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The Retroman

Johnny Crawford sings as if it's 1928 all over again. Why? Because he likes to

January 11, 1998|Lisa Leff

As an original Mouseketeer and cast member of TV's "The Rifleman," Johnny Crawford possesses some serious retro credentials. But when the former child star, now 51, was looking to jump-start a lackluster show business career, it wasn't the 1950s he turned to for inspiration. Crawford went back, all right. The surprise is just how far.

Armed with an attic full of sheet music inherited from his music publisher grandfather, Crawford parlayed a lifelong love of 1920s dance tunes into a gig as a Jazz Age-authentic crooner. After spending two years on the New York cocktail circuit singing in another man's band, he founded his own 11-piece, L.A.-based orchestra in 1992. The Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra is now a fixture on the local swing-dancing scene re-energized by the film "Swingers."

Since August, Crawford has appeared monthly at the Hollywood Athletic Club, where he draws a crowd that ranges in age "from 21 to 101," says actress Julie McCullough, a regular who learned to Lindy Hop at his high-energy performances. Wearing a top hat and tails that make him look a little like Jerry Mahoney and doing a mean Charleston, the lean bandleader approaches his role like another part, right down to addressing the audience as if it were actually dancing at the old Cocoanut Grove.

"I can't believe it's 1938 already," Crawford introduced a set one Tuesday night. "It seems like yesterday we opened at the Biltmore as a replacement for Earl Burtnett and his orchestra."

The historically accurate asides are more than shtick. Crawford uses his onstage pulpit to educate audiences about the unabashedly sentimental melodies Tin Pan Alley produced between the two World Wars, an era he thinks was unfairly maligned during the rise of 1940s big bands and later lost to bebop.

"Musicians today and jazz aficionados don't consider jazz 'jazz' unless it's not orchestrated--it has to be totally ad-libbed," Crawford says. "To me, that is such a cliche that listening to something arranged is almost new and fresh. And that is the way a lot of the young people feel."

With a performance schedule still heavy on weddings and charity functions (his orchestra played the Christmas party for the cast of "Frasier"), Crawford remains several beats from his dream: getting a standing assignment as the house orchestra at one of the city's Art Deco hotels and having his music broadcast live on the radio.

"Just like it was for Gus Arnheim at the Cocoanut Grove," Crawford says, "in 1931."

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