Perry Como is on the road again. His annual holiday tour (bringing him tonight and tomorrow to the Valley Forge Music Fair in Devon, Pa., for two sold-out shows) is a mixed blessing.
"Seventeen cities in five weeks," he says, settling into an aisle seat at the back of the Municipal Auditorium here. "It's a hell of a trip."
But now, two weeks into the tour, Mr. C, as he's called, looks rested and cheerful. Others in his 18-member troupe arrive at the theater for the routine afternoon sound check. It's five hours to show time.
They stop and speak to him. Well-worn little jokes. Smiles. The affection is obvious. They touch him on the shoulder, the hand.
"Gracious is the best word for him," says his publicist and road manager of 42 years, Mickey Glass. "He is a genuinely kind man. And he's that way with everybody. Everybody."
Mr. C, born Pierino Roland Como, has been performing for almost 60 years. He has sold more than 100 million albums.
"You know, I started at the very beginning of television," he says. ''There were Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar and me. They were crazy days.
"Jackie and I were on at the same time. If he got a couple of (rating) points higher than me, he would be on the phone in the morning saying, 'We kicked your butt last night, silver throat.' If I was higher, I call and say, 'What happened to your ratings, fatso?' "
He smiles a soft, reflective smile.
"Crazy days," he says.
In 1933, Como was a barber in the mining town of Canonsburg, Pa., southwest of Pittsburgh, and he says his only ambition then was to be "the best barber between Canonsburg and Cleveland."
One night, some of his buddies - who knew he could sing - pushed him onto the bandstand to sing with the Freddy Carlone band. Carlone liked the kid and took him on the road.
Como toured with the band for three years before joining the Ted Weems Orchestra. After six more years on the road, he seriously considered going back to barbering. He was tired of one-night stands and being separated from his wife, Roselle.
Then, in 1943, he got an offer from CBS to do his own radio show. Then came a record contract with RCA, the label he has stayed with ever since and the one that recently issued the two-volume Best of Perry Como.
"I very much wanted to record this song, 'Wind Beneath My Wings,' and RCA built the whole album around that," he says. "I hear it's selling pretty well. It's funny."
"Well, this is the age of rock and roll, and now that crazy new stuff, rap. I can never understand what the rappers are saying, but I enjoy watching them dance.
"And, you know, I'm seeing a lot of young people on this tour. I tease them. I say, 'What are you guys doing here? This isn't rock and roll. This is rock-you-to-sleep.' They laugh."
The new album is his 73d, 20 of which have gone gold. He had 27 records on the Billboard Top 40 lists between 1955 and 1973, such songs as "Catch a Falling Star" and "Till the End of Time," songs that he still sings.
But his greatest success was on television. His first TV series began in 1948. The regular weekly program, The Perry Como Show (theme song: "Dream Along With Me"; the request ditty: "Letters, we get letters, we get stacks and stacks of letters!"), was canceled in 1963. He did Kraft Music Hall specials until 1967 and Christmas specials until 1986.
In the last couple of years, there have been the holiday road tours. He is not surprised about the sold-out Valley Forge shows. "We've been selling out pretty much everywhere," he says.
The show itself is a sentimental celebration of love and people and the spirit of Christmas. On stage, he is the same relaxed, modest singer his fans remember from the television days. Here in Lowell, the capacity crowd of more than 4,000 greets him with warm and sustained applause.
The audience is composed mainly of middle-aged people, although there is a scattering of younger adults. They interrupt the show often with applause.
The last show on this tour is scheduled for Dec. 29 in Orlando, Fla.
"That's when everybody collapses," he says. "I'll be glad to get back home."
Home is in Jupiter, Fla., where he lives with his wife. They will be celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary in June.
"I'm really getting sick of her," he says, and laughs.
At home, he says, he takes it easy.
"Some people think I'm taking it easy all the time," he adds.
He likes to fish and play golf.
"I used to play a lot of golf, sometimes from morning to night," he says. ''My wife would complain that I was always playing golf. Now she says, 'Why don't you go out and play some golf?'
"I have enough land out back so I can use it as a driving range. Trouble is, we have this river back there, and I tend to lose a lot of golf balls."
"In fact, I believe the fish are in more danger from my golf balls than
from my fishing rod."
The father of three plays with his 13 grandchildren and two great- grandchildren.
"When they're all here," he says, "it's like having an army in the house. And it's sometimes just as destructive. They are each destructive in their own way, which makes it interesting.
"Heck, I don't care. I'm just glad to see them."
He will be traveling to Japan for three concerts in February. But, apart
from this and some charity appearances, he performs very little now. His voice, however, never fails him.
"I don't worry about it," he says. "Look at Frank (Sinatra). He works a lot more than I do, and he has probably abused his voice a lot more over the years. He's had quite a - well, an interesting life."
Como's life, on the other hand, has been virtually free of controversy, conflict and scandal. He is asked about this.
"Well, I guess that's true," he says.
He thinks for a moment and then leans close to whisper, a wicked gleam in his eye.
"The truth is, they just didn't dig deep enough."
And Perry Como laughs heartily.