Radio’s Zany Band Director Kay Kyser Dies

Times Staff Writer

James Kern (Kay) Kyser, the “Old Perfesser” on radio’s beloved “Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge,” died Tuesday of a heart attack.

Kyser, who years after he abandoned his band admitted he couldn’t read a note of music or play an instrument, was 79 and died in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he had devoted the last 35 years of his life to Christian Science.

From 1933 until 1949 Kyser and his assemblage of musical madcaps rode atop the radio ratings.

Each Wednesday night over NBC Kyser offered an hourlong blend of comedy, music and quaint queries in games few ever lost. If a contestant, particularly a serviceman during the war, couldn’t answer one of the Perfesser’s questions, the Perfesser was more than willing to provide the answer.


Kyser and the band dressed in academic caps and gowns for each broadcast, a segment of which was a series of true-false questions. When the answer was false, Kyser would cry in his North Carolina drawl, “That’s wrong, you’re right” or conversely, “That’s right, you’re wrong.”

One of Kyser’s favorite pranks was having his contestants try to identify the many accents announcer Bill Forman could imitate. Forman, of course, was billed as “dean” of the musical college.

On the rare occasion when a question wasn’t answered correctly, Kyser would holler, “Students!” and the audience would shout a response.

Assisting Kyser was a succession of singer-comics, the best known of whom was Ish Kabibble (Merwyn A. Bogue) who, sporting a haircut with bangs, warbled the lyrics to such Hit Parade gibberish as “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey,” or “Three Little Fishies.”


Found Singing Talent

Other Kyser singing discoveries included TV personality Mike Douglas, Harry Babbitt, Ginny Simms and Georgia Carroll, whom Kyser married in 1944.

While Ish Kabibble provided the nonsense, Kyser’s phalanx of more conventional vocalists sang the songs that kept Kyser’s band among the most popular in the nation--"Who Wouldn’t Love You,” “On a Slow Boat to China” and one of World War II’s best-remembered songs, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”

During the war, Kyser’s was among the most popular bands on the USO circuit, where he greeted troops exactly as he had his radio audiences: “Evenin’ folks, how y’all?” He once estimated that he had appeared at more than 500 camps, bases and hospitals.


Planned to Be Lawyer

Kyser had graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1928, five years after entering college with plans of becoming a lawyer.

“He was a BMOC (Big Man on Campus), as they used to say--very active in sports, campus leadership and music,” said Frank Buhrman, spokesman for the university’s news bureau. “He came to school expecting to study law . . . but he formed his first orchestra while he was a student and decided, based on the popularity of his musical endeavors, to change to music.”

Kyser had lived in Chapel Hill since 1951, where he was a well-known spokesman for his religious beliefs. In 1983 he was named president of The Mother Church of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, an honorary title given to a member who has made a significant contribution to the movement.