in Show Business
In the multimillion-dollar class now
as television entertainer, Perry Como found success by doing hardly more
than living his own life and singing the songs he loves best.
By Charles Dexter,
for "The Star
Toronto, October 29, 1955
singing business is crazy," said Perry Como, a few days after he had
signed a $15,000,000 contract for a period of 12 years with the National
Broadcasting Company. A barber
works 14 hours a day and makes maybe $50 a week. An engineer, a doctor, a
writer — they sweat and study for years before they make a buck. But I've
been paid $50,000 for recording a song hit. And now — "
one of the United States favourite singers of sweet songs, stars in a
variety show on NBC-TV in a series which began this fall. His show goes on
the air a half-hour before Jackie Gleason's, at 8 on Saturday evenings. When
Jackie signed an $11,000,000 contract with the Columbia Broadcasting System,
it was the biggest news on television row in years. Perry's pact, at an even
higher figure, received little publicity.
told my press agent to send out a news item and let it go at that," he
explains. "I was thinking of little-fellows, like I used to be. They'd
sit in front of their TV set and say, "Okay, Como, let's see what makes
you worth all that dough.'"
was sitting in his office in one of Rockefeller's Centre's skyscrapers,
looking not a day older than in 1942, when he suddenly zoomed to stardom.
Those were the days when Bing Crosby's popularity as a crooner was at its
peak and when bobby-soxers were rioting wherever Frank Sinatra warbled. Bing's private life, horses, golf and manifold business activities have been
in newspaper headlines for nearly a quarter of a century. Frankie's loves,
labors and private opinions are equally well known. But Perry has remained a
virtual man of mystery even to his most fervent fans.
slim, dark Italian-American with the liquid voice is seldom interviewed and
rarely mentioned by gossip columnists. He is never seen at the ringside
tables of smart cafes. His intimate friends call him "the nicest guy in
show business." His outstanding characteristics are his shyness and his
deep loyalty to his family.
just happen to Perry Como. Or, as he puts it, "someone must have laid
his hand on my head somewhere along the line." Success has come to him
without his doing much more than living his own life and singing the songs
he loves best.
season, Perry is contending for popularity with Jackie Gleason, television's
phenomenal comedy star. Jackie is a man of many roles on camera and off.
sings beautifully but until a few years ago he sang only ballads. He has
never taken a music lesson. He has never wielded a baton before a band. He
has appeared in four Hollywood movies in which he sang but did not act. He
knows a few dance steps. Recently he has become fairly proficient as an ad-libbing light comedian, but he has never tried to do slapstick and never
will. He owns no horses and has but one hobby, golf. In fact, his success
would be difficult to explain if one did not know that he possesses a unique
personality, which wins and keeps friends, on and off the TV screen.
Perry tries to analyze the source of his popularity, he inevitably talks
about his childhood. "I was one of 13 children, you know, " he
says, "Pop, who was born in Italy, was a mill hand who never made more
than $175 a month. When I was 11, I was working in a barbershop, sweeping up
hair, helping the customers put on their coats and learning the trade. When
I was 14, Pop somehow found enough money to open a barbershop for me."
Como's were poor but happy. I used to sing as I worked. I was making $40 a
week when I was 20, and so I got married to Roselle Belline, who was my
sweetheart when we were both in school, and is still my sweetheart
July, 1933, we went to Cleveland on our honeymoon. Before we left, my
friends told me to ask Freddy Carlone, a Cleveland bandleader, for an
audition. I thought it was a big joke, but I went to Carlone and sang. Then
Roselle and I went home to Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, and forgot about it. A
few weeks later I received a telegram. Carlone wanted me to sing for his
band. Plainly I had nothing to do with getting into show business — show
business was thrust upon me.
sang with the Carlone band for two years. In 1936 he joined the nationally
popular Ted Weems band. The swing era was beginning and Perry traveled from
one end of the country to the other. He was earning approximately $100 a
week in 1942.
wasn't happy in my work. Sure, I loved to sing, but singing on the road
meant that Roselle and I had no home life," he recalled. "One day
the phone rang. It was the Columbia Broadcasting System. They wanted me to
sing in a fifteen-minute radio show for $76 dollars a week. Roselle and I
talked it over and decided to accept the offer only because it meant that we
could stay together in New York City. Again, I had nothing to do with
starting a new career."
all of a sudden things began happening to me. RCA-Victor signed me to a
recording contract. I was booked into theatres and ballrooms. My radio show
obtained an important sponsor. Before
I knew why or how, I was being cheered like mad whenever I sang in public.
