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--a five-week concert tour now under way--one could say he is downright idle these days.
But after 59 years in the business, Como--also known as 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 send-up of a comatose 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,” Como says by phone from his home in Jupiter, Fla.
As long as audiences turn out, 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 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, Como’s nice-guy image and easy way with a standard had wide appeal. The sheet-rock worker, the bobby-soxer and 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, 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 Como in a cozy, weekly ritual.
After his variety show was canceled in 1963, Como was host of “Kraft Music Hall” specials through 1967. From his first television series in 1948 until his last Christmas special in 1986, 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 Como’s stage.
And about that sweater: “I still itch from it,” 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.
Unlike friendly rival Frank Sinatra, he has led a life that would not make a titillating television movie. Como is no “chairman of the board” or even a member of the fabled board. And his life, so far, has been scandal-free. Sinatra “was just getting started at midnight and would go on till 6 in the morning,” 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 bandleader Freddy Carlone in 1933, his life took a legendary turn.
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, 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 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, in 1987 he also was one of those accorded a Kennedy Center Honor.
A big-band and pop melody renaissance has led a new generation of listeners to Como. He sees them in the audience, and they know his songs. “There’s an awful lot of young people,” Como says. “I put them on when I come in--'This is not rock ‘n’ roll.’ They laugh and say, ‘We know who you are.’ ”
If Como’s material is evergreen, so is his youthful demeanor. He and his contemporaries seem to have aged more gracefully than aging rockers who return to the stage. “When I see some of the Beatles. . . . my God, they look like roaches, not Beatles,” Como says. When you have “lived a hard life, it starts to show a little bit . . . but (with) us older men, they think, ‘Well, he’s old. He has always been old.’ ”
Como’s tour ends next Tuesday in Orlando, Fla. “Then, we all collapse,” says Mickey Glass, Como’s 82-year-old publicist and road manager.