John Graves, 86, was born in Porterville, Calif., to Arthur and Hildreth Graves in 1928. John was writing songs and playing piano for school and vaudeville-type shows, including the “Mickey Mouse Club,” at the age of 8. Through the WWII years, his high school dance band played for most of the dances since all the other musicians had been drafted. His other professional musical experiences were with big band jazz players who were too old for the service. This is where he learned many of the 3,000 songs included in his request book.
Upon graduating from the College of the Pacific, he went to Los Angeles to start a career in broadcasting. Later, he went on the road with a small comedy band, replacing Stan Freberg. Besides playing for dances, they did three floor shows a night, and the rarely smiling John became a deadpan comedian, known as “Deadpan Digger Graves.” Back in Los Angeles, he played in piano bars for many years while pursuing his career in the movie and television industry.
Starting as a page at NBC, he was soon in charge of recorded background music for Matinee Theater daily dramas. He then became an NBC broadcast standards program policy editor (or so-called censor). This led to the position which had become his goal: manager of film programs. He supervised for NBC such shows as “Bonanaza,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Ironside,” “The Man From Uncle,” “Then Came Bronson,” “The Debbie Reynolds Show,” “The Monkees” and a series shot in London called “The Strange Report.”
In 1970 at MGM-TV, John became the new director of current programming. He was the executive in charge of “Medical Center,” “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and several syndicated talk shows. In 1972 in Vienna, Austria, he became the producer on “Assignment Vienna” with Robert Conrad, for MGM-TV and ABC television.
The newly formed South Australian Film Corporation was looking for someone with network, major studio and international experience to head up their feature film and television area in 1974 and John accepted the challenge. He was the executive producer for the company’s first major feature success, Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” which was awarded the Australian equivalent of an Oscar.
Back in the U.S., he enrolled in a graduate program at California State University at Northridge with the goal of teaching after getting his master’s degree in mass communications. After 10 gratifying years as an associate professor in the Communication Department at Central Missouri State University, he retired to Pagosa Springs in 1996, where he led his jazz group, John Graves and Friends, entertaining fans for over five years at Nello’s Bistro.
Throughout his varied career, he has always played several nights a week as a pianist, side man or band leader at private parties, including affairs for Judy Garland, Groucho Marx, Danny Thomas and John Wayne. He has recorded, been a staff pianist at KLAC-TV and on the first Betty White Show, and has accompanied such artists as George Burns, Rosemary Clooney, Rudy Vallee and Jimmy Durante, among others.
Of the myriad of famous people John has met or worked with, his remembered association with three particularly stood out for him. A morning with Lord Bertrand Russell at his home in Wales, an afternoon tea with Katherine Hepburn at her home in Beverly Hills, and the delight of having Eric Sevareid as a house guest for three days in Warrensburg, Mo.
John was very involved in Music Boosters in Pagosa Springs and produced and appeared in many shows including “Pianorama” and “The Hills Are Alive.” He particularly loved mentoring young people in their singing and acting careers. He was on the board of the education center and taught a screenwriting course at Adams State College. Every Sunday morning he played piano for hymns at the Unitarian Church in Pagosa and occasionally in Durango. He also enjoyed writing articles and poetry, many of his poems were published in his books “Just Say Yes: Memoirs of a Geezer’”and “Animal Verses for Grown Up Children.”
He is survived by his wife, Ann; daughter Kerry Graves; son Kim Graves and his wife, Sandi; grandchildren Taylor and Davis; great-grandson Gavin; and stepchildren Mare and Jason.
In lieu of flowers, contributions in John’s memory may be made to John Graves Memorial Scholarship Fund, Curtains Up Pagosa, P.O. Box 2218, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147, or Pagosah Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Growth Fund, P.O. Box 5684, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147.
A celebration of John’s life will be announced later.