PERRY COMO ~
HIS SONG GOES ON
Good Housekeeping Magazine
Just recently, the singer says, he met a fan who ran up to him, hugged him, and cried, ``You're still alive! I thought all these years you were dead!'' Yes, Mr. C. confirms, he is very much alive and still singing. And in our exclusive interview, he talks for the first time about himself, his triumphs, his regrets, and about the woman who has been by his side for fifty-eight years.
By Alan Ebert
He was there at the beginning of television, hosting one of the first weekly variety shows. For almost a decade, Perry Como was the weekly Saturday-night date at eight for millions. He won a fistful of Emmys and a handful of Grammys, many for the 27 gold records he proudly owns. ``For the amount of talent I had ~ and I couldn't dance, act, or tell a joke ~ I enjoyed a tremendous career," says Perry. ``I worked with the world's greatest talents and then went home to the world's greatest woman. It was, and is, a great life.''
The smile creasing his suntanned face says these are not just words. An afternoon spent with Perry Como finds no evidence of a sad, aging star living on memories of bygone glories, but a man who finds his present every bit as enjoyable as his past. He is that rarity, a happily married superstar, father of three, grandparent of 11, and ``love slave'' to his first great grandchild. Twice a year, for three consecutive weeks each time, he performs throughout the country in concert while ``the world's greatest woman,'' Roselle Belline Como, remains at home in Jupiter, Fla., keeping the hearth warm and that part of the Comos' lives separate and protected, just as she has for the nearly 58 years the couple has been married.
Age has touched the 77-year-old Como gently, as if loathe to mark the man known throughout his career as Mr. Nice Guy. Lean and physically fit, Como allows he could work more often if he desired. But home is where is heart is, and he doesn't choose to leave it more frequently to swim in what he terms unfamiliar waters. ``The business has changed greatly since my day,'' he explains, ``and I no longer understand or fit into it.''
To illustrate his point, Perry, with tongue deeply buried in cheek, describes a recent Friday evening when he and ``my girl,'' as he often refers to Roselle, were watching a late-night music video on TV. ``And there,'' he says, ``was Cher, letting it all hang out, so to speak, parading bare-bottomed on some Navy battleship. Since my eyes aren't the greatest, I turned to the wife and said, `You sure you got that thing tuned in right?' But the wife didn't respond. She was sitting there wide-eyed as Cher gave way to Madonna singing Express Yourself as she exposed her tops and grabbed at her privates. Damn near fainted, I did. This wasn't exactly television as I once knew it. During the seventeen years that I had a weekly show, if I had ever expressed myself in such a way, forget about the censors, both my mamma and Roselle would have slapped me silly.''
He laughs ``It sure is a different world with different values today,'' he says. ``Sure, I still work in respectable concert halls and theatres. But nobody is offering me a bundle of bucks to dance around bare-bottomed at my age.''
This time Mr. C. laughs so hard that tears come to his eyes. When composed, he says seriously, ``That I can't relate to today's music or morals doesn't make either necessarily bad. Just different. I leave the judgments to others. Actually, I would love to make a music video,'' he says, as his tongue finds its way once again into his cheek. ``Maybe it would finally put to rest those persistent rumors that have followed me throughout my career particularly when I was on camera performing that I had died.''
He is alluding to the jokes made for years about his relaxed singing style. Years ago, if a high strung or nervous individual asked for a Como, they were requesting a tranquilizer. ``Just this morning in the mall,'' Perry continues, ``a woman stood nose to nose with me and said, `You're alive. And here I thought all these years you were dead.' I didn't know whether to thank her for what may or may not have been a compliment.
It takes prodding for him to reveal that the same woman also said, ``I love you'' as she hugged him in delight. Perry is embarrassed by the public's reaction to him today. When his entrances on stage are greeted by standing ovations, he covers his discomfort by quipping when the audience finally sits: ``You scared me half to death. I thought maybe you were leaving.'' He diffuses such public displays with humor partly because he has yet to realize his place in people's affections and partly because he still mistrusts such effusive reactions.
