Singer Perry Como, who died last Saturday at age 87, had a real life so wonderful it would put the fictional George Bailey to shame.
Bailey, the hero of Frank Capra's Christmas movie classic "It's a Wonderful Life," was a broke, frustrated man on the verge of suicide until he realized how many friends he had, whose high regard made him "the richest man in town." Como was a very wealthy, very fulfilled man who went to his grave secure in what he had always known -- that he had millions of friends throughout the world.
Como possessed all of the virtues needed to forge a perfect show business career. He had enough talent to get his foot in the door, enough ambition to push himself forward, enough initiative to branch out into promising new fields, enough acumen to realize all the financial possibilities, enough modesty to keep all the hoopla in perspective and, perhaps most importantly, enough character to prevent it from corrupting him.
The public responded to Como's attractive personality and tuneful baritone voice almost at once, and in a more than sixty-year career, they never forgot him. He reached his pinnacle in the 1950s, when his television variety show made him a household name.
The 50s, now remembered with great nostalgia, was really a nervous time for many. There was a Cold War with the Soviet Union and a hot war with North Korea. A Communist witchhunt made people afraid to speak publicly about what they thought and felt. Hovering over all of it was the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation.
There was never a period in history when America was more in need of a friend, and the decent, easygoing Como was the perfect bromide for our national anxiety. Maybe he couldn't, as he said, dance, act, or tell a joke, but he made sure his show presented acts that could. What he was remarkably good at was singing, as his 27 gold records and more than 100 million records sold prove.
By 1963, Como had his fill of the weekly television grind and largely confined himself to specials and records. Although he avoided the limelight, he occasionally conquered the top 40 with a pop hit like "It's Impossible."
Whenever and wherever he decided to work, he had no trouble finding an audience. Just the mention of his name would conjure happy associations in the collective consciousness. It's likely the good will he generated will live on in memory. Perry Como will always be the richest man in town.
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