Perry Como was an American singer, radio and television performer whose career covered more than fifty years. He is probably best known for his television shows and specials over a period of almost thirty years. Como came to television in 1948 when his radio show was selected by NBC for experimental television broadcasts. His television programs were seen in more than a dozen countries, making Como a familiar presence outside of the United States and Canada.
Doug Storer, then an advertising executive with the Blackman Company, was a listener of Como's CBS radio show. Storer believed Como's ability and style would be ideal for a new radio variety program he was planning. He created an audition recording of the proposed program with Como and the Mitchell Ayres Orchestra and brought it to the advertising agency that handled the Chesterfield cigarettes account. The agency liked the concept of the radio show, but had someone else in mind as its host. The singer of their choice was under contract with someone else, so the agency asked Storer to obtain a release from his contract for their new program. Storer believed that Perry Como was the right host for the new radio show and did not do anything about the singer's release from his contract. Weeks later, he received a call from Chesterfield's advertising agency, asking about the status of the singer's contract, since the show was scheduled to begin on NBC in about one week. Storer told the agency that the right person for their new program was the man on the audition recording. The agency had no time to spare and agreed to sign Perry Como. At the end of 1944, Como became the host of The Chesterfield Supper Club.
Chesterfield Supper Club radio audience ticket, February 6, 1946.
The Chesterfield Supper Club had a main theme song, "Smoke Dreams", composed by John Klenner, Lloyd Shaffer and Ted Steele. Another musical theme that was also used on the broadcasts was Roy Ringwald's "A Cigarette, Sweet Music and You". These themes were also used when the Chesterfield Supper Club television shows began in 1948. Como was joined by Jo Stafford in 1946, with Perry hosting the 15 minute program on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings. By 1948, Peggy Lee and the Fontane Sisters had joined the cast, with the Fontane Sisters moving to television with Como. The radio show continued and was simulcast after the "Supper Club" television broadcasts began; Como was heard on radio until he left NBC in 1950 for CBS with The Perry Como Chesterfield Show. Mutual began simulcasting his CBS television show on radio in 1953; it was the first instance of a simulcast between two different networks. The radio show continued until June 1955, when Como left CBS to return to NBC.
Como did not return to a regularly broadcast radio program until 1989 when he began a syndicated radio show co-hosted with John Knox called Weekend With Perry. He continued with this program until his death in 2001.
Como's life on television began when NBC decided to experiment with televising his Chesterfield Supper Club radio show on December 24, 1948. The cameras were simply brought into the radio studio to televise the radio broadcast of the show. NBC initially planned to televise three Friday evening "Supper Club" radio shows; the network was pleased enough with the results that the experimental period was extended into August 1949. Como admitted that he felt awkward and unsure at first, but was able to relax enough to perform on the television show in the same manner as he did for normal radio broadcasts. On September 8, 1949, Chesterfield Supper Club became an officially scheduled television program airing on Sunday nights for a half-hour.
Perry and his sponsor moved to CBS in 1950; the show was re-titled The Perry Como Chesterfield Show and the schedule returned to one similar to the "Supper Club" radio shows: a 15 minute program three times a week.J. Fred Muggs, who rose to fame on the NBC Today show, made his debut on Perry Como's CBS program. Pat Weaver of Today saw the baby chimp on the show and thought he would be able to help his still-floundering morning program. NBC offered Como a long-term contract to host a weekly hour-long television show that would beginning in the fall of 1955. Como signed a 12-year contract with the network in April 1955.
