Johnny (Seaview) Perry, an iconic Vineyard character, home-grown philosopher and friendly street-walker in a cowboy hat, died Dec. 12 at a care center in Malden where he had been living in recent years battling cancer. He was 84 and his real name was Oliver Perry, although he never used it. His nickname was earned in the 1960s when he tended bar at the old Seaview Hotel in Oak Bluffs.
“Want to know what the goal of life is? To relieve suffering, create beauty and make gardens,” he told the Martha's Vineyard Magazine in an edited oral history in 2005. "No snowflake falls in an inappropriate place. It's there by design."
Johnny Seaview was a snowflake himself, not another exactly like him.
He traced his Vineyard roots to 1953, when he moved to the Island to work for Richard Manley as a tree surgeon. “From West Medford, just before the big hurricane, Carol,” he said in the magazine story. “I just came out here cold turkey. Manley Tree Experts: we cleared wires for the telephone company and worked for the tree warden in Edgartown and in Oak Bluffs, too. We got the dead wood out and let the sun in. Trees are trees: they give you life.”
Oliver Perry was born on March 14, 1928. "That's Johnny Perry Day on WMVY radio. Karen Coffey of Pyewacket Antiques started the idea; she's a hot sketch," he told the magazine.
And that's how conversations went with Johnny Seaview. He was a classic Vineyard jack of all trades who in addition to expert tree surgery, painted houses, tended bar and dispensed bits of philosophy formed by an extraordinary, full life.
“As a little boy, I worked for my Uncle Walter on a farm at ten cents an hour in Arlington. I mean, brother, you worked. The Northeast was the truck-farming capital of the nation then. We were taking out winter spinach when the Japs hit Pearl Harbor. I enlisted in the army at 14 and hit Scotland on my 15th birthday. I went to 31 countries before I was 17,” he said.
At 17 he joined the Marine Corps. “We did flame throwing and worked with explosives. We got ten bucks extra. We were all little bastards.”
In 1948, at age 20 he married Ann Gilmartin. They had three children.
He had a lifelong love of horse racing that began as a child when his grandfather took him to the race track. He got his jockey license at a young age and raced in Mexico and Ohio. In his later years he loved to go to the track at Saratoga when he was not working. “You need a little relaxation. Life's a gamble,” he told the magazine.
In 1967 he went to work for the late Loretta Balla at the Seaview Hotel.
“She bought the Seaview after World War II. When she found out what the taxes were, she was in tears . . . I said it looks like the 33rd and Eighth avenue in Hell's Kitchen. There were broken windows and those old green shades blowing out the windows, but anything she touched had the Midas touch,” he said.
Loretta Balla was a colorful character in her own right and it was a match made in heaven. Johnny became her bartender and jack of all trades, living at the hotel, making repairs and painting the hotel from the inside out. The hotel bar was a rocking place in its day with live music six nights a week. Johnny's clientele included Mia Farrow and Sen. Edward Brooke.
Loretta Balla sold the hotel in 1986; it was later demolished and turned into condominiums. She died in 2010.
In more recent years Johnny lived at Woodside Village elderly housing and was a familiar presence walking the streets of the Island with a ready bouquet for any lady who crossed his path.
“I'm always buying flowers for the women. They're inspiring, and it's a way to show your appreciation for the opposite sex,” he said.
Around 2010 he moved to the care center in Malden due to ill health.
He was pre-deceased by his wife and his siblings Edward Perry Jr., Robert Perry, Paul Perry, Donald Perry, Eleanor Freeland, and Joan Garneau. He is survived by his children, Daniel Perry of Maine, John Perry of Medford and Cheryl Arsenault of Peabody; two sisters, Barbara Nolan of Las Vegas and Audrey Randall of New Jersey; and a brother, Ronald Perry of Medford; seven grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and many nieces, nephews and friends.
He will be interred in Medford. A celebration of his life on the Vineyard is planned for March.
Arrangements are under the care of the Gaffey Funeral Home in Medford.