‘Carousel’ Star John Raitt Dies at 88
LOS ANGELES – John Raitt, the robust baritone who created the role of Billy Bigelow in the original New York production of “Carousel” and sang with Doris Day in the movie “Pajama Game,” died Sunday. He was 88.
Raitt, the father of singer Bonnie Raitt, died from complications of pneumonia at his Pacific Palisades home, his manager, James Fitzgerald, said in a statement.
Raitt had become well known on the West Coast for his handsome presence and ringing voice when in 1944 he was invited to New York to try out for the role of Curly in the road company of “Oklahoma!” He was rushed from Penn Station to the St. James Theater and an audition with Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers.
In 1995, Raitt recalled: “I hadn’t sung since California, so I said, ‘Do you mind if I warm up?’ I sang Figaro’s aria from ‘The Barber of Seville.’ Then I sang all of Curly’s songs.'”
There was silence when he finished. The problem was not his voice, which was both melodic and powerful, but his height. At 6 feet 2 was he too tall for Curly? Hammerstein reasoned: “I’m a tall man. Why can’t Curly be tall?” Raitt was hired for the Chicago company of “Oklahoma!”
Rodgers and Hammerstein had been working on their second collaboration, “Carousel,” and they chose Raitt for the role of the doomed hero Billy Bigelow.
Raitt astounded the opening-night audience in 1945 with his dynamic soliloquy, which he called “practically a one-act opera which took six and a half minutes to sing.” He said Hammerstein had been inspired to write it when he heard the newcomer sing Figaro at the audition.
Raitt’s star status on Broadway was assured, and after the long run in “Carousel” he appeared in “Magdalena,” “Three Wishes for Jamie” and “Carnival in Flanders.” He lacked a big crossover to film until “The Pajama Game” in 1954.
“The Pajama Game” became a successful movie with Raitt and several others in their stage roles and Doris Day for popular appeal. The numbers “Hey, There,” “Steam Heat” and “Once a Year Day,” choreographed by Bob Fosse, helped make the 1957 film a delight. Despite his good notices, it was Raitt’s only starring movie (he had played two minor roles while briefly under contract to MGM in 1940).
In his later years, Raitt was overshadowed by the fame of his blues-singing daughter. He delighted in her success and approved of her campaigning for civil rights, peace and other causes. “She used to be known as John Raitt’s daughter; now I’m known as Bonnie Raitt’s father,” he observed.
After she had become a big attraction in pop music, they sometimes appeared together, singing duets with her song “Blowing Away” and his “Hey, There.”
“He treats every show with equal thrill and passion,” Bonnie Raitt once said. “He puts the same into it no matter whether it’s a charity breakfast for 50 people or opening night of a Broadway show.
“He never sold out for the quick buck. If he did Vegas, he would have been a bigger star, but he didn’t want to sing for drunks and hecklers, and neither do I.”
John Emmett Raitt was born Jan. 10, 1917, in Santa Ana, Calif. At Fullerton Union he excelled in track, winning a scholarship to the University of Southern California. He concluded his college education at the University of Redlands in 1940.
His deep, resonant voice developed early, and he sang at service clubs and churches throughout Southern California. His professional debut came in 1940 as a chorus singer in “HMS Pinafore” with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, where he would be a frequent star in later years.
With little operatic training, he sang lead roles in “The Barber of Seville” and “Carmen” at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. That led to the fateful meeting with Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Raitt remained a top musical star, touring with Mary Martin in “Annie Get Your Gun,” and lead roles in “Destry Rides Again,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Kismet” and “Zorba” as well as “Oklahoma!” “Carousel” and “The Pajama Game.” He played in summer stock from 1959 to 1984, keeping his fee moderate so theaters could afford him. “I liked the work, and if I upped the price, I wouldn’t get the work,” he reasoned in a 1995 interview.
In his 80s, he continued touring with a one-man show, “An Evening with John Raitt,” and made appearances with Bonnie on the Boston Pops broadcast and her own concerts.
Bonnie and two brothers, Steven and David, were born to Raitt’s first marriage to Marjorie Haydock. They divorced in 1971. A second marriage to Kathleen Smith Landry ended in divorce in 1981. That year, he learned from an old friend that Raitt’s high school sweetheart had recently been widowed.
“Having played Zorba, I believe in grabbing at life,” he recalled. “So I called her and this sweet voice answered. ‘I’m free now,’ I told her, ‘and I’m coming to dinner.'”
Raitt and Rosemary Kraemer were married in 1981. Bonnie sang “Safe in Your Arms” at the wedding. Raitt sang “My Heart’s Darling” at her 1991 wedding to actor Michael O’Keefe.