Now I realize I was wonderfully lucky. I just happened to get a new start at
a time when crooners were the rage."
first time Pop Como heard his son sing from a stage, Perry was anxious to
obtain his father's approval. Pop came timidly into the dressing room.
"How was it?" Perry
wrinkled his nose. "Bravo," he quietly said. "But this
audience — do they all act like that, so loud and crazy?"
knew what his father meant. "He didn't want me to get a swelled head.
He didn't think much of popular songs. His favourite singers were opera
stars like Caruso, Martinelli, and Scotti. It was a lesson in humility I
rode the popularity wave through the war years. With peace, the styles in
music changed, first to brazen bop and then to "jump-tunes" with a
strong downbeat. Perry had become a best-selling recording star, with such
million-sales hits to his credit as "Prisoner of Love,"
You Were Sweet Sixteen," and "Temptation."
the bottom fell out of the ballad market. Perry's sales dwindled to 200,000
per record. Unlike other star vocalists, he had let the executives of his
recording company choose his numbers. In 1949 their choice was a
listened to it," Perry relates, "and I couldn't do it. The argued
with me, but I explained that I'd never tried to sing on or off beat — I
just sang from the heart. They insisted — and I said I'd try. It took me
weeks to learn how to do it properly, and then, at last, it was waxed."
number was "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes." It
re-established Perry as a front-rank recording star. In fact, it began a new
era for him at a time when he was apparently losing his hold on popular
another crisis faced the singing barber from Canonsburg. The television era
had begun. For seven years millions of listeners on his 15-minute,
five-times-a-week radio program had heard him. Little by little his audience
dwindled. His sponsor was casting about for a seasoned performer who could
make a good impression in the new medium.
experimental TV show was inaugurated during the 1949-1950 season. "It
was the toughest job I've ever had," said Perry. "Back in the old
days I'd sung into a standing microphone before a band. On radio I had also
worked before a standing mike. All I had to do was sing. Afterwards I was
on camera, I suddenly found myself alone in the middle of a big stage, and
with no mike to lean on. I didn't know what to do with my hands. I held them
out stiffly. I stuck them in my pockets. They were always getting in the
way. And I had to make up, dress the part of a star. After the song ended I
had to read lines and talk. I thought I'd never make it."
Perry did "make it." He looked unprofessional before the cameras,
but his home audiences liked his casual manner, his relaxed voice. He began
to acquire showmanship, improving with each program. His TV audience edged
up to a total of 15,000,000.
year Perry took another great step forward. His rivals, Bing and Frankie,
had developed into dramatic actors of such quality that each had won a
Hollywood Oscar. Perry had played no role but himself. Suddenly he blossomed
into an ad-libbing comedian who, when he lacked a smart wisecrack in
repartee, knew how to make funny faces. He became the master of ceremonies
in several hour-long variety shows. He didn't toss custard pies or play the
cello. He did appear in skits and did provide easy viewing. Critics
acknowledged that he was ideal for the task.
then fate intervened to raise him into the multi-million dollar class as an
entertainer. The success of Jackie Gleason's "The Honeymooners"
had sent chills up and down the spines of NBC's executives. When Jackie
announced he had been signed by CBS to that $11,000,000 contract, NBC
decided something drastic must be done. Inquiries were made among sponsors
as to the sales value of various stars. Perry's name topped the list. The
$15,000,000 Como contract followed.
Copyright 1955 ~ The Star Weekly
success would be difficult to explain if one did not know that he
possesses a unique personality, which wins and keeps friends. His
outstanding characteristics are his shyness and deep loyalty to his
family. His hobby is golf, at which his wife joins him.