``Years ago, I never felt what was expressed toward me was real and so I shied away from it,'' he explains. ``But today, I feel the genuine warmth, the affection, and although I may joke about it, I am touched. In many ways, that affection is the real reward for 56 years in the business. Although the money ain't exactly bad either.''
He is, of course, again joking. Had money been Como's driving force, he might never have left Canonsburg, Pa., where he was born and raised, and where by age 11 he was contributing substantially to the family income with monies he earned working after school in a local barbershop. By 14, the industrious seventh son of a seventh son, Pierino Como, owned the shop; and was known for his hair cutting expertise. Only his father's insistence that he complete high school, which he did in 1929, made Como suspend his highly profitable venture, and the only temporarily. By 1933, he was established as the Sassoon of his day and had taken Roselle Belline as
his bride. A year later it wasn't the lure of making more money but the fantasy of singing with a band that prompted Perry to audition for the touring Freddie Carlone Orchestra. When he won the job, he took to the road, first with Carlone, then with the well known Ted Weems Band, and always with the support of his ``girl.''
Eight years later, Perry's roadwork came to an abrupt end. His first son, Ronnie, had been born in 1939 and by 1942, Perry deemed the constant touring an unsuitable life for raising a child. The trigger was seeing the eight-year-old son of one of the musicians sitting alone in a New Orleans hotel lobby long after midnight.
Returning to Canonsburg and, he thought, to barbering, he was approached to sing on a CBS radio show in New York before he could sign the lease on a new shop. Only when assured that the job would not require touring did he accept the offer, again with Roselle's full support.
It was the age of the crooners and Perry soon parlayed his success in radio to nightclubs and recordings, where it is estimated he has sold in excess of 100 million records. Although soon signed to a seven-picture deal by Twentieth Century-Fox, he found film work boring and secured his release before the contract's expiration to explore a new medium, television.
His relaxed, intimate singing style proved ideally suited to the small screen and as television proceeded to grow in stature so did Como. He graduated from his three-times-a-week, 15 minute, small budget songfest to the prime-time eight o'clock hour on NBC Saturday nights. His task was to defeat or defray Jackie Gleason's rating dominance on CBS. To observers, it seemed like a very odd mission indeed to give to the king of ease and relaxation.
``Make no mistake, I was no reluctant Christian thrown to the lions, so to speak,'' says Perry. ``I wanted to win. People have always thought that I wasn't ambitious. They judged by appearances and were fooled. I was competitive. I wanted success and was willing to work for it.''
Was he therefore not as relaxed on camera as he seemed? ``I was always relaxed on camera when I sang,'' he states, ``mainly because I'm not very high-strung or animated by nature. Acting coaches in Hollywood were always telling me to use my hands and body more. But that was never me. I just breathe and sometimes it doesn't look as if I'm doing that.''
When asked to single out a particularly memorable professional moment, Perry cannot, pleading that there were too many such moments to choose only one. But he doesn't hesitate when asked about regrets and his response is surprising as it enters areas previously marked off-limits to interviewers. Perry would never discuss his marriage and family, which expanded in 1956 when the Comos, unable to have more children naturally, adopted David when he was four, and Teri, a year later, when she was six months.
``My only regret in life is that I didn't spend as much time with my kids as I now wish I had,'' says Perry softly. ``Although I managed my schedule to be home by late afternoon most days, basically, Roselle raised our children alone. And so I missed out on a lot of wonderful moments, missed watching my kids grow into the wonderful people they are today.''
``Roselle did a spectacular job with the children,'' he continues. ``She was there with them constantly. Although we could easily have afforded a household staff, Roselle mostly did her own housecleaning and cooking, as she never wanted strangers in our home. And it was a home. Roselle made it that. The world that fussed over Perry Como never made it through our front door."
``Roselle set limits and boundaries for our children,'' Perry goes on. ``Which often made her the bad guy. But when they needed love or help or had a problem of any kind, they could always go to Roselle because she was always there for them. That was not always the case with me."
