By Bob Vickrey
Special to the Palisades News
Nearly two decades ago, my simple volunteer job assignment on a sunny July 4th was to pick up former Palisades Honorary Mayor John Raitt at his home and accompany him to the annual parade VIP luncheon at the Methodist Church courtyard on Via de la Paz. The late actor and singer was set to uphold the long tradition of celebrity mayors who have ridden in the town’s parade.
The only problem I encountered on that Fourth was that no one answered the door when I arrived to pick Raitt up at his house on Napoli Drive in the Palisades Riviera. I glanced at my watch and realized I had allowed little time for a glitch in our plan.
Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Arnie Wishnick had offered me this opportunity, knowing that I might enjoy visiting with John once again after having spent a pleasant evening at the Raitt home earlier that year.
John Raitt had been a true star of the Broadway stage and was known for his leading roles in musicals like Oklahoma and Carousel. He made only one movie during his long illustrious career, in which he played opposite Doris Day in The Pajama Game. Later generations were not always fully aware of his impressive body of stage work, and knew him simply as “Bonnie’s Dad.”
My earlier rendezvous with the Raitt family had occurred at Village Books on Swarthmore Avenue one night after closing time, when I looked up to see John and his wife Rosemary attempting to open the front door. Owner Katie O’Laughlin nodded at me to allow them to enter the store even though she had locked up for the night.
John bolted in breathlessly and immediately took a seat on the bench near the door and began massaging his sore knees. He and I had often shared our athletic escapades from younger days when we ran into one another while visiting Arnie at the Chamber office.
John had once been a great athlete at Fullerton High and had set the state record in the softball throw many years earlier. We had compared our bad knees in dramatic fashion that likely rivaled the scene from Jaws in which actors Richard Dreyfus and Robert Shaw’s tough-guy character “Quint” were each trying to one-up the other’s story.
That night at Village Books, John asked me if I’d call a cab to take them home. I pointed to my car parked directly in front of the store, and he and Rosemary offered little resistance in my offer to take them home.
When we arrived at their house, they invited me in for a drink and displayed a warm hospitality that seemed to me a rather generous gesture for simply getting them home safely. John sat down at his piano in the corner of their den and showed me the sheet music to Oklahoma, which was likely a permanent fixture there. He played and sang several selections from the celebrated musical while Rosemary and I looked on. I knew she had seen her husband perform for their many guests over the years, but her smile told me that it never got old.
Later that evening, Rosemary bid us goodnight and headed to their bedroom quarters. But before she left the room, she looked back at John and said, “Don’t forget to give Bob the royal tour.”
The Raitt house backed up to the scenic Riviera Country Club and overlooked the legendary golf course. John seemed extremely proud of their collection of antiquities acquired during their world travels.
Much of their fine collection was from Africa, in which whole rooms were devoted to the art of that continent. He smiled with loving pride as he showed me each piece and told the story behind their acquisition.
John also showed me his memorabilia room where the walls were decorated by framed posters of Broadway plays in which he had appeared over the years. He had shelves of scrapbooks with assorted newspaper articles and playbills that had been meticulously collected during his long career.
As I stood at the Raitts’ front door once again months later, I remembered that pleasant evening I had spent with them and began wondering if I’d be receiving the same warm reception—or for that matter, any reception. After ringing the doorbell and knocking on the door for several minutes, I yelled toward an open window, “John, are you there?”
Rosemary opened the front door and greeted me with a grin. She said “Sorry, we have a situation. John can’t get his pants on!” When I entered the house, I saw John sitting on the couch and struggling to buckle his white slacks, which he evidently hadn’t tried on in several years. We both began laughing, and I yelled, “Hold on, let me help you out.”
Fortunately, the pants he had chosen with his red, white and blue attire had a Velcro waistband. I ordered him to inhale, which was easier said than done while he continued laughing.
As it turned out, we made it to the church with time to spare that day, but as we entered the VIP gathering, he leaned toward me and said, “I can’t breathe.” I tried reassuring him: “Not to worry, the parade is only an hour long and you can exhale once it’s over.”
Bob Vickrey is a longtime Palisadian whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is also a monthly contributor to the Boryana Books website.