Classics in the Carolinas: Kay Kyser

 This fall, Comet Over Hollywood is doing a mini-series of “Classics in the Carolinas.” I’ll be spotlighting classic movie related topics in South Carolina (my home state) and North Carolina (where I currently live and work).

“The Kollege of Musical Knowledge” wasn’t the only colligate education 1940s bandleader Kay Kyser received. He was also a 1928 graduate of the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill.

Kay Kyser and his band in 1944

Born in Rocky Mount, N.C. in 1905, Kyser’s mother, Emily Royster Kyser, was the first registered female pharmacist in North Carolina.

Kyser entered UNC in 1923 set on receiving a Bachelor’s degree in law, according to the website “A Tribute to Kay Kyser.” However, Kyser switched his major to economics because “the legal profession meant lots of work,” he said.

An established student at UNC, Kyser excelled not just in academics but in extracurricular activities:

-He was the senior class president in 1928

-The school’s head cheerleader for the cheering section “The Carolina Cheerios”

-He wrote the school’s fight song “Tar Heels on Hand” in 1937

-Acted in PlayMakers Theater

-Was in Sigma Nu fraternity

-Was a member of honors societies-Alpha Kappa Psi, Order of the Grail, Golden Fleece

But it in 1926 during his junior year of college, that Kyser was invited to lead the school orchestra. Up until this point, Kyser had no musical background, except clarinet lessons which his wife Georgia Carroll said “failed miserably.”

Kyser was selected to lead the band because of his popularity on campus was hoped to bring out large audiences.

After graduating from UNC, went on the road with the band but didn’t really take off until the mid-1930s when Kyser hired girl singer Ginny Simms and trumpeter Ishkabbible (real name Merwyn Bogue).

Kyser’s zany style of music is what made him popular.

Kyser’s style was different than other bandleaders of the 1930s and 1940s. He didn’t just play music, the whole band performed in a comedic, fun style. Kyser was known for wearing a graduation cap and gown and showing his southern roots with his signature phrases, “Evenin’ children. How y’all?” and “Y’all’s dance.”

Kyser starred in several Hollywood movies as himself such as “Playmates” (1941) with John Barrymore and “That’s Right-You’re Wrong” (1939) with Lucille Ball. He also traveled abroad during World War II, performing for service men.

But after World War II ended, Kyser retired to Chapel Hill, N.C. with his wife, who was also the band’s singer, Georgia Carroll in 1951.

My mother and grandparents lived in Chapel Hill and would sometimes see Kay Kyser in the grocery store, and also went to the same Lutheran church as his wife. My grandmother said “Gorgeous” Georgia Carroll was just as beautiful in person as she was on screen.

Kyser passed away in 1985, and Carroll remained in Chapel Hill until her death in 2011 at the age of 91. Carroll donated 334 photos and other Kay Kyser artifacts to the Chapel Hill University.

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