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Broadway Mainstay John Raitt Dies at 88

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2005; Page B06

John Raitt, 88, one of the enduring stars of the American musical stage whose powerful presence and rich baritone first dazzled Broadway 60 years ago in "Carousel," died of pneumonia yesterday in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

Mr. Raitt, the father of singer Bonnie Raitt, also was known for his role in "The Pajama Game," both on Broadway and on the screen, opposite Doris Day.


John Raitt was known for playing Curly in the musical "Oklahoma!"


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A strapping six-footer who majored in physical education at college and once hoped to be an Olympic athlete, he toured and performed incessantly in shows and concerts for more than 50 years. In the Broadway run of more than 1,000 performances of "The Pajama Game," he missed only one.

"You can put me in any major city in the United States, and I've got a following," he told the Los Angeles Daily news in 1987. "You name it, I've been there." It was said that no musical leading man ever gave more performances.

"I'm partial," Bonnie Raitt told the New York Times in 1994, "but I still think he's the greatest singer the musical theater ever produced."

In "Carousel," the classic by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Mr. Raitt wowed the Great White Way as Billy Bigelow. The show's famous "Soliloquy" was said to have been composed by Rodgers specially for Mr. Raitt.

Summoned to New York from his native California in the 1940s to audition to replace Alfred Drake as Curly in "Oklahoma!" Mr. Raitt remembered in newspaper interviews that he told Rodgers and Hammerstein that he needed to exercise his voice after four days on the train.

Having performed in "The Barber of Seville" in California, he began with Figaro's major aria.

His gifts were spotted at once. Mr. Raitt was sent to star in the touring company of "Oklahoma!" -- electrifying audiences as he entered singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." Meanwhile, with "Carousel" yet to take full shape, Rodgers began tailoring it to suit Mr. Raitt's potential.

His performance won the Drama Critics Award for best musical performance and the Donaldson Award.

Mr. Raitt was born in Santa Ana, Calif., the son of a YMCA secretary. He graduated from Fullerton High School, attended the University of Southern California briefly and then went to the University of Redlands. He began singing for pay in 1940.

Bonnie Raitt and a brother and sister came from Mr. Raitt's first marriage, which, like a second, ended in divorce. After the second breakup, he learned that a girlfriend from his college days was a widow.

"I believe in grabbing at life," Mr. Raitt told the Times. "So I called." Bonnie sang at their wedding.


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