BY JANELLE GELFAND
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Rosemary Clooney is feeling "very blessed" these days. Her 70th birthday celebrations are especially sweet because she almost didn't make it.
Rosemary Clooney last year.
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Ms. Clooney returns to Cincinnati to celebrate what she calls "the big 7-0" with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Friday and Saturday at Riverbend.
For the second time in her life, the Kentucky-born Hollywood actress and "girl singer" is back from the brink of death and can still laugh about it.
(The first time was a much-publicized breakdown in 1968, described in her 1977 autobiography, This for Remembrance (Playboy Press) and made into the 1982 CBS TV movie, Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story.)
It was February. She was in New York with her husband of three months and partner of 25 years, Dante DiPaolo. She had a virus and was getting sicker.
Rosemary Clooney in 1933.
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"I saw signs of her not reacting very well, but I got her to the hospital on time," Mr. DiPaolo says. It was viral meningitis. She had a fever of 107 and suffered four seizures. She slipped into a coma for three days.
"She was going. The doctor looked at me at the beginning and he just said, it's a 50 - 50 chance here," says Mr. DiPaolo, an old flame from her early Hollywood years. They met on the set of Here Come the Girls.
"I was right there with her all the time. When she came out of the coma, she (recalled) all these funny dreams," he says. "She had lost the Grammy Award to Tony Bennett so many times, she dreamed there were 17 Tony Bennetts, each one holding a Grammy. When she woke up she asked, "Where's my award?' "
While she was hospitalized, Mr. Bennett won again, this time beating her Mothers and Daughters album, her fifth straight traditional pop nomination.
"Oh, how funny; it was so ridiculous," Ms. Clooney, says, laughing, by phone from her New York hotel. She had just finished a nostalgic two-week run at Rockefeller Center's Rainbow & Stars nightclub, and was preparing for a June 1 concert with the Count Basie Orchestra and her own sextet in Carnegie Hall.
"The coma itself was a kind of blessing because I wasn't conscious for any of the spinal taps," Ms. Clooney says.
Maybe that brush with death was the reason her finale in the beautiful art deco room atop Rockefeller Center on May 23, her birthday, had a poignancy to it. Adding a blue note, this was her last show before the club closes at the end of the year.
"Gosh! I looked around and I was related to most of the people!" Ms. Clooney says. Brother Nick Clooney and wife Nina were there. "Nicky kept answering me back. I said, you know, since you've been on television and you've become this icon of movies, you can't let me do my own thing on the stage anymore. You've become a terrible ham!
"And my young son in the front row said, yes, he's a sweet Kentucky ham, which is the title of one of the songs that I sing!" she says, laughing.
All five of her children from her first marriage to actor Jose Ferrer were there.
"All of them have very full-blown careers in different parts of the world, so they really worked hard to do it and they arranged it," she says.
Rosemary with her first husband Jose Ferrer and their children in 1963.
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Miguel is an actor who stars with Al Franken in NBC's Lateline, due to reappear midseason. Daughter Maria has Arabian horses in Santa Inez, Calif. Son Gabriel, married to singer Debby Boone, is an artist and an Episcopalian assistant pastor. Daughter Monsita has three sons and is married to a vice president of CBS. The youngest, Rafael (Rafi), does voice-overs in New York and has a home in Ireland.
Her birthday was a night to reminisce, and songs such as Bob Hope's "Thanks for the Memory," "Sweet Kentucky Ham" and "Our Love Is Here to Stay" had extra impact.
As always, her intimate show in her favorite room included lots of banter.
"Tony Bennett was there, sweet Tony," she says. "I talked about the first shows that we did together and the traveling and the variety shows in Washington."
She and Mr. Bennett were unknowns when the TV show Songs for Sale started in 1950. They sang songs by aspiring amateur songwriters, and the winning tunes were guaranteed to be published. Stage hands held up cue cards with the words, sometimes upside down.
"It was just dreadful," Ms. Clooney says, laughing. "Often the people blamed us if they didn't win, because we had made a mistake in their song. We'd get chased out of the theater. It was kind of an early Jerry Springer show!"
A star-studded night
Movie star Beverly D'Angelo (Chevy Chase's wife in the National Lampoon Vacation flicks) came with her boyfriend, Al Pacino.
"That shook up the place!" Ms. Clooney says.
She had known Ms. D'Angelo's dad, a bass player with bandleader Tony Pastor. Ms. Clooney and her sister Betty, who died of a brain aneurysm in 1976, made their big-time debut as the Clooney Sisters in 1947 in Atlantic City with the Tony Pastor Orchestra.
