By Brad Dison
In 1910, Pietro and Lucia and their six children emigrated from a small town in Italy to Canonsburg, Pennsylvania where Pietro earned meager wages as a millhand. Two years after their arrival, they added their seventh child, Ronald, to their ever-growing family which eventually totaled thirteen children. Ronald was the seventh son of a seventh son and the first of the children to be born in America. Ronald’s family spoke Italian at home and Ronald only began to learn English when he entered elementary school, although he had picked up a few words here and there.
In 1922 or 23, sources vary on the exact year, Ronald began working in Steve Fragapane’s barbershop to earn extra money for the family. At the barbershop, he built and tended to the fire in the fireplace and swept up hair clippings from the floor. Ronald quickly learned that he could make more money if he were to become a barber himself, so he watched Steve and the other barbers closely. He convinced the barbers to let him try his hand at taking a few snips here and there off of the customers. Their confidence in Ronald grew quickly because he had a steady hand, a good eye, and he showed no outward appearance of nervousness, if it existed at all. Ronald was always calm and cool. Eventually, he began learning how to cut hair in all the popular styles and how to give a good, clean shave although, at his young age, he had not begun shaving himself.
Within 3 years, by the young age of 13, Ronald earned his own chair at Steve’s barbershop. In 1926, Ronald’s father became unable to work due to a severe heart condition. It became the responsibility of Ronald and his brothers to earn enough money for the family’s survival.
Ronald never complained and often sang the popular tunes of the day while giving a shave or a haircut, much to the delight of his customers. Within a year, Ronald had more customers than his single chair in Fragapane’s shop could accommodate. At the young age of 14, when most children his age were busy being children, Ronald opened his own barbershop where he employed two helpers. On weekdays, he worked after school until midnight. He worked longer hours on the weekend. Ronald’s ambition was to become the best barber of Canonsburg, and he was well on his way.
It certainly seemed as if Ronald’s path in life was set. In 1933, Ronald and some friends went to the Silver Slipper Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio, to see Freddy Carlone and his orchestra perform. During the show, Carlone invited people from the audience to sing with his band. Ronald’s friends urged him onto the stage. Most of the people from the audience who sang with Carlone’s orchestra had more faith in themselves than they had talent, except for Ronald. Carlone was so impressed with Ronald’s singing, his casual movements while he sang, and his general coolness, that he offered him a job. He made more money as a barber than Carlone had offered to pay, but, with the reassurance of his father that he could always return to barbering, he joined the band.
The chance performance at the Silver Slipper Ballroom set into motion an unexpected career change for Ronald, a career which lasted the remainder of his life, a career in which he sold millions of records, acted in numerous Hollywood pictures, hosted numerous radio and television variety shows, and hosted yearly Christmas shows from 1948 until 1994. Rather than being known as the best barber in Canonsburg, as he originally wanted, he became known as the best ex-barber in the world. In 1955, Franklin Avenue, the street where Ronald was born and grew up, was renamed in his honor. In the 1960s, Ronald became the highest-paid performer in the history of television to that date. You may recognize some of his songs such as “Till the End of Time”, “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes”, and “Catch a Falling Star.” Nowadays, he is mostly associated with Christmas due to his recordings of Christmas songs. In 1954, Ronald introduced a Christmas song in which he mentioned his home state. He sang, “From Pennsylvania folks are traveling down to Dixie’s sunny shore, from Atlantic to Pacific gee the traffic is terrific.” The song was “Home for the Holidays.” Ronald’s full name was …Pierino Ronald “Perry” Como.
- Star-Gazette, November 27, 1955, p.44.
- Albuquerque Journal, December 13, 1980, p.19.
- Tyler Morning Telegraph, August 1, 1983, p.11.