Perry Como Born: May 18,1912-Died: May 12,2001 Part Five
Sing to me, Mr. C.: 1955–1959
He moved back to NBC with a weekly hour-long variety show featuring additional musical and production numbers, comedy sketches and guest stars called The Perry Como Show, premiering Saturday, September 17, 1955. This version of his show was also so popular that in the 1956 – 1957 television season, it reached ninth in the Nielsen ratings, the only show on NBC that season to land in the top ten.
Como and The Ray Charles Singers on the set of The Perry Como Show during “Sing To Me, Mr, C.” segment, c. 1950s. Como’s “sweater era”.
Como’s “Dream Along With Me” became the show’s opening theme song, “Mr. C.” received the first of many “stacks and stacks of letters” requesting him to sing a specific song. It was also here where he began wearing his trademark cardigan sweaters. The “Sing to me, Mr. C.” segment of the Como shows with Perry seated on a stool singing viewer requested songs had its roots in the first television broadcasts of Chesterfield Supper Club. When cameras entered the “Supper Club” radio studio, they found Como and his guests sitting on stools behind music stands. The show’s closing theme was, “You Are Never Far Away From Me”.
Perry’s announcer on the broadcasts, Frank Gallop, became a foil for Como’s jokes. When the television show began, there was not enough room for Gallop to appear on stage; he was an invisible “voice from the clouds” until the show’s 1958 – 1959 season. There was as much fun at rehearsals as on the show itself. Como’s relaxed and fun-loving manner at rehearsals put many nervous guests at ease. It was common for Como to leave the Saturday afternoon rehearsal for about a half-hour to go to confession. He managed to save some time by asking his music publisher, Mickey Glass, to wait in line for him at the confessional. Glass, who was Jewish, was most agreeable to this, but wondered what to do if his turn came before Como arrived. Perry thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing, saying in a 1989 interview, “I got a kick out of live television. The spontaneity was the fun of it.” Spontaneity and the ability to be himself came in handy for swimmer/actress Esther Williams’ guest appearance of March 16, 1957. A wardrobe malfunction meant that viewers were seeing more of Esther than 1950s television considered to be in good taste; more live show mishaps followed. At the show’s end, Williams was swimming in a pool specially constructed on the set for her appearance. Como simply said, “Goodnight, folks,” and leaped, fully clothed, into the swimming pool.
On December 17, 1955, viewers were able to see first-hand what Perry did for a living before he was a professional singer. Actor Kirk Douglas was one of Como’s television guests; Douglas had grown a beard for his Vincent van Gogh role in Lust For Life, which finished filming that week. Como shaved Douglas’ movie beard live on national television. On September 15, 1956, the season premiere of The Perry Como Show was broadcast from NBC’s new color television studios at the New York Ziegfeld Theatre, making it one of the first weekly color TV shows. In addition to this season premiere as a color television show, there was also a royal visit from Prince Rainier of Monaco and his bride of six months, Grace Kelly.
Como competed with Jackie Gleason in what was billed as the “Battle of the Giants” and won. This is now rarely mentioned, in part because Como commonly downplayed his own achievements, and also because the two men were friends. The weekly ratings winner would phone the loser for some mock gloating. At the height of this television competition, Como asked Gleason a favor: to visit his home when his mother-in-law, a big Gleason fan, was there. Though Mrs. Belline spoke no English and Gleason no Italian, Roselle’s mother was thrilled. Como’s words to Gleason after the visit, “Anything you want, you got it. In fact, I’ll even do one of your shows so the ratings will be better.” Como was among those who filled in for Gleason on The Jackie Gleason Show in 1954 when the entertainer suffered a broken ankle and leg in an on-air fall.
An example of Como’s popularity came in 1956, when Life conducted a poll of young women, asking them which man in public life most fit the concept of their ideal husband: it was Perry Como. A 1958 nationwide poll of U.S. teenagers found Perry Como to be the most popular male singer, beating Elvis Presley, who was the winner of the previous year’s poll. At one point, his television show was broadcast in at least 12 other countries.
Another way to judge the value of the Como show to the network can be found in the following: during sound checks at rehearsals, it was often difficult to hear Como’s soft voice without having a large microphone ruin a camera shot. NBC had RCA design a microphone for the show, which was known as the “Como mike”; the microphone was able to pick up Como’s voice properly and was small enough not to interfere with camera shots.
Kraft Music Hall: 1959–1967
In 1959, Como moved to Wednesday nights, hosting Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall weekly for the next four years. Over the next four seasons, from 1963 to 1967, the series was presented as monthly specials alternating with Kraft Suspense Theatre, The Andy Williams Show, and finally The Road West. Como became the highest-paid performer in the history of television to that date, earning mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. Como himself took part in none of this; his production company, Roncom, named for son Ronnie Como, handled the transaction along with all other Como business matters. Como also had control of the show which would replace his during the summer television hiatus. While “Mr. C.” was having a holiday, viewers would see Perry Presents, beginning in 1959.
In late 1962, after the Cuban Missile Crisis had settled well enough to permit the evacuated servicemen’s families to return to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was eager to do more for morale there. He asked Perry Como to bring his television show to the Naval base. Perry and his cast and crew were at Guantanamo when the loved ones began their return. The first entertainers to visit the base since the crisis, the Como show filmed there for eight days. Some highlights of the program, which was seen in the US on December 12, 1962, included Como’s shaving a serviceman with a Castro-like beard and the enthusiastic participation when Perry asked for volunteers to come on stage to do the Twist with the lovely ladies who were part of the visiting dance troupe.
Filming for the Kraft Music Hall Christmas show that was aired on December 17, 1964 began at the Vatican November 7. By special permission of Pope Paul VI, Como and his crew were able to shoot segments in the Vatican gardens and other areas where cameras had never been permitted previously. The show featured the first television appearance of the Sistine Chapel Choir, and also the first time a non-choir member (Como) sang with them. The choir performed a Christmas hymn in Latin written by their director, Domenico Bartolucci, called “Christ Is Born”, as part of their presentation. Como asked his associate, Ray Charles, to write English lyrics for the song, using it many times on both television shows and his Christmas albums. The Carpenters also recorded the song on their first Christmas album, Christmas Portrait.