Friends Mourn Passing of Singer John Raitt, 88

John Raitt at home in the Riviera in 2002.
John Raitt at home in the Riviera in 2002.
Photo by Rich Schmitt, Staff Photographer

John Raitt, a longtime Palisadian who enjoyed a 70-year career marked by extraordinary good fortune and theatrical success, died on Sunday, February 20, of complications from pneumonia. He was 88. The musical theater star who made his name on Broadway was equally known and revered in Pacific Palisades, where he generously shared his talent, civic spirit and pride. Raitt was born in Santa Ana in 1917 and began his professional career in the chorus of ‘H. M. S. Pinafore’ for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera in 1940. He last performed with his Grammy-winning daughter Bonnie at a Musical Theatre Alumni Tribute to him at Pepperdine University in December. After a period as an MGM contract player, Raitt auditioned for the plum role of Curly in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1944 tour of ‘Oklahoma!’ and won the part, which helped pay his college bills at the University of Redlands. After playing the lead role in ‘Oklahoma!’ in Chicago for 10 months, he went to New York and within a short time was cast as Billy Bigelow in the Broadway-bound ‘Carousel.’ For his work in ‘Carousel,’ in which he introduced such songs as ‘If I Loved You’ and ‘Soliloquy,’ Raitt received numerous awards and caught the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who, when he came to see the show, sent an aide backstage to ask where they had discovered the talented young man. To Mayer’s surprise, he was informed that Raitt had been plucked from his own back lot. The baritone appeared in three more Broadway musicals”Magdalena’ (1948), ‘Three Wishes for Jamie’ (1952) and ‘Carnival in Flanders’ (1953)’before striking gold in ‘The Pajama Game’ (1954). He performed the latter over 1,000 times, and his spirited and sensitive renditions of ‘There Once Was A Man,’ ‘Small Talk’ and ‘Hey There”his duet with a Dictaphone machine’remain high-water marks in musical theater history. Raitt loved the show, and when he learned that Arnie Wishnick and Andy Frew were going to mount it for Theatre Palisades in 2002 he quickly offered to help. ‘John came to the first meeting and met with the cast, which was a thrill for them’to be with this Broadway legend,’ Wishnick recalls. ‘He then appeared in 19 out of 24 performances, singing his signature song ‘Hey There.’ It was a treat for the audiences to see the great John Raitt.’ Raitt’s success and fame on 44th Street gave him the opportunity to do television shows, including such memorable productions as ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ with Mary Martin in 1957. In fact, two of the songs from that show became duets Raitt later sang in concert and on a CD with Bonnie. In the liner notes for ‘John Raitt: Broadway Legend,’ Bonnie commented, ‘To get to share in the magic of these songs, these beautiful new arrangements and most of all that voice’with all the richness that a lifetime of experience can bring’is a thrill words cannot express.’ That voice was extraordinary, recalls actress and fellow Palisades Honorary Mayor Nanette Fabray, noting Raitt’s ‘Stradivarius vocal cords. He was born with it. I don’t know if he knew how to care for it or not; most athletes have to warm up, but not John. He would just open up his mouth and out would come Stradivarius.’ Over the years, Raitt continued performing at benefit concerts, including an appearance at Carnegie Hall and at the 2002 Tony Awards in a group rendition of ‘Oklahoma!’ He never hesitated to sing in his hometown whenever he could fit the event into his schedule. He retained the title of Palisades Honorary Mayor from 1990 to 1994, happily riding in the Fourth of July Parade even after his term ended, and singing for Chamber of Commerce mixers and other local organizations. ‘I remember one of our mixers fell on Halloween and John was going to sing for us, Wishnick remembers. ‘I asked him if he knew any Halloween songs, and by golly he did. I was really impressed by that. He was always there for us. A couple of years ago, he appeared at AARP and entertained us with stories and songs for 55 minutes. I also saw him perform at his theater in Hollywood and was amazed; he never looked at sheet music. For an hour and a half, he knew every song by heart.’ He loved the Palisades and his involvement, and when his term as mayor finally came to an end, he said, ‘I’ll miss telling everybody all over the country that I’m the Honorary Mayor of Pacific Palisades, and I’ll miss riding in the parade. I’ll also miss singing. As everybody knows, I love to perform.’ Fabray says ‘Raitt was born with so much talent and such a great gift of joy in his performance. When you were his audience, you saw an ebullient, adorable John. ‘But, believe it or not, he had many personalities. When he was with Rosemary, he was a totally different person.’ Rosemary and John had met and fallen in love as students at Redlands, but life’s currents did not bring them back together for 41 years, when they were finally reintroduced by a mutual friend and married in 1981. ‘He was a gentle, caring person around her. He would get up and do anything for her, even when he was in pain. It was an extraordinary love story. Bonnie always said that her mother always said that Rosemary was John’s true love.’ In addition to his wife and daughter, Raitt is survived by his two sons, Steven and David, two stepdaughters, Sally Lokey and Dee Mahieu; and six grandchildren. Funeral services will be private, and plans for a memorial are pending. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the John Raitt and Rosemary Raitt Scholarship and Musical Theater at the School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA.