11. I remember well listening to his show on Wednesday nights sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes on my personal radio which required me to hold the aerial wire around my finger in order to receive reception from the local station (WPTF) in Raleigh. Some people could attach the aerial wire to the screens on their windows to get clearer reception but I was never very successful in doing this.
I went to a presentation the other day by a gentleman who had spent a great deal of time researching old radio programs. He had a lot of tapes of these programs and a segment of his program was to ask the audience if they could identify certain characters after he played the tapes. I was real proud of myself when I was the only one in the audience who could identify F.A. Boone of Lexington, Ky. and L.A. "Speed" Riggs of Goldsboro, N.C. They were the tobacco auctioneers who were used on the commercial part of the Kay Kyser program and, for some reason, I have never forgotten their names.
After the program, I was talking with the gentleman who made the presentation and the conversation drifted off to Kay Kyser. He made a comment to the effect that he was from Kansas. I was taken back by his statement and I told him that I was pretty sure that Kay Kyser was from Rocky Mount, N.C. because my uncle who was also from Rocky Mount had told me many stories about playing with him when he was a kid. I didn't want to argue with the speaker but his comment disturbed me because I knew he was a serious fan of early radio and the the fact that he had a PhD. also was somewhat intimidating.
I left the church vowing to myself that I was going to find out for sure where Kay Kyser was from and I immediately went to the internet. I found a site that allowed questions to be asked and I posed the question of where Kay Kyser was from. I received a very nice e-mail back from Kimberly Kyser, Kay Kyser's youngest daughter who said that he was from Rocky Mount, N.C. I then asked her if she knew of any connection Kay Kyser ever had with Kansas and she replied in the negative. She said the only thing she could think of was maybe somebody in the band had Kansas connections.
I then called the individual who had made the Kansas statement and he accepted what I had found out but I could tell it was going down hard. He said he was sure he had read somewhere that Kay Kyser was from Kansas. I was relieved that I didn't have to rethink everything my uncle had told me about Kay Kyser.
It will probably take a couple of articles to summarize what I have subsequently found out about Mr. Kyser. I'm not worried about the older viewers being interested because I think they will. I can only hope that some of the younger viewers will find what I have learned to be of some interest.
James Kern Kyser was born in Rocky Mount, N.C. in 1905 and was one of 6 children born to his parents. The name Kay comes from the first letter of his middle name in an attempt to add "snap" to his stage name. His mother, Emily, was the first registered female pharmacist in the state of N.C. He graduated from high school in Rocky Mount in 1923 and entered Carolina that same year. He had originally intended to study law but changed his mind when he learned that they had to "work so hard." He received a degree from UNC with honors in Commerce. While at Chapel Hill, he participated in Playmaker's productions, was a member of Sigma Nu fraternity and was a cheerleader. It was during his tenure as cheerleader that he organized a group of students known as the "cheerios" and wrote the song "Tar Heels on Hand."
When Hal Kemp( Charlotte), who later went on to national fame as an orchestra leader, left UNC, he asked Kay Kyser to take over the student dance band. Kyser was reluctant at first but Kemp convinced him that his enthusiasm and knack for showmanship would enable him to be successful. By his own admission, Kay Kyser's first efforts at fronting a band were horrible and only his humor and comedy antics saved them in their first engagement in Oxford. A little known fact about Kay Kyser is that he was included in Bob Ripley's Believe It or Not as the only person ever to successfully be a leader of a band without ever playing a musical instrument, being able to read a note of music and being able to sing. Quite an accomplishment.
Over time, the band improved and he was in demand for dances in the old "Tin Can" next to Woollen at Carolina and at other southern universities. The highlight of the band's college days was an engagement to play the Finals at Georgia Tech for which they received $2000, an astronomical sum at the time.
Before moving on to Kay Kyser's rise to fame on the national scene, maybe we should examine some more of his ties with UNC. His uncle opened the School of Pharmacy at UNC in 1897, his brother was a Chemistry professor until 1931 and his cousin had been Dean of the Graduate School. So Carolina was in Kay Kyser's blood from the outset.
