Raitt, John Emmett

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Raitt, John Emmett

(b. 29 January 1917 in Santa Ana, California; d. 20 February 2005 in Pacific Palisades, California), singing star of musical comedy, television and film actor, recording artist, and one of the great leading men of Broadway’s golden age, who introduced a new breed of musical hero, tough and flawed.

Raitt was the son of Archie John Raitt, the founder and longtime director of the North Orange County Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and Stella Eulalie Walton Raitt, a homemaker. Sports were a major part of his early life. He excelled in football and track and planned to become a high-school gym teacher. Raitt’s resonant baritone voice developed early; he sang in the chorus of Desert Song in his senior year in high school, but sports were his priority. He won the state title in the shot-put in 1935 and, upon his graduation from Fullerton High School, earned a track scholarship to the University of Southern California. After a year, Raitt transferred to the University of Redlands in Redlands, California, to focus on singing; he sang lead roles in campus productions of The Bartered Bride and Die Fledermaus. After graduating in 1939 with an AB in physical education, Raitt continued singing at YMCAs and Kiwanis and Rotary clubs and studied voice with Richard Cummings.

Raitt’s first professional engagement was in 1940 as a member of the chorus in the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera production of H. M. S. Pinafore. He began building a reputation, singing leads in opera and operetta, including Rose-Marie, The Merry Widow, The Barber of Seville, and Carmen. His performances resulted in a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, playing bit parts in films such as Flight Command (1940) and Billy the Kid (1941). Raitt was invited back to the University of Redlands to sing in The Vagabond King; his leading lady was a sophomore, Marjorie Haydock. They married on 28 December 1942 and had three children, one of whom, the blues-rock singer Bonnie Raitt, became a Grammy Award–winning star.

Armina Marshall, a Broadway producer and the wife of Lawrence Langner, founder of the Theatre Guild, heard Raitt sing and was so impressed that she invited him to New York City to audition for the lead role of Curly in the national company of the Broadway smash hit Oklahoma!. As Raitt later recalled, “I decided this would be the big break.” He sold his car, gave up his apartment, and boarded a train to New York to audition for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Jr. Since he had not sung since leaving California, Raitt asked permission to warm up. First he sang Figaro’s aria from The Barber of Seville and then all of Curly’s songs. When he finished, there was a long silence. In his autobiography Musical Stages (1975), Rodgers recalls his first impression of Raitt, saying that he was “a big, brawny fellow with the magnificent baritone.” Rodgers and Hammerstein not only cast Raitt, who stood six foot, two inches tall, as Curly but also agreed that he was perfect to play the lead of the carnival barker Billy Bigelow in Carousel, a new musical based on Benjamin F. Glazer’s adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s play Liliom.

Meanwhile, Raitt was sent to Chicago to play Curly in Oklahoma!. He opened at the Erlanger Theatre on 10 March 1944, and Claudia Cassidy of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “He took over the leading role with the ease of a cowboy swinging into the saddle.” After a year on the road, he returned to New York to begin rehearsals for Carousel. One day Raitt was handed a piece of paper, folded up like an accordion and measuring about fifteen feet when unfolded. It was Raitt’s show-stopping solo “Soliloquy.” The genesis of the song dated from Raitt’s audition, when he had displayed his operatic ability. Hammerstein realized Raitt’s vocal talent and provided an emotionally draining, vocally challenging, six-and-one-half minute “aria,” as the hero Billy Bigelow contemplates his life as the father of a son and then the possibility that the boy he envisioned could turn out to be “my little girl.” The Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer wrote in 1992 that “the ‘Soliloquy’ from Carousel is still probably the single-most demanding number in the whole musical comedy repertory.” Carousel opened at the Majestic Theatre on 19 April 1945. Raitt’s performance won him the New York Drama Critics’ Circle and Donaldson awards.

Raitt’s next lead role on Broadway was in Magdalena (1948), with music by the classical composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. His performance was described as memorable, but the show was not a success. He starred in two other unsuccessful musicals, Three Wishes for Jamie (1952) and Carnival in Flanders (1953). However, Raitt had a second Broadway hit in the Richard Adler and Jerry Ross musical The Pajama Game, playing Sid Sorkin, superintendent of a pajama factory. The show opened on 13 May 1954 at the St. James Theatre. The New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson lauded Raitt’s “deep voice” and “romantic manner.” Although Raitt did not star in the film version of Carousel, he did play Sorkin in the 1957 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film of The Pajama Game. This was his first and last starring role in a movie. Raitt’s only other Broadway musicals, A Joyful Noise (1966) and A Musical Jubilee (1975), were short-lived.

In 1971 Raitt and Haydock divorced. A second marriage, to Kathleen Smith Landry, on 25 June 1972, ended in divorce in 1981. That same year he learned that Rosemary Yorba Lokey, a high school sweetheart, had recently been widowed. They married on 2 October 1981. During the latter part of Raitt’s singing career, he traveled throughout the country playing in different musicals, including Zorba, Kiss Me Kate, Camelot, and Kismet. In 1987 he told the Los Angeles Daily News, “You name it, I’ve been there.” He enjoyed playing summer stock and kept his fees modest, stating in a 1995 interview, “I like the work. If I upped the price, I wouldn’t get the work.” Raitt was a crowd pleaser. In 1979, when a hurricane forced cancellation of Man of La Mancha in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Raitt sang “The Impossible Dream” to three busloads of disappointed theatergoers, so “they wouldn’t go back empty handed.”

Raitt played a lead in the Pulitzer Prize Playhouse production of Knickerbocker Holiday on 11 November 1950. He was a regular on the Buick Circus Hour (7 October 1952–16 June 1953). In 1957 he played opposite Mary Martin in a production of Annie Get Your Gun on the National Broadcasting Company network. He hosted The Chevy Show on the Columbia Broadcasting System network from June to September of 1959; sang on the Bell Telephone Hour several times in the 1960s; and appeared in a number of television series, including 3rd Rock from the Sun, in 1996, as a singing trucker. Raitt continued performing into his eighties, touring a one-man show, An Evening with John Raitt. He was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame in 2001. Raitt recorded fourteen albums, including John Raitt: The Broadway Legend (1995). He died at home from complications of pneumonia. Throughout his career Raitt never lost his love for the stage and singing, playing more than thirty-five leading roles in musical comedy. Although he had only two major starring roles on Broadway, his memorable voice and physical presence made him a legend.

Richard Dyer, “The Raitts Make ‘a Dream Come True,’” Boston Globe (18 May 1992), provides biographical information and reviews the appearance of John and Bonnie Raitt with the Boston Pops. Alex Witchel, “Celebrating with: John and Bonnie Raitt; Like Father, Unlike Daughter,” New York Times (2 Feb. 1994), includes biographical information. Eric Myers, “Broadway Boys,” Opera News (Aug. 2003), compares Raitt’s voice with those of others who have sung “his” roles. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 21 Feb. 2005).

Marcia B. Dinneen