In 1960, Pete Martin spoke with Perry Como about his celebrity. In honor of the 100th anniversary of Como’s birth and Zac Bissonnette’s piece, Why Perry Como Matters, we are reprinting the interview in its entirety.
I looked at his hair. It was thick. It had a tendency to curl. It was exactly the right length — not too long, not too short. It wasn’t a butch through which his scalp showed pinkly. I envied him his hair and his even tan, every inch of which was exactly the same degree of darkness. There were no freckles, no peeling spots, I thought, figures that his hair should look right. He should know about such things. After all, fit’s the most famous barber since Delilah, although he abandoned his tonsorial trade about twenty-five years ago to sing for his living.
“I understand you’re a big man in the icechomping field,” I said to Perry Como. “I’m an ice eater myself, and it drives my wife to distraction. She says she can hear the echo of my molars all over the house. Does your dentist tell you it’s bad for your teeth when you crack a whole cube with one bite?”
Como looked cautiously around his office as if he were afraid it was bugged. “I’ve never told him,” he said in a low, conspiratorial voice.
“You mean he can’t tell by just looking into your mouth?” I asked.
“He’s preoccupied with some other dental problems of mine,” Como explained. “For eighteen years I’ve had a small space between my two front teeth. That was my Number One problem. It was a minor one. I acquired a major one many years ago when they drilled why you should know this, but once your teeth are ground and capped, they’re tender afterward. If you get a little cavity or decay on the uncapped part of the tooth, the dentist has to take the cap off, drill a little higher and put on another cap. Dentically speaking, I’ve been going through hell for eighteen years. In all honesty, I guess if I had laid off my ice-breaker bit, my teeth would be in pretty good shape.”
I said, “I’m curious about how you go about crunching ice with caps on.”
“Obviously my caps are made of concrete,” Como said, “I can polish off a whole bowl of ice in no time at all.” He thought for a moment, then added, “I’ll tell you why I think I’m an ice craver. When I play a lot of golf, as I frequently do, and it’s very hot, I perspire bucketfuls. I get dehydrated and I have to push that lost water back into my body, I’m not very big, but in one round of golf I can ooze between five and seven pounds.”
“On just an ordinary, peaceful, quiet day of golf?” I asked.
“It’s actually water. It’s bloat that vanishes.”
I said, “I understand that you play a very leisurely game of golf, a lazy game. So why all the perspiration?”
He smiled, confessing, “I can sweat like a herd of wild animals. My pores are wide open and ready to go any time. I’ll tell you a secret,” he went on, “I know your spies have told you that my rounds of golf aren’t strenuous, that I keep my eyes and ears open to the crunch of grass underfoot and the sound of birdsong as I journey around eighteen holes. They doubtless tell you also that I seem to relish these things so greatly that I play very slowly. Well, to use a sweet word instead of a crude one, that’s a lot of hooey. I may appear to loiter, but honestly I’m just as fast as anybody else on a golf course.” He thought of something and added, “With the exception of England. I really had a problem there. For some reason, British players hit the ball and run. Their wives may find them something less than volcanic at home, but put them down on a golf course, and it’s Balaklava and The Charge of the Light Brigade all over again. They charge at you like wild boars — polite wild boars, mind you, but if they want to play through you, if you’re smart, you let them play.”
I said, “The only English golf match I’ve ever seen was one played between Bob Hope and Bing Crosby for the Playing Fields of England Fund, They had to call it off on the fourth hole because they were driving their balls right down the spectators’ throats. Twelve or fifteen thousand people crowded onto the fairways until there weren’t any fairways; there were just masses of people.”
“I played in a few of those things myself,” Como said. “They’re fun until they start leaving you no room to play in. After that they’re murder.”
I said, “I helped Bob Hope write his story for The Saturday Evening Post. There are those who say he’s no good without his writers around him, but I can testify that there were many times when he said sidesplitting things to me on his own, without his writers thinking them up for him.”
“He’s a swifty with an ad lib,” Como agreed. “Hope’s played a lot of golf exhibitions for charity, and I’ve played with him on some of them. You gather together three or four characters like Hope, and ten or twenty thousand people are apt to turn out. When the galleries start lining up on the fairways until they leave only a long, narrow slit for you to drive through, it scares the hell out of you. You could kill a spectator if you hit him in the wrong spot.
“Most of the benefits I’ve played,” he went on, “have been for boys’ clubs or for such things as cerebral-palsy funds. I remember one day in Washington, D.C, when there were five of us—Hope and I, Ben Hogan, Ed Sullivan and Jimmy Demaret. Most of the people who’d come out to see us play weren’t golfers and knew no golf etiquette. They didn’t even have enough gumption to know they were in danger and get out of the way when Hope and Sullivan and I were shooting. Hogan and Demaret knew where their shots were going, but you can’t stand in front of Hope or me when we’re shooting without running a good chance of having a slice or a hook slam into you.
“That was the maddest day I can remember. Bob was flying in from somewhere with Jim Demaret. They were supposed to be there at one o’clock, but when they didn’t show up, Hogan gave the crowd a golf clinic.
He showed them how to hit some balls, then he explained his shots over a microphone to kill time. People were milling and trampling around out of hand, and I was hiding in the locker room. I wasn’t about to go out there and get flattened. Finally there was the sound of police-motorcycle sirens, and in came Hope.
“From the moment we teed off on the first hole, trying to play golf was ridiculous. By the time we got to where a ball had landed, it was gone, and we never saw it again. I didn’t see the same ball twice all day. There were supposed to be marshals to protect us — they were really to protect the crowd —but they didn’t. So the people gathered in the middle of the fairways and grabbed the balls as fast as we hit them. We kept trying anyhow and finally got to the fifth hole, which was a well-trapped par three. I’ll never forget what Bob did then. It showed a softer and kinder side of this man who seems so cocky on the outside. He told the rest of us, ‘I’m going to hit it in the trap,’ and sure enough, that’s where he hit it.
“I wish I had a movie of the action for the next fifteen minutes. Bob deliberately hit that ball from one trap to another, dealing out stale jokes for the crowd every second of the time. He was giving the crowd a show for their money, and it was hilariously funny. He’d hit under the ball so it would go straight up in the air, or he’d top it and bury it in the sand. You know, people consistently underestimate Bob. He’s much more than just a funny man; he’s a very kind man too.
“We played four more holes because we thought we ought to play at least nine, after which we dropped everything and ran for the clubhouse like rabbits. I simply couldn’t have stood another nine holes. We’d be there yet. It had taken us four and a half hours to play the holes we did play. When we saw a ball, we hit it. The rest of the time we were signing autographs and walking. A couple of times I even walked in the wrong direction because I couldn’t see the fairway.”