In the next installment, I will go into some of the details of Kyser's professional career.
Kyser' band struggled after he graduated from Carolina and little was heard of him nationally until 1938 when he got his first radio show. The show was originally called "Kay's Klass" and consisted of questions asked to audience members along with participation of the band in providing the musical content of the questions. Persons who sent in the questions to be asked would receive a diploma from the new name of the show, "Kollege of Musical Knowledge.", a name provided by Sully Mason, the male vocalist with the orchestra, who was a native of Durham. The radio show was a national hit and had a listening audience of 20 million. Kyser would dress in cap and gown and engage in all kinds of silliness but the audiences loved it.
By 1940, Kyser's band was at the top of the charts and he had begun making full length feature films. His first film was entitled "That's Right, You're Wrong" a phrase he often used on the radio show in response to answers given by the contestants. Kyser had already achieved his first million selling record with "Three Little Fishes" in 1939. I can remember some of the words to this novelty tune but not all of them . They went something like this. "Swim said the mama fish, swim if you can, and they swam and they swam all over the dam."
Most people think of Bob Hope when the subject of entertaining the troops is mentioned but not only was Kay Kyser the first noted entertainer to do this ( at his own expense ), he performed for the troops more than any other entertainer including Bob Hope during World War 11. He made over 1100 appearances at military bases in approx. 580 different locations, many of them overseas. Ginny Simms, the lead female vocalist with whom Kyser was rumored to have a romantic interest, left the band in 1941 and strangely enough went with the band of a Duke graduate, Johnny Long. In 1943, Georgia Carroll joined the Kyser band where she stayed for a year and a half. Kay and Georgia were married in 1944. During the war years, Michael Douglas, the noted talk show host of the 80s, performed as a vocalist with the Kyser band.
Kyser began to have trouble with his feet and turned to Christian Scientology for help in seeking a remedy. He was later to become very involved with the Church of Christian Scientology and eventually served as the President of that organization. When he was asked about his high office in the CS church he down played it by saying, "I haven't been elected Pope or anything." Typical Kyserism.
During World War 11, Kyser reflected on his life and decided that he was not pleased with what he doing with it. He had guilt feelings about the fact that many Americans were giving their lives for the country while he was making a lot of money leading a band. He decided he wanted to do something else with his life but he didn't share it with anybody. The band continued to have hits but Kyser's participation was gradually diminished. In 1948, Kyser became heavily involved with the North Carolina Good Health Program. His interest in this program was brought about when he learned that North Carolina had more men rejected from the military draft in World War 11 than any other state in the nation. He also became involved in bringing public television to North Carolina.
He wanted to retire but he had contractual obligations that required him to continue until December of 1950. His last two years, he did a national tv program that was sponsored by the Ford Motor Company and I had the pleasure of attending one of these programs in New York City in the spring of 1950. Little did I know, at the time, that the Kollege of Musical Knowledge would soon be a thing of the past. It was widely rumored that his program was replaced by Tennessee Ernie Ford because the wife of Henry Ford 11, who headed the Ford Motor Company at the time, thought Kyser's program was silly. This suited Kyser just fine because in Dec. of 1950,he announced his retirement to the shock of the entertainment world and moved to Chapel Hill where he and Georgia continued to raise their family. They moved into a house that his uncle had formerly owned and today is thought to be the oldest house in Chapel Hill. I don't know exactly where it is located but I plan to try and find it on my next trip to the Hill. I may even try to talk to Mrs. Kyser.
KK continued his philanthropic work until he passed away in his office in 1985 of heart failure. The Kyser Foundation today has scholarships at UNC for students with promise in dramatic arts or music. Mr. Kyser in buried in Chapel Hill.
During KK's professional career he had 11 no. #1 hits, 35 top 10 hits, acted in 7 full length movies and recorded over 400 songs.
I could write more but I think I've about covered the waterfront with Mr. Kyser. It's been fun researching the "ole professor" and it seems like yesterday that I could hear him open his radio program with, "Evening folks, how y'all." Tempus fugit.