Perry Como's song style brings new and old fans to holiday performances

November 29, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

At 80, Perry Como has distilled life to a leisurely essence: A little golf, a little TV, a nightly cocktail, lots of sleep and play with the grandchildren. If it weren't for the Perry Como Holiday Show -- his five-week concert tour comes to the Baltimore Arena tomorrow night -- one could say he is downright idle these days.

But after 59 years in the business, Mr. Como -- a k a the "Bland Crooner," the "Barber of Civility," "Mr. Relaxation," "Mr. C" -- is not about to retire. Having outlived every spoof of his ultra casual singing style (including SCTV's infamous sendup of a comatose Mr. Como singing "It's Impossible"), he still likes to hit the road once a year for a brisk East Coast tour as well as numerous charity events.

"It's still fun for me. I wouldn't do it if I was tired, but I get a kick out of it," Mr. Como says by phone from his Jupiter, Fla., home.

As long as audiences turn out, Mr. Como is there to tranquilize them with greatest hits like "Temptation" and Christmas perennials like "Ave Maria." But if the crowds don't show, neither does Mr. Como.

"I'm allergic to empty seats," he says. Of course, "There aren't too many, except in the [upper decks of] arenas. The people who come to see me can't get up there. They have to fly them in."

He is an American institution whose rags-to-riches career coincided fortuitously with the birth of television and spanned years of national despair and promise.

An ageless teddy bear of a man in a cardigan, Mr. Como's nice-guy image and easy way with a standard had wide appeal. The sheetrock worker, the bobby-soxer, the millionaire all followed him on radio and television, flocked to his concerts and bought his albums -- more than 100 million of them.

High on safe-sex appeal and family fiber, Mr. Como was also the perfect host who, from 1955 until 1963, ushered in Saturday night on "The Perry Como Show." Many an early baby boomer remembers evenings spent with parents and friends munching burgers and watching the ever-mellow "Perry" in a cozy, weekly ritual.

After his variety show was canceled in 1963, Mr. Como was host of "Kraft Music Hall" specials through 1967. From his first television series in 1948 until his last Christmas special in 1986, Mr. Como's guest list read like a history of American popular culture: Myrna Loy, Judy Garland, John Wayne, Allen Sherman, Jack Nicklaus and the Jefferson Airplane, among others, all took a bow -- or a swing -- on Mr. Como's stage.

And about that sweater: "I still itch from it," Mr. Como says. "They gave me one of those damn alpacas for some reason. I don't get along with them," he says with a chuckle.

A life free of scandal

Unlike friendly rival Frank Sinatra, he has led a life that would not make a titillating television movie. Mr. Como is no "Chairman of the Board" or even a member of the fabled board. And his life, so far, has been scandal-free. Mr. Sinatra "was just getting started at midnight and would go on till 6 in the morning," Mr. Como once told a reporter. "At midnight, I went home and went to bed."

Just the same, his is a compelling story with its own mythic qualities. The seventh son of a seventh son, Pierino Roland Como's first calling was barbering in the mining town of Canonsburg, Pa., southwest of Pittsburgh. But, when buddies pushed him on stage to sing for band leader Freddy Carlone in 1933, his life took a legendary turn.

Mr. Como spent three years touring with the Carlone band before a six-year stint with Ted Weems' orchestra. At that point, he thought about returning home to his barbershop and Roselle, his wife.

It was not to be. After an offer to do his own radio show on CBS came in 1943, Mr. Como shelved his ambition to be the "best barber between Canonsburg and Cleveland" for good.

Along with the radio program came a recording contract with RCA, the label Mr. Como has remained with throughout his career.

He has had 20 gold albums (out of 73) and 27 records on Billboard's Top 40 list between 1955 and 1973, including "Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)," "Catch a Falling Star," "Till the End of Time" and "Dig You Later (A Hubba-Hubba-Hubba)." A member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame, he was also honored in 1987 at the 10th annual National Celebration of the Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center.

Whether besieged by swooning fans or at the mercy of live television, Mr. Como remained cool and down-to-earth. After he appeared in Baltimore in 1953, a Sun story reported that he spent the night in Little Italy "eating fruit salad and pizza and playing cards" until 5:30 a.m.

The consummate family man, Mr. Como kept faithfully in touch with his parents, "typical old country" folks who spoke only Italian.

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