The Perry Como Show made its debut September 17, 1955, with the following announcement from annnouncer Frank Gallop: "We assume everyone can read, so we will not shout at you." Initially, only Gallop's voice was heard because there was not enough room for him to appear onstage. Clad in his well-known cardigan sweaters, Como welcomed guest stars to his musical-comedy variety program. The "Sing to me, Mr. C." segment of the show was where Como responded to letters of viewer song requests. Como was seated on a stool as he sang some of the music of the weekly requests. The setting for this segment had its beginnings in the first television broadcasts of the Chesterfield Supper Club. Como and his guests did the radio show sitting on stools behind music stands; this is what was seen by the cameras when they initially came into the radio studio. The opening theme song for Como's shows from 1955-1963 was "Dream Along with Me (I'm On My Way to a Star)". The closing theme was "You Are Never Far Away From Me". "We Get Letters", composed by Ray Charles, was the musical beginning of the "Sing to me, Mr. C." segment of Como's weekly shows. It was revived by the Late Show with David Letterman.
The Perry Como Show was rated as number seven in the Nielsen Top Ten after it had been on the air for two months. The program became one of the first color television programs with its 1956 season premiere; it was also the only NBC television show in the Nielsen ratings top ten for the 1956-1957 season. During this time, a ratings war developed between the Como show and that of entertainer Jackie Gleason. Off-screen, Gleason and Como were long-time friends; Como had been one of those who filled in for Gleason in 1954, when he suffered a broken leg and ankle in an on-air fall. While both men were eager to win, neither wanted to do so at all costs. They kept their friendship intact with phone calls the day after the show; the winner of the weekly ratings battle phoned the loser for some good-natured joking.
Kraft Foods had been the sponsor of a long-running radio program called Kraft Music Hall. The company decided to develop the show for television in 1958, hosted by Milton Berle. Kraft approached Perry Como regarding becoming the program's new host in early 1959. Como signed what was then a record-breaking deal with Kraft, receiving $25 million to host the show for the next two years with another contract to serve as the company's spokesman for the next seven years. The agreement also put Como in charge of his television show's production, as well as for the shows replacing it during the summer hiatus. Como's production company, Roncom, named for his son, Ronnie Como, handled the transactions. Como also had control of the show which would replace his during the summer television hiatus. Como then moved from Saturday evenings to Wednesday evenings with Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall.
Como, who had done a regularly scheduled television show since 1949, began taking a slower pace by 1963. From 1963 to 1967, he appeared on television only on a monthly basis. The Como show was rotated with three other Kraft-sponsored programs: Kraft Suspense Theatre, The Andy Williams Show, and The Road West. After 1967, his television appearances mainly came in the form of specials at holidays, especially Christmas. Como actually began doing specials in 1960 while he was still hosting Kraft Music Hall. Perry Como Comes To London was the first of these programs which would eventually span over twenty-five years. He continued with the television specials, which were filmed in countries like Austria, France, Mexico and the United States until 1987, when an angry Como canceled the Christmas special after being offered a non-prime time slot for it on ABC. Como's final Christmas special, Perry Como's Irish Christmas, was seen on PBS in 1994.
Regularly scheduled television shows
The Perry Como Chesterfield Supper Club (1948–1950).
Perry Como as Nicky Ricci performing "Here Comes Heaven Again" in 1946 Doll Face.
Perry Como was signed to a seven-year 20th Century-Fox contract in 1943, prior to his becoming the host of the Chesterfield Supper Club. Como wound up in a stock company, where actors were called for work only if the studio needed to make a film to complete a schedule. For the filming of Something for the Boys in 1944, Como was told to report immediately to the Fox Studio Hollywood lot. It was five weeks from Como's arrival to his being called onto the set. When he came on the movie set, the director did not know who he was.
He made five films, but felt that his roles and his personality were a poor match. Como expressed his discomfort with the medium, saying in 1949, "Television is going to do me a lot more personal good than the movies ever have...The reason should be obvious. On television, I'm allowed to be myself; in pictures, I was always some other guy. I come over like just another bum in a tuxedo." Though his last movie, Words and Music, was a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production, the change wasn't helpful. Shortly before the film's debut, columnist Walter Winchell reported the following in his column: "Someone at MGM must have been dozing when they wrote the script for Words and Music. In most of the film Perry Como is called Eddie Anders and toward the end (for no reason) they start calling him Perry Como." He then asked for and received a release from the remainder of his contract, saying, "I was wasting their time and they were wasting mine.".