February 28, 2005 by

John Raitt

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Categories: Actors, Hollywood, Musicians

John Emmett Raitt, the legendary Broadway musical star who created the role of Billy Bigelow in the original production of “Carousel,” died on Feb. 20 from complications of pneumonia. He was 88.
The California native began to develop his deep baritone voice in his teens. He studied physical education at the University of Southern California and the University of Redlands, but also sang at Rotary Club luncheons and church functions. Raitt made his professional debut in 1940 as a chorus singer with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. Within five years, he became the company’s star, tackling lead roles in “The Barber of Seville” and “Carmen.”
In 1944, Raitt received an invitation to travel to New York City and audition for the role of Curly in “Oklahoma!” After four days on the train, he raced to the St. James Theater and requested a few minutes to warm up. When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II acquiesced, Raitt launched into a rousing rendition of Figaro’s aria from “The Barber of Seville,” then performed all of Curly’s songs from “Oklahoma!” After a few moments of stunned silence, Rodgers and Hammerstein hired the talented singer to play the part in the show’s national touring company.
That audition left a strong impression on Hammerstein. When he and Rodgers began working on their second collaboration, “Carousel,” Hammerstein composed the seven-minute-long “Soliloquy” for Raitt. On opening night in 1945, Raitt made his Broadway debut as Bigalow, a ne’er-do-well carnival barker. His performance wowed the audience and earned him the Drama Critics Award and the Donaldson Award.
After a long run in “Carousel,” Raitt appeared in the Broadway productions of “Magdalena,” “Three Wishes for Jamie” and “Carnival in Flanders.” The hardworking performer then toured with Mary Martin in “Annie Get Your Gun,” and headlined in “South Pacific,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Kismet,” “Shenandoah,” “Zorba” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Playing Sid Sorokin in the musical comedy “The Pajama Game,” he missed only one out of 1,060 performances. Raitt reprised the role in the 1957 film adaptation opposite Doris Day.
Raitt’s marriages to Marjorie Haydock and Kathleen Smith Landry ended in divorce, but his third union to high school sweetheart Rosemary Kraemer lasted until his death. Raitt had three children — two sons, Steven and David, and a daughter, Grammy Award-winning blues singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt. He and Bonnie occasionally performed duets together and were particularly fond of singing the songs “Blowing Away” and “Hey, There.”
Raitt continued performing into his 80s, touring the country with his one-man show, “An Evening With John Raitt,” and was inducted into the New York Theater Hall of Fame in 1993. He released the album, “Broadway Legend,” in 1995, and received a lifetime achievement award from the Los Angeles Critics Circle three years later. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6126 Hollywood Blvd.
On Feb. 22, the lights of Broadway were dimmed in his honor.
Playlist from IBDb
Listen to a Tribute From NPR
Watch Raitt and Shirley Jones Perform at the Kennedy Center
Oklahoma! Download “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” From “Oklahoma!”

One Response to John Raitt

  1. Carol Tywon

    I was so sad to hear that Mr. Raitt had passed away. I saw him when I was a very little girl and went with my mother to see the Pajama Game. I was so young I was not able to follow the plot, but I can still remember all these years later how attractive he was, and what a lovely voice he had.At least he lived to a fairly advanced age.

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