Perry Como, <EM>The Perry Como Show</EM> Perry Como, The Perry Como Show

Question: When I was a kid, my family used to always watch Perry Como Christmas specials. We loved them every year. But one thing I was never able to figure out: Who was he? Did he have his own show or something?

Answer: Not only did he have his own show, Kenny, he had several (both radio and TV), not to mention a long, successful music career. Matter of fact, Como's life in the biz was remarkable for precisely the reason you give: Like the Energizer bunny, he kept going, and going, and going  well into the rock-and-roll era, when many other crooners like him had long faded into obscurity.

Como started out, interestingly enough, as a barber when he was still in high school, but was already singing at weddings even then. In 1933 he began singing in bands and built enough of a following (and enough hit records) that NBC hired him to cohost The Chesterfield Supper Club radio show, which moved to TV in 1948 to take up a mere 15-minute time slot. He shifted to CBS and did quarter-hour shows there for a few years, then jumped back to NBC for the hourlong Perry Como Show.

The interesting thing about Como on TV is that the medium was still so young, it allowed for a much more free-flowing format. And Como didn't pretend to have all the answers as to what his show should be. But he was a comfortable presence who played up his trademark nice-guy, laid-back image, and welcomed guests such as Frankie Laine, Rosemary Clooney, Julius LaRosa, Yvonne De Carlo and Peggy Lee. However, as the variety-show format grew more popular and competition grew for guests, who were paid a fee to appear, Como also demonstrated an eye for the bottom line.

"To tell you the truth, we have a terrible problem," Como told TV Guide in 1959, when his show had moved to a new night with a new sponsor (Kraft) and title (Kraft Music Hall). "There are 9,000 spectaculars on the air this fall. And they all have run so far down the list of guest stars that they're at the bottom of the barrel. You just can't afford to depend entirely on guests nowadays. There just aren't that many around."

How expensive were the guests? Hey, it added up, even in '50s dollars. "They told me one show went up to $35,000 for one guest," Como said. "And I thought that if you're going to pay $35,000 for a talent that used to cost you $1,600, you're not going to be in business much longer.... You know, you really can't blame the big names for wanting the big money. Look at it like this: Unless you do a great moving picture and win the Academy Award, you've got to go for the dough even if you can't keep any of it. There's nothing else to reach for."

By the fall of 1961, when the standard fee for guests was $7,500 and many were routinely demanding as much as $25,000, Como and his people came up with a way to save money: Concentrate on a regular troupe of players. They scoured the clubs, theaters and local TV shows and came up with a group of little-known performers, several of whom would go on to much bigger things. Paul Lynde would become a household name due to Bewitched, Hollywood Squares, and more bit roles and appearances than I can list. You know Don Adams as Get Smart's Agent 86, and Kaye Ballard would costar in The Mothers-in-Law.

Even with the changes, however, Como's regular show left the air in 1963. However, viewers like you remember his yearly ABC holiday specials, which the network stopped running in 1987. And along the way, he kept releasing hits, enjoying a Grammy nomination in 1973 for his recording of Don McLean's "And I Love You So." I know I say this about a lot of performers, but it's because most of them deserve it: It's not easy to stick around in this business, and the fact that Como, who passed away in 2001, managed to do so for so long says a lot about him. As his theme song said: "Dream along with me, I'm on my way to a star." Indeed.