But summer vacations were different,'' he says, brightening. ``I had 13 weeks off and I would pack up the family and drive to some mountain retreat where we could be together and fish all day. I loved it. I needed it. My family has always been the main source of my nurturance and contentment. And we were a hechuva family! We still are. Sure we had our problems, but none that were all that serious. Just the usual stuff parents go through with kids when they are growing up. But those rough times brought us closer together.''
Although the entire Como clan is seldom together today, Perry is in frequent touch with them all. ``They still come to their old dad with their problems. I like that. I like listening and then with the wisdom of age giving them my heartfelt advice. I even like the fact that they then go out and do exactly what they wanted to do anyway that's the way it should be with parents and kids.''
Growing wistful again. Perry says, ``Sometimes it's hard to realize they're not kids anymore but adults. Not even the grandchildren are kids anymore. Sometimes I sit and wonder . . .where did the years go. Just the other day, it seems, the kids were running through the house, slamming doors, breaking glass, making noise. Time goes by so quickly. Sometimes everything seems so fleeting.''
Except his marriage. ``It'll be 58 years soon and I told Roselle just the other day that I think I'm getting a little tired of it, that maybe we should give it a rest, take a break from one another,'' he says. ``After all, there hasn't been another lady in my life for 60 years. Maybe it's time before I forget what it's time for.''
He chuckles, the idea as obviously ludicrous to him as his dancing around bare-bottomed on some video. Roselle Bellini has been his ``girl'' since high school. She was the first he ever took to a dance and there is no doubt she will be the last.
When asked what makes Roselle and their marriage special, Perry replies, ``she's my best friend. Throughout our lives she has always been so supportive. And honest. When Roselle felt I was going in a wrong direction, she was never shy about straightening me out. We have always had open and direct communication. I respect her greatly. She's decent . . .warm . . .loving.''
``She has been my anchor,'' he adds. ``People forget that I wasn't always a success. In the early years, there were some rough times when I thought I'd quit this business. Roselle always stood by me, never pressuring me to be or do anything other than what I wanted.''
He agrees his marriage is a show business oddity it not only survived but prevailed. He also admits that temptations abounded throughout his superstar reign. ``There were many opportunities to have an affair,'' he says. ``There were always women around willing to do anything to get close to a star. And there were nice women, attractive women, who found you nice and attractive too. Many men in my position took advantage of these situations, but I didn't. Not because I'm a saint, because I'm not and never was, but because I always knew what I had with Roselle was special, and that she was special, and that no one could match the importance of what I felt for her or replicate what I had with her.''
``There was one other factor,'' he says, his face filled with emotion. ``I would never have risked doing anything that might have hurt Roselle. I would sooner have died. People will find this hard to believe but in all our years together, Roselle and I have never had a truly rocky period.''
With most of their friends living in the New York area where they spent most of their adult lives, the Comos live a fairly solitary existence today in Florida. ``I guess Roselle and I have always been stay-at-homes, happy with ourselves and one another,'' says Perry.
``But we do have a golf course near by and I play fairly regularly,'' he continues. ``Roselle used to, but not anymore. I should quit too as my head knows exactly what I should be doing on the links, but my body isn't willing. That also applies to other things, but I ain't saying what. We also own a little boat and I'm like a kid with it. I take off early in the morning, fishing rod in tow, and just drift about the ocean all day. I figure I've earned the right to do as little as possible at this stage of my life. Roselle seems to figure the same as she no longer boats or fishes with me, claiming the sun and the smell of the fish make her sick.
What then do the Comos do together?
``We stare,'' says Perry, deadpanned. ``We stare a lot. At one another. At the ocean. At space. At night, when we sit on the sofa, she stares at me; I stare at her.''
Do they talk?
``Listen, I've already told her I love her and she's told me the same. After 58 years, there's not much left that's important to add. Except every once in a while," he says, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, ``after dinner, when we are nestled on the sofa in front of the fire and the TV, Roselle will lean over and whisper, with her breathe hot in my ear, `Would you change the channel please?' ``
And again he laughs, laughs so hard that I barely hear his final words. ``It's been and is a great life. Just a great life,'' he says. ``Now if I could only make that video....''
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