Perry Como Bundles Up in Montreal To Prepare His 33rd Christmas Program

He is joined by Les Petits Chanteurs who break the ice with chorus of Zippity Do Da

Gannett, December 11, 1981: Montreal, Canada — A balmy evening in mid-October, and a soft mist sparkles in the television floodlights illuminating the tiny storybook chapel of Brother Andre, built atop Mount Royal early this century. Dozens of small red and green Christmas lights flicker from inside the windows and through the open door where Perry Como stands, bareheaded, in aviator glasses, a heavy fur-collared coat and knitted gloves.

On the porch of the two-story chapel, twittering choirboys in white robes — Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal — wait for their cue to descend the outside stairway, carefully holding lit candles. They speak no English (French is their native tongue) but while cameraman and director fiddle, the boys break into a chorus of “Zippity Do Da.”

The final take: They file down the steps by twos, their voices and Como’s borne out into the air on a loudspeaker: “Christ is Born.”

A magical scene. And a taping in progress for “Perry Como’s French-Canadian Christmas” (airing at 9 p.m. Saturday on Ch. 8.). It is Como’s 33rd annual Christmas program.

He doesn’t call them specials, he says afterward in his dressing room trailer: “Special is kind of a bad word for it, because there is nothing special about what we do, really.” Como has shed his elegant coat and is wearing extremely casual, even rumpled, shirt and pants with inch-thick gummed work shoes. The shoes were provided for him the day before when he had to spend eight hours standing on ice at Montreal’s Olympic Biodome with Quebec musician Andre Gagnon and figure skater Dorothy Hamill.

It is 11 o’clock and Como has been at it since early morning on a seven-day shooting schedule here and in Quebec City. Canadian singer Diane Tell, making her American debut, and Debby Boone are among the carolers in this Christmas present from Canada.

The tradition began Christmas Eve 1948 on NBC, on the first telecast of Como’s first regular television series. In the boy’s choir that night was one of Como’s three children, Ronnie, now a New York stockbroker, who was 8 years old at the time.

A TV regular for more than a quarter of a century, in recent years Como has confined his appearance to Easter and Christmas shows, usually taped in foreign locales. Right outside the trailer is the shrine of Saint Joseph’s oratory, with its onion-shaped dome, also built by Brother Andre. The oratory has became a mecca. Three million people visit it yearly, many going up its 90 steps on their knees.

It reminds Como of his first visit to Italy when his children were young. And the family, doing penance, climbed the steps of a church there on their knees. “It was nice,” says Como. He’s not a “religious fanatic,” but an ordinary lay Catholic. The Crooner — his songs crooned out in a melodic baritone — is nearly 70. But, unlike Frank Sinatra, he has lost neither his voice nor his viewers.

He says he can’t explain why his music has survived and co-existed with rock (“What do I know? I gave rock ’n’ roll six months”), but he has a theory as to why his now-rare musical programs have good ratings. It has to do with being welcomed in people’s homes. Or not barging in uninvited, so to speak. A respectful reticence he says he’s always had. He chuckles, “When I lived at home with my mom and dad I was always a little backward about even opening up the refrigerator.”

Como thinks about it some more, leaning back as if he had all the time in the world. Four people are waiting to take him back to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. The plane for Quebec City leaves at 8 in morning. “People’s homes are private places,” he says, finally. “I don’t know, they might be walking around naked. I don’t want anyone to walk in on me because I might be walking around naked and I’m a pretty miserable looking thing.”

His grin is lopsided. “It might be sort of corn ballish, but if people invite you into their home, if they enjoy it, you’re welcome.” Como has been welcomed into people’s homes since 1943 when he went on CBS radio five nights a week. He looks great. Close-cropped gray hair, lean-faced, and what he calls a “stocky build.” Whatever he had, the ol’ Crooner still’s got it.

“Maybe I’m taking George Burns pills or something. This man is 82 years old.” He laughs. “Well, how old do you think Bob Hope is? I think he’s got to be close to 80 at least. Frank Sinatra and I were always about the same age. Of course, now I’m going to be 70 and he’s going to be 65, I think. I lost five years somewhere along there. Next year I’m going back to 63.”

Como enjoys the little comic monologue about his age-ing colleagues because he’s wryly ribbing himself. Then he looks serious. “Sometimes I feel lousy.” Sometimes he gets up in the morning and has a pain In his arm. Or in his leg. “I say, what the hell? If I wanted to go to the doctor I could go every day.” Instead he “walks it off.” Until a couple of runs ago when he broke a leg, he’d run it off. “The body gets a little tired.” He smiles philosophically. “My legs yesterday were terrible, but so what? When I got home I put my feet in hot water.”

Como and his wife Roselle live in Jupiter, Florida, where he fishes and golfs year-round. There are frequent visits to see their children and 11 grandchildren (19 years to 2 months old), and a couple of years ago he “deliberately” accepted a Christmas holiday engagement at Lake Tahoe and rented five homes for a rare family get-together. “It was like an Italian army. It was cold as hell. It was beautiful. You never saw so many wet pants and runny noses.”

His family is at the core of Como’s life. He worshiped his father, who was a steel-mill hand in Canonsburg, Pa. “I’m sure everyone feels the same, but my mom and dad were kind of special. Gentle. My father was a great man. The ‘old man’ fits him perfectly. When he was born they threw the mold away. He was very quiet and had 13 children.” Como, the middle child, never lacked affection and care.

His parents, part of a settlement of Italians from Abruzzi, never learned English, never ventured more than half a dozen blocks from where they lived. Como began barbering at 10. “I practiced on my dad. He had one of those wonderful Italian handlebar mustaches.” Little by little Como trimmed — first on one side, then the other, evening it out — to the size of a smudge under his father’s nose. “He’d have killed me if I did it all at once,” Como laughed.

Como has been married 48 years. “Yes,” he laughed, throwing back his head, “I still have the same wife!” He and the former Roselle Belline were childhood sweethearts; in and out of each other’s houses for years, the couple was loved by both sets of parents. Roselle’s mother was French and when the two had what he called “a childish fight” she would say, “Don’t worry, Pierro will come back.”

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