Mike Barnett, a founder of hit vocal group The Lettermen, died Friday at his home in Camarillo, Calif., after suffering from heart problems. He was 89.
Born Roy Barnett in Oakland, Calif., he began singing and dancing in Las Vegas shortly after World War II. He was cast in the chorus as well as specialty spots in many shows in hotel casinos and backed female headliners like Ann Sothern. He used the name Mike Barnett professionally.
His wife Elaine came up with the name The Lettermen for a vocal trio in 1957; the group worked for 13 weeks in comedy writer Sid Kuller’s Jewish spoof of the Broadway smash hit “My Fair Lady” and called it “My Fairfax Lady” at Billy Gray’s Bandbox. They later worked in a second Kuller parody of the movie “Baby Doll,” in the same theater.
By August of 1957, after the last revue closed, Barnett set out to re-establish his group so he called upon two solo singers in Hollywood: an Oakland High School friend Dick Stewart and Tony Butala.
The Lettermen opened in 1958 at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, as a headlining act in a record-breaking revue entitled “Newcomers of 1928” which starred Paul Whitman, Buster Keaton, Rudy Vallee, Harry Richman, Fifi D’Orsay and Billy Gilbert.
A few months later, Barnett left the group to become a lighting director for movies and television, earning an Emmy award for best lighting in 1979, for a TV production of Kaufman & Hart’s “You Can’t Take it With You,” starring Art Carney and Jean Stapleton.