ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT ARTS & CULTURE

John Raitt, 88; Leading Man on Broadway and Father of Bonnie

John Raitt, the ruggedly handsome musical theater leading man who launched his Broadway career in Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1945 hit "Carousel" and later co-starred in "The Pajama Game" on Broadway and in the film version, died Sunday. He was 88.

Raitt, the father of Grammy-winning singer Bonnie Raitt, died at his Pacific Palisades home of complications from pneumonia, his manager, James Fitzgerald, told The Times.

Raitt played Curly in the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" in 1944, before he was cast as carnival carousel operator Billy Bigelow in "Carousel," in which he sang "If I Loved You" with Jan Clayton, and "Soliloquy," the show-stopping solo number that displayed his considerable vocal range and virtuosity.

"Overnight, he became very, very celebrated," said musical theater historian Miles Kreuger, president of the Los Angeles-based Institute of the American Musical, who saw Raitt perform in "Carousel" in 1945.

"He was tall and good-looking and had a marvelous masculine quality as a leading man, and his voice was so breathtaking that he was just simply phenomenal," Kreuger said. "There was nobody like him on Broadway at the time."

Mary Rodgers, the daughter of composer Richard Rodgers, told the Dallas Morning News in 1996 that "John Raitt had the most glorious voice in the world, and he was a great big handsome sexy hunk."

Raitt went on to give memorable performances in the Broadway musicals "Magdalena," "Three Wishes for Jamie" and "Carnival in Flanders," but those shows were not successful.

It was not until 1954 that he had his second Broadway hit, playing opposite Janis Paige in "The Pajama Game," in which he introduced the classic ballad "Hey, There." Raitt reprised his role of the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory superintendent in the 1957 film co-starring Doris Day.

Also in 1957, Raitt was the leading man opposite Mary Martin in a national tour of "Annie Get Your Gun," which became an NBC-TV special that year.

In the decades since making his Broadway debut, Raitt was known to have missed only a few leading roles in American musicals on tour or in summer stock.

Among many others, he played Don Quixote in "Man of La Mancha" and Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." He also starred in "Zorba," "Shenandoah," "South Pacific" and "Kiss Me Kate."

"I don't think anybody's ever played more performances of Broadway musicals than I have. I've never stopped," he said with pride in a 1995 Times interview before celebrating the 50th anniversaries of his and "Carousel's" Broadway debut by singing many of the Rodgers & Hammerstein songs from the musical at the Hollywood Bowl.

"John Raitt epitomizes the golden years of the great American art form, the American musical," John Mauceri, the director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, said at the time.

Born in Santa Ana, Raitt developed a love of singing at the YMCA camp run by his father, a founder and longtime director of the North Orange County YMCA. He attended high school in Fullerton, where, as a senior, he sang in the chorus of the musical "Desert Song."

But he made his mark in high school as an athlete, not a singer. He set state records in javelin, shotput and discus. He went to USC on a track scholarship but transferred to the University of Redlands, where he further developed his interest in music.

By 1940, he was singing in the chorus of "HMS Pinafore" with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company. A year later, he played the roles of Figaro and Count Almaviva in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium production of "The Barber of Seville" and played Escamillo in "Carmen."

About the same time, he became a contract player at MGM, where he had uncredited bit parts in about half a dozen movies but failed to make a mark in Hollywood.

In 1944, his agent arranged a meeting with a New York producer who was visiting Los Angeles -- a hasty meeting in a cab in which he didn't even sing. The producer nevertheless asked him to go to New York to audition for the role of Curly in "Oklahoma!"

Within two months, he received a registered letter offering to pay his way to New York and back to try out as the replacement for Broadway's first Curly, Alfred Drake.

"I decided this would be the big break," Raitt said in the 1995 interview. "I sold the car and gave up the apartment and got on the train to New York," where he went straight from Penn Station to the St. James Theater.

Because he hadn't sung since he left California, he recalled, he asked to warm up. He did that by singing Figaro's aria from "The Barber of Seville," then he sang all of Curly's songs.

When he finished, there was a long silence.

What he later learned was that his size, not his voice, was the problem: The producers were worried that he wouldn't fit into Drake's costume and that, at 6-feet-2, he was too tall to look right in the part.

"But Hammerstein said, 'I'm a tall man. Why can't Curly be tall?' " Raitt recalled. "And all the Curlys that followed after me were as tall or taller than I was."

It turned out, however, that Raitt did not play Curly on Broadway. Rodgers & Hammerstein had just received the rights to Ferenc Molnar's play "Liliom," on which they based "Carousel," and thought Raitt would be perfect for Billy Bigelow. In the meantime, they sent him off to Chicago to play Curly in the national company of "Oklahoma!"

After a year on the road with the national company, Raitt was back in New York rehearsing "Carousel."

A few days into rehearsal, Raitt recalled, he was handed a piece of paper that was folded up like an accordion. It was "Soliloquy," which measured about 15 feet long when it was unfolded.

"What prompted it was my singing of Figaro," Raitt said of the number. "It had some of the same pattern and range of voice. And what a legacy Dick Rodgers left -- it's practically a one-act opera and takes 6 1/2 minutes to sing."

What proved his most famous stage role earned him best actor of the year in a musical from the New York Drama Critics and the Donaldson Awards committee.

From 1959 to 1984, Raitt worked continuously in summer stock, always mindful of keeping his fees modest and not pricing himself out of the market. "I like the work," he told The Times. "If I upped the price, I wouldn't get the work."

His philosophy as a performer was always "to give the best performance I can possibly give," which he passed on to daughter Bonnie.

"He treats every performance with equal thrill and passion," she told The Times in 1995. "He puts the same into it no matter whether it's a charity breakfast for 50 people or opening night of a Broadway show."

Raitt's 1995 album, his first in 25 years, "John Raitt: The Broadway Legend," included three songs with his daughter. Father and daughter also appeared together occasionally singing duets of "Hey, There," as well as her song "Blowing Away."

Although he had been in ill health in recent months, he sang several songs and a couple of duets with his daughter at a tribute to him at Pepperdine University in January.

Over the years, Raitt augmented his work in musicals with a performance piece called "An Evening With John Raitt," in which he sang 23 songs from 16 Broadway musicals. And he never lost his love of getting on stage and singing.

"I'll sing as long as people want to hear me, and I'll be able to sing as long as I'm alive. If I can talk, I can sing."

In addition to his daughter, Bonnie, Raitt is survived by his wife, Rosemary; two sons, Steven and David; two stepdaughters, Sally Lokey and Dee Mahieu; and six grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private. Plans for a memorial are pending.

Instead 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.

FOR THE RECORD:

Raitt obituary -- The obituary of Broadway star John Raitt in Monday's California section said he set state records in javelin, shotput and discus as a high school athlete in Fullerton. He won the state title in the shotput in 1935 but did not set a state record. He set a state record in the football throw, which was never bested; the event was discontinued a few years after he set the record. In addition, the story incorrectly reported that he appeared with Mary Martin in a national tour of "Annie Get Your Gun" in 1957. The 1957 edition of the show with Raitt and Martin, which became an NBC-TV special that year, was performed only in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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