Kay Kyser -- a wandering minstrel who found his way

THERE is a story -- it must be apocryphal -- that after he formed his band at the University of North Carolina in 1926, Kay Kyser experienced stage fright on his first date and had to pass the baton to his friend, the songwriter Johnny Mercer. To imagine the late James King Kyser afraid of a crowd boggles the mind, like imagining John Glenn afraid of flying. Kyser's special gift as a bandleader was his capacity to relax uninhibitedly in public -- to grab an audience with his patented ``Evenin' folks, how y'all?'' until all the dancers on the floor felt as if they were being greeted by the most genial of Southern hosts at the most wholesome of prom parties on the most idyllic of summer nights. And my, didn't the scent of magnolias just fill th e air?

With Kyser -- who had been persuaded early by fellow musicians to give up the clarinet -- music was only one aspect of the business. The big bands of the '30s and '40s fell into two categories: swing bands and sweet bands, typified by Benny Goodman and Guy Lombardo. Kyser's was a sweet band, perhaps the most popular next to Lombardo's Royal Canadians. But what made Kyser famous -- what he built his radio show about -- was the ``Kollege of Musical Knowledge,'' a quiz format with audience participation.

Costumed as quizmaster in an academic gown, Kyser was in his element, shaking the tassel on his mortarboard and jumping about like the college cheerleader he had once been as he fed hints to contestants, then batted his blue eyes in innocent astonishment at the answers he practically extracted.

In fact, ``The Old Perfesser,'' as he called himself, came from a long line of teachers. Various ancestors served the University of North Carolina as chairman of the English department, dean of the medical school, and professor of Latin and Greek. ``The Old Perfesser'' was more than a comic disguise. Musicians in his band noted a genuine touch of the schoolmaster in the way he kept them hopping to their assignments. ``Procrastination is the condemnation of the world,'' he liked to say. When he was accus ed of being more demanding of the band as human beings than as musicians, he replied, ``You might make a musician out of a gentleman, but you can't always make a gentleman out of a musician.''

During World War II, Kyser played more than 580 service installations -- camps and hospitals -- refusing for a time to accept any other engagements. It seems to have marked a turning point.

There comes a time in the wandering-minstrel career of some entertainers when entertaining no longer is enough. Certain standard cover stories are offered for a bandleader's change of life. The big-band business is always falling on hard days. Existence on the road is always grueling. And when do you get to see the kids? (Kyser married one of his vocalists, Georgia Carroll, and became the father of three daughters.)

But usually there's something more to the story of an entertainer's dropping out. ``Being entertaining'' night after night can be a restrictive form of typecasting to the human being within.

About the time Artie Shaw quit the business to become a novelist and Benny Goodman retired to play Brahms with the Budapest String Quartet, Kay Kyser left the bandstand to become a practitioner and later a teacher of Christian Science. Those who knew him during both periods of his life remarked upon his continuing talent for being serious without being solemn -- far from it. An old friend remembered that even on the bandstand Kyser could be ``the soul of dignity or buffoonery, either one.''

One reviewer who caught Kay Kyser playing the kindly quizmaster on the stage of New York's Roxy Theater over 40 years ago wrote a prophetic description that seems to make whole the two sides of the man, and the two stages of his career: ``It's hard to pinion Mr. Kyser's charm, examine and define it. He won't stay still long enough. He flits. Flash. I've got it. Mr. Kyser's allure is not so much physical as spiritual. He has a noble soul. He helps people in distress. He asks people questions, then ans wers them himself. He can't bear to see people tortured by doubts.''

A Wednesday and Friday column

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