This article was published in 2003, two years before Raitt passed away.
John Raitt, Janis Paige, and Eddie Foy, Jr. were the leads in The Pajama Game. The Richard Adler-Jerry Ross musical co-starred a Tony-winning Carol Haney, who caused a sensation in the "Steam Heat" number that she performed with Buzz Miller and Peter Gennaro. The first show choreographed by Bob Fosse, The Pajama Game was directed by George Abbott and Jerome Robbins.
Earlier in the season, Raitt had appeared in the short-lived Carnival in Flanders -- and he says that he was almost the leading man in The Golden Apple as well. "They played the score for me," he tells me over the phone from his Pacific Palisades home. "I said, 'You'll have to change keys, it's too low.' They wouldn't do that, so I couldn't do the show."
After auditioning for The Pajama Game, Raitt found out "that George Abbott didn't like the way I read. They tried a number of people, including Van Johnson and Darren McGavin. One Saturday, I got a call from my agent: 'They're desperate. They want to see you at the Winter Garden, following the matinee of Wonderful Town.' The first time, I'd auditioned with the third assistant stage manager; we did the kitchen scene. This time, they gave me a beautiful gal to play opposite. I was signed -- but not to a run-of-the-play contract. They still didn't have confidence in me. That worked in my favor: In New Haven, when I did get a run-of-the-play contract, I got a little more money."
Raitt remembers that George Abbott "didn't like Charlotte Rae, who was playing the boss's secretary, but he loved Carol Haney. Carol was so great! Janis Paige said, 'I think I'm going to be second fiddle as far as the critics are concerned. Maybe I should get out of the show.' Eddie Foy and I took her to dinner. Eddie said, 'Look, we've got our names above the title and audiences love to find a new talent. We're going to cry all the way to the bank.' So we convinced her to stay." But Rae left the production.
During the first week on Broadway, Haney became ill and understudy Shirley MacLaine subbed. As every Broadway gypsy knows, producer Hal Wallis happened to be in the audience and signed MacLaine for the movies. Raitt recalls the night: "Shirley was about 15 minutes late. They told her, 'You're on!' I never saw anybody so scared, but as good as she was, she worked her way through it. By the end of the week, she wasn't as good. As they say, 'You can get one performance out of somebody. It's the one after that, and the one after that...'"
Raitt acknowledges that Frank Loesser wrote two of The Pajama Game's songs -- but not "Hey There," as some have alleged. According to Raitt, "He wrote 'There Once Was a Man' and 'A New Town Is a Blue Town,' which has intervals like 'My Time of Day' from Guys and Dolls. After Loesser died, my wife asked Jo Sullivan [Loesser's widow] to confirm that, and she did."
Needless to say, Raitt is happy to have done The Pajama Game movie. "That was really a fluke," he says. "Jack Warner had said to George Abbott, 'If I can get somebody to carry the box office, you can use the original people.' He got Doris Day -- and we got to play our roles. The film was shot twenty-two days under schedule because we all knew our parts."
The 86-year-old Raitt still performs occasionally at special events and in concert with his daughter Bonnie. He has fond memories of Eddie Foy, Jr., with whom he shared a St. James dressing room. "What a character!" Raitt exclaims in reference to Foy. "I'd worked with him in 1942, in Rosalie at the Hollywood Bowl. Sometimes, George Abbott would come into our dressing room, take a look at Eddie, laugh, and leave.
"In 2001," Raitt concludes, "Janis Paige and I went to Reprise! to see The Pajama Game. At the end, she whispered, 'They can't do it the way we did it, John.'"