Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

Fame and fortune in popular culture, particularly in the entertainment industry, became a phenomenon in twentieth-century America. Radio and television performer Perry Como (1912-2001), realized his American Dream and became famous, helping define the foundations of early television and popular music. Known for his easy-going and unflappable manner, “The Singing Barber” is proudly remembered by his hometown of Canonsburg, Washington County, in southwestern Pennsylvania.

He was born Pierino Roland Como on May 18,1912,in Canonsburg,the seventh son of Pietro Como (1877- 1945) and Lucia Como (1883-1961), hardworking Italian immigrants who raised thirteen children. Pietro earned thirty-five dollars weekly at a tin plate factory – a good salary in those days – but he was determined to spare his sons a life in southwestern Pennsylvania’s coal mines and steel mills. He convinced Sicilian-born Steve Fragapane to take on eleven-year-old Perry as an apprentice in his barbershop. Earning fifty cents a week, young Perry swept floors, sharpened razors and, by age fourteen, had become a skilled barber. He cut hair in the basement of the family home on Franklin Street until he finished high school and opened a barbershop on Third Street.

The elder Como insisted that his sons take music lessons, and Perry learned to play the organ, baritone horn, and guitar, and played the sousaphone for the Canonsburg High School marching band. His tonsorial talent drew customers to his shop, where he loved to sing. “I always sang. When I was little I just sang and sang,” he remarked in a 1934 interview with the Canonsburg Daily Notes. Como’s customers enjoyed his baritone serenades as he cut hair. Although he was earning $125 weekly, the Great Depression forced Como to close his barbershop. A customer, a professional musician who had enjoyed his melodies, encouraged him to audition for Cleveland bandleader Freddie Carlone.

Although he enjoyed singing, Como felt humbled by singers such as the great opera tenor Enrico Caruso. In 1933, Como auditioned for Carlone in Cleveland. A week or two later, Como received a telegram with Carlone’s offer to front the band. He was reluctant to abandon a future in barbering, but his parents and friends encouraged him to join Carlone.

At the age of sixteen, Como had met Roselle Belline (1914-1998), daughter of French immigrants, who encouraged him throughout his life. “This Bing Crosby who is coming on is no better than you,” she said. “Why don’t you join a band and sing for both our suppers?” The couple married on July 31, 1933, and moved to Cleveland, Perry accepting Carlone’s weekly salary of twenty-eight dollars. Como acquired stage experience and attracted a small following around Cleveland and in the Midwest. By the time he made his Pennsylvania debut in July 1934 at Kennywood Park in West Mifflin, Allegheny County, music critics had begun comparing him to Bing Crosby.

In the thirties, big band orchestras with romantic crooners were common to American audiences. One of the top ranked bands was based in Chicago and led by Ted Weems (1901-1963), a native of Pitcairn, Allegheny County. In 1936, Weems attended a Como performance in Warren, Ohio, where concert-goers demanded six encores. Weems enticed Como to join his band and billed him as the “romantic baritone.” He was featured on Jack Benny’s national radio show and cut his first records as a featured vocalist, although Weems’ top billing overshadowed him.

In 1940, Roselle Como gave birth to a son, Roland. (The Comos later adopted two children, Terry and David.) Perry was growing increasingly weary of being away from his wife and baby who had returned to Canonsburg. In 1942, Weems and several band members joined the Merchant Marines. Como expected to be drafted, but instead received his greatest wish: to return to Canonsburg. He turned down offers that meant being away from his family. Planning to resume his career cutting hair, he was negotiating a lease for a barbershop when the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) came calling in 1943.

CBS offered Como a nightly,fifteen-minute national radio show based in New York City. The Comos moved to Long Island and the singer quickly became as popular as Frank Sinatra in New York nightclubs and theaters. With the help of entertainment agent Tom Rockwell, whose clients included Crosby, Como became star of radio’s Chesterfield Supper Club and landed a recording contract with RCA Victor, a relationship that lasted until 1988. It was RCA’s longest continuing contract.

In 1945, Como released his first million-selling hit record, “Till the End of Time,” a melody adapted from “Polonaise-fantaisie,” composed in 1846 by Frederic Chopin. In 1956, he scored another number one, million-selling hit, “Hot Diggity,” perceived as a novelty, but actually adapted from “Espafia,” written in 1883 by French composer Emmanuel Chabrier. During his career, Como had fourteen number one hits – ten between 1949 and 1958, including “Catch a Falling Star,” for which, in 1958,he received the first Grammy Award given for Best Male Vocal Performance. More than 180 featured Como. About 150 songs reached top 100 ranking on music charts – three dozen climbed to the top ten over the years. Como sold more than one hundred million copies of recordings. Although his popularity waned after listeners’ tastes changed during the 1960s, he is remembered for songs recorded in the 1970s, such as “And I Love Her So” and “It’s Impossible.”

During the 1950s, The Perry Como Show became immensely popular television show as did his theme song, “Dream Along With Me (I’m on My Way to a Star),”composed by Carl Sigman. Despite the chaos and mishaps common to live television, Como’s relaxed and casual poise became his trademark. In 1959, Como received a record $25 million television contract to host and produce the Kraft Music Hall. Five years later, i n 1964, Como began hosting annual television Christmas specials. Recognized by fans as “Mr. C.” he ultimately became known ‘Mr. Christmas” to many, many more. In 1987 – ten years after Canonsburg renamed Third Street as Perry Como Avenue – he disappeared from the air. That year, however, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presented him its prestigious award for his lifetime contribution to America’s art and culture. In 1993, at the age of 81, Como made his final public appearance during a televised Christmas concert in Dublin, Ireland, culminating a sixty year career in show business.

The Comos retired to Jupiter, Florida, having successfully maintained a happy, private, Norman Rockwell-like family life despite the pressures of fame. Less than two weeks after celebrating their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary, Roselle Como died, on August 12, 1998. Before her death, she helped their hometown in commissioning a statue of her husband. Canonsburg unveiled the statue in 1999, but the performer was too ill to attend the ceremonies. He died in Jupiter on May 12, 2001. Perry Como’s own words seem to be a most fitting epitaph. “I think I’ve gotten everything you could possibly get out of someone who cuts hair and sings a song,” he said.