Before The Candelabra: Liberace’s Predecessor

It's hard to separate truth from fiction in Steven Soderbergh's excellent new HBO film, but BAD catches at least one whopper. Meet Korla Pandit, the musician who wooed and wowed female TV viewers before Liberace. 

Behind The Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh's film about the relationship between famed pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), premiered this weekend on HBO, and it certainly delivered. Expertly crafted, and filled with bold performances by actors at the top of their game, it's easy to forget that the film is based on a sleazy tell-all book by Thorson, the de facto yet wobbly moral center of the film (who in real life is currently in prison for credit card theft in Reno, Nevada). And since the narrative is limited to exposing the "real Liberace" of the late '70s and early '80s, taking great delight in uncovering the many lies lived by the (somehow) closeted star, perhaps it's understandable why the film lets ol' Lee get away with one big one, never calling him on it. "You know, I was the first person on TV to look directly into the camera...I was the first TV matinee idol," Liberace boasts to Thorson early in the film. While it would be hard to definitively prove who WAS the first to do those things, one thing is certain: they were done before Liberace by one Korla Pandit, the musician replaced by Liberace himself on TV in the 1950s.

Korla Pandit was born John Roland Redd in Arizona, and started playing background music on live radio dramas in the 1940s, such as Chandu the Magician. In 1948, he was invited by Los Angeles' KTLA station manager Klaus Lansberg to help fill - indeed, to help create - the then-nascent field of daytime television. In the '40s, "daytime television" was, as a genre, the result of the fact that most if not all TV stations didn't even sign on until early afternoon, and when they did their audience was made of the post-war children and housewives who happened to be home during those hours. And it was, of course, all live. So, after John Redd provided background music for the puppet show Time For Beany, he would don a bejeweled turban and become the mysterious, silent host of Korla Pandit's Adventures In Music.

For 15 minutes every day, Korla Pandit would stare into the camera (and by extension, into the eyes of his female viewership), never speaking a word, often playing both a piano and Hammond organ at the same time. Viewers were enthralled. Fan mail poured in. No one seemed to notice that the housewives of L.A. were swooning over a light-skinned African-American. And though Pandit delivered to viewers everything from classical to Christmas music, he's today best remembered as a pioneer of the subgenre "Exotica," a dreamy sound we've come to associate with stereotypical Hollywood visions of faraway lands and vaguely foreign mystery.

In 1951, Pandit went national, signing a contract with Snader Telescriptions (a kind of precursor to Scopitones and the modern music video). During a contract dispute in 1953, Snader replaced Pandit with Liberace, and while Liberace built an empire on his exposure and talent, Pandit's career never fully recovered. He continued to record and perform for a niche audience, and BAD readers most likely recall seeing him during the wrap party striptease scene in Tim Burton's Ed Wood.

Pandit died in 1998. No HBO movie is in the works.