Kay Kyser

“If playing the melody is corn, then I want to be corny.” –Kay Kyser

Bandleader and radio personality James Kern Kyser was born on June 18, 1905, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. His parents, Paul and Emily Kyser, worked as pharmacists. Kyser was one of six children.

In the years to come, Kyser attended and graduated with his Bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There, he was active in the Sigma Nu Fraternity and senior class president.

During his time at Chapel Hill, Kyser expressed his enthusiasm and joyous persona through cheerleading, quickly becoming a popular and adored campus personality. He was eventually invited by musician, bandleader, and composer Hal Kemp to take on his band-leading duties. Though Kyser studied clarinet, he found more fulfillment in working as an announcer and master of ceremonies. His middle initial soon substituted for his first name as his newly-minted stage name: Kay Kyser.

Kyser and his orchestra recorded sessions for Victor at Camden, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois, in the 1920s. Upon his graduation, Kyser and his band toured restaurants and nightclubs throughout the Midwest, gradually building a following. Kyser was especially popular at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago, where Kyser came up with a musical quiz act called “Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge,” broadcast on the Mutual Broadcasting System and, later, NBC Radio.

Aside from the “Kollege of Musical Knowledge,” Kyser’s orchestra was highly successful. Though his “Ol’ Perfessor” character was at the helm, his band members were also popular in their own right, including Harry Babbitt, Merwyn Bogue (or Ish Kabibble), Bruce King, Jack Martin, Ginny Simms, Sully Mason, Mike Douglas, and Georgia Carroll.

Incidentally, a year after “Gorgeous Georgia Carroll”’ joined the group, she and Kyser married. The couple had three children and remained married until Kyser’s passing.

Kyser’s orchestra popularized numerous tunes, including “Woody Woodpecker,” “Three Little Fishies,” “The Old Lamp-Lighter,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” and “Jingle Jangle Jingle.”

Kyser and his bandmates appeared in various films, typically as themselves. They can be seen in That’s Right—You’re Wrong (1939), You’ll Find Out (1940), Around the World (1943), Stage Door Canteen (1943), Thousands Cheer (1943), and Carolina Blues (1944). Kyser also appeared in the Porky Pig cartoon Africa Squeaks (1940), in which he voiced a caricature of himself named “Cake-Icer.”

Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge made its way to television on NBC-TV. Struggling with arthritis, Kyser retired from performing in 1950. He converted to Christian Science and ran the film and television department of the church in Boston, Massachusetts, eventually becoming its president in 1983.  

Kyser passed away on July 23, 1985, from a heart attack in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was buried at Old Chapel Hill Cemetery in Chapel Hill. He was 80 years old.

The Kyser family home was located at 219 Sunset Ave., Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Kyser’s parents and the six children resided in the home for decades. The home longer stands, however, a historic marker in Kyser’s honor was dedicated there in 2019. Kyser’s two remaining daughters–Kimberly and Amanda–attended the ceremony, as did Kyser’s best friend from childhood. The mayor declared October 5th as Kay Kyser Day in Rocky Mount, presenting plaques to Kyser’s daughters. The day culminated with an evening performance filled with Kyser’s music. The marker is behind the First Methodist Church, on the corner of Franklin St. and Sunset Ave. in Rocky Mount.

In 1945, Kyser resided at 9646 Heather Rd., Beverly Hills, California. The home still stands today.

Kyser has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, honoring his work in radio and recording. The stars are located at 1601 Vine St. and 1708 Vine St. in Los Angeles, California.

The Blackhawk Restaurant operated at 139 N. Wabash Ave., Chicago, Illinois. While the restaurant no longer remains, the building still stands.

In 1951, Kyser and his wife moved into a home at 504 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The home exists today as the Hooper-Kyser House.

Kyser was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 1999. His papers were donated to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by his widow and were made available to the public in 2008. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill remains a prestigious academic institution.

Old Chapel Hill Cemetery is located at 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

About Annette Bochenek

Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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