My Turn: A boy's encounter with a legend

In 1961, Perry Como visited the Tastee Freez

In 1961, Perry Como visited the Tastee Freez in Port Washington, owned by Bill and Ruth Zwerlein. The singer made a fan of their son Peter with his generosity. (Credit: Handout)

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My hometown of Port Washington has been home to a number of famous, as well as infamous, people throughout the years, most of them residing in the upscale village of Sands Point. A few have been visible in the community, but most have kept to themselves.

Notable people who have lived there include Newsday founders Alicia Patterson and Harry Guggenheim, and the 48th governor of New York, W. Averell Harriman. Others include crime boss Frank Costello, comedian Jackie Gleason, television announcer Ed Herlihy, singer Frankie Laine, dancer Cyd Charisse and her husband, singer Tony Martin, rock star Edgar Winter and recently, baseball player Carlos Beltran.

Many of these personalities had little contact with the rest of the community. The stories I had heard through the years from my father and other longtime residents told of occasional interaction with local merchants, but not with the community in general.

During the 56 years I lived in my hometown, I met one celebrity who was an exception -- the singer Perry Como.

Como was a likable, popular, easygoing man who began his career in 1933 with Freddy Carlone and his band. Soon after, he moved to the Ted Weems Orchestra and began to sing on the radio. He had a regular television show from 1948 through 1967 and continued with seasonal specials through 1994. He had numerous hit songs during his career.

So when my personal encounter with Perry came in 1961, when I was 10, he was an admired celebrity.

My parents owned the Tastee Freez ice cream store at 110 Shore Rd., at the corner of Manhasset Avenue. The building was typical of many soft-ice cream stores during the 1950s and 1960s. The roof of the store was 16 feet high at the front and gently sloped back to a height of 12 feet. From the front it looked like an inverted triangle, with its tip buried in the ground.

Instead of brick or wood, the front and side facades consisted mostly of large glass panes that provided a full view of the ice cream machines, cones, sundae toppings, milk shake machine, hot dog cooker and other tools of the trade. Two 4-foot-wide serving windows were positioned, like giant eyes, on either side of the large front window. An asphalt parking lot surrounded the building.

My older brothers, Billy and Bobby, our brother-by-choice, Frank, and I worked at the store through high school. In 1961, I was too young to wait on customers, so I was assigned the menial (but important) job of picking up the garbage in the parking lot and emptying the large, white, bullet-shaped garbage cans in front of the store.

"Picking up the lot," as my job was referred to, was dirty and hot and provided an occasional monetary reward if someone unintentionally dropped some change from a pocket. I didn't understand why I was the one who always had to do that job. Why couldn't one of my brothers do it once in a while? Being the youngest, I was on the bottom rung of the ice-cream ladder, so my protests always fell on deaf ears.

On many summer nights, I would be with my parents until they closed the store, which usually was around 10 o'clock. On one particularly hot evening, just before closing time, I was halfheartedly picking up the lot and feeling sorry for myself. As I bent over to pick up a sundae cup someone had tossed out a window, a car pulled into the lot. The driver set the parking brake, turned off the ignition and got out.

The moment he stepped out of the car, I knew it was Perry Como -- "Mister C." He looked just the same in person as he did on television. It was just the two of us in front of Tastee Freez, and I was a little scared and in awe of him. I pretended to pick up the same small area of the parking lot while I surreptitiously watched him order his ice cream. I don't think I succeeded in disguising my interest.

He got his ice cream and was about to get back into the car when he looked my way and motioned for me to come over. He handed me a five dollar bill and said, "You're doing a fine job. Keep up the good work." Then he got into his car, started it up, and drove away toward his home in Sands Point.

Wow! Perry Como had taken the time to talk to me, and he gave me $5 to boot. It was the highlight of my life till then. I ran back into the store and excitedly told my parents what had happened. They had witnessed the whole episode from inside the store but patiently let me retell it.

I'm sure "Mister C" took the time to talk to me that night simply because he was a nice person. But little did he know that he had created a big fan -- after all, now I knew him personally. As I got older and earned money from working after school, I bought every album he ever recorded. His initial investment of $5 paid dividends many times over.

Perry Como's kindness is something I have always remembered.

--Peter J. Zwerlein, Cutchogue

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