The Kollege of Musical Knowledge

I highly recommend that if you have a mother that can't sing, and she insists on singing to you constantly throughout your childhood, that you get rid of her immediately and trade her in for one that can vocalize to a sufficiently able degree.

My mother sang to us often as we were growing up, and, luckily for us, she could sing. It's not as if she walked around the house regaling us with song after song at all hours of the day. She certainly did not do such a thing. But she would pick her moments, and when the mood was right or the song had some sort of topical relevance to whatever mischief was going on at that particular moment, she would start in on some song from her childhood and sing a few bars (or sometimes more). I always found this pleasant, for frankly, she never sang enough.

One of the songs she would do a little of now and then was "Three Little Fishies (Itty Bitty Poo)", and was especially fond of saying the line "...and they twam and they twam all over the dam." Because we never had a recording of this song, I only knew it from my mother's singing it to us, and it would be several years before I actually heard the song on the radio (KHAR Easy Listening in Anchorage) and learned the name of the man who made it a #1 hit back in 1939: Kay Kyser.

From what I understand, he was a bandleader who didn't really lead his band, except as a figurehead, and had little to do with the arranging or producing of the records on which his name appeared as the artist. That's fine: Walt Disney could barely draw, didn't actually create most of his characters, or even write his name in the scrawl in which it famously appears, but Disney was still a genius. I'm not saying that Kyser was a genius, far from it, but he was an able comedian, was exceedingly popular in the 30's and 40's, had 11 Number One hits and over 35 hits in a span of 15 years, and had one of the most popular radio shows in the world: The College of Musical Knowledge. Kay Kyser was actually an academic, and he carried this posture over into the character that he used to portray himself to the world: the grand professor of all things musical, he spoke in a weird mix of Southern politeness and hipster lingo that were an especially odd combination coming out the mouth of a man that you swore never took his nose out a book.

But this professor was so popular that Hollywood just had to come calling, and Kyser and his orchestra made seven starring features (and were featured in two cameos in other films) throughout the 40's. None of them were ever going to win any awards, at least not for quality, but that really wasn't supposed to be the focus anyway. (Most would say they were made to be fun entertainments, but a cynic would say they were simply made to make money. Though I normally side with the cynics on these lines, I will walk this particular line and say that they were made to be fun entertainments and to make money, like most Hollywood pictures of any generation. Now, is everybody happy?)

I first encountered a Kyser film when I tuned in to what I presumed would be a horror film, since I knew very little about the film called You'll Find Out (1940) beyond the fact that it starred Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre. That combination alone was enough to send me to the station for a viewing, but when I looked the film up in my Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, it said that the real star was Kay Kyser, and referred to the horrific trio as being "wasted". I took this to mean that were underused, but you never know with the Psychotronic.

The truth is that the scaremeisters are underused, though they do have some good moments, but the film really does belong to Kyser and his band, and most especially to the strange deadpan comic stylings of trumpeter Ish Kabbible (born Merwyn Bogue). I knew Ish's name from "Three Little Fishies", where it is mentioned at the beginning of the song, but I always thought he was the singer. It turns out that the voice actually belonged to Harry Babbitt, who figures prominently in the film, along with singer Ginny Simms and saxman Sully Mason. But Ish turned out to be my favorite part of the film, and because of this movie, I started hunting down any Kyser I could find on CD. But I didn't see another Kyser film until two weeks ago.

Home for New Year's vacation, I ventured onto TCM to find a pair of Kyser films showing back to back, and both from 1943: Swing Fever and Around the World. Swing Fever is an odd attempt to turn Kyser into a solo comedy star, with the band clearly relegated to the background, and used mainly in musical sequences. The film is rather unsuccessful, and would have been better as a Danny Kaye trifle in a couple of years. Kyser just doesn't quite fit in to this mold, though he is rather pleasant to watch. Around the World is a far more enjoyable effort, even if the film itself is rather slapdash and constitutes mainly of hijinks surrounding the Kyser Band's USO Tour during WWII. Stops all around the world (hence the title), numerous stage appearances in front of the troops, a lot of corndog jokes from Ish Kabibble, and some seriously haphazard slapstick involving Kay and fellow tour resident Mischa Auer (playing himself). My favorite parts of the film involve Auer sitting down at the piano and then playing his selection using a series of grapefruits, and any of the scenes utilizing the comic talents of the marvelous Joan Davis (a favorite of mine since seeing her in Sun Valley Serenade and Hold That Ghost).

As I said, these films are not Citizen Kane, nor were they meant to be. For a pleasant three hours, though, I was transported back in time to an era that I never knew, and only can know when I visit the entertainments or histories of that time. Personally, I'll check out the entertainments...


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