Kathryn Crosby, widow of Bing, came with her oldest son, Harry. "I toured with Bing and Kathryn and the kids the last two years of Bing's life, and we went to the (London) Palladium twice," Ms. Clooney says.
Dolores Hope, who is making a comeback as a songstress at 89, sang a duet with Ms. Clooney. Husband Bob, 95, didn't make the party; he was preparing to be made an honorary knight in Washington, D.C.
Young Rosemary with Bob Hope.
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"I met Bob when I did a radio show with him. I couldn't do a lot of the overseas (shows) because I had kids so fast," she says. "But I would go to various and sundry places with Bob, like to Camp Pendleton (San Diego), or there would be an aircraft carrier at San Pedro (Calif.) and he'd do a show there.
"He was the best. He was wonderful to work with, and we did a picture called, Here Come the Girls together. It was my second picture with Paramount. It was a terrible picture. Dolores hated it, and if Dolores hates it, that's the kiss of death."
Comedian Carol Burnett "cried through the whole show," Ms. Clooney says, recalling the early, humorous threesome they formed with Ms. Burnett's former husband, Joe Hamilton.
One friend was missing: Frank Sinatra, who died May 14.
Ms. Clooney heard the news while listening to late-night radio talk shows. She could not attend the funeral, but called family members immediately.
"I didn't realize how much it bothered me, until I went to a party that the publisher threw me for my book that's coming out," she says. (Doubleday will publish her new memoir, due out in the spring of 1999.) The party was at Patsy's, a Manhattan Italian haunt that was frequented by Mr. Sinatra.
With Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
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"That's where I met him. I walked in and I looked at the place where his booth used to be. Isn't it silly the things that really get to you? Not the music, not the pictures on television.
"You know somebody is ill, you feel it's going to happen sometime soon and you're prepared. But I was not prepared to walk into Patsy's and look at that place where he had been sitting when Betty and I walked in with my manager."
Then Mr. Sinatra, who had split with second wife Ava Gardner, sat down and took such a liking to Betty Clooney, he asked her out. Rosemary, a fan since high school, asked to go out on their date, too.
"What a terrible thing to do to a sister, you know?" Ms. Clooney recalls. "I went along on the date, but they didn't keep me very long. They took me to dinner and then they let me off!"
As a singer, she remembers Mr. Sinatra as "a definitive conduit."
"He told the story that the composer and the lyricist intended the listener to hear. And that's what I learned from him," she says. "He inspired me, totally. I never told Bing Crosby that, because we were best friends!"
She planned to sing "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" to close her Carnegie Hall show, adding, "It'll be for Frank."
Top-notch at WLW
In 1945, Ms. Clooney, a native of Maysville, Ky., began her career singing duets with her sister Betty for WLW radio in Cincinnati.
"When people say, oh, you come from Ohio and they dismiss it, I have to sit them down and say, do you know the kind of training we had? And Doris Day had? And the people who came out of WLW?" she says. "We had voice coaches, vocal arrangers, musicians who were sensational arrangers, and all the writers were good. You can't find that anywhere!"
Studios touted her as the girl next door.
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Before World War II, the station had a 500,000-watt transmitter, that broadcast in a gigantic circle of more than 5,000 miles across. Stars lined up to work there.
"At 4 o'clock in the morning, people like (guitarist) Chet Atkins, and these brilliant, wonderful musicians from every conceivable kind of music were making music in Cincinnati," Ms. Clooney says. "My sister and I had a big-band (show), so we had those kinds of arrangements being done for us and that kind of experience. They don't make stations like that anymore.
"George Burns and I were talking, and he said the most profound thing -- there's no place to be bad anymore. There's no place to learn the craft. When you're out there, you'd better know what you're doing because you only have one chance."
Good Catholic upbringing
Cincinnati was good to Ms. Clooney and she has never forgotten her friends -- or her fans.
"The people were very nurturing. They were fans, but not in the way they'd hang around and want to know something personal about you. They'd just listen to you on the radio and they'd write a note saying, that's really good."
She looks back fondly upon her Maysville upbringing by her grandmothers Clooney and Guilfoyle during and after her parents' troubled marriage.
Leaving the church after 1997 wedding in Maysville.
(Gary Landers photo)
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"They were really were very good people and were God-fearing and believed most definitely in the Catholic church and that it would see me through . . . so that I could come back to Maysville and get married to a man (Mr. DiPaolo) that I really am very deeply in love with," she says.
How would she like to be remembered someday? She stops, uncharacteristically quiet, and thinks for a long time. "As a hard-working singer. And a good mother," she says, sounding a little teary.
Then she laughs. "Don't say break a leg!" she says, referring to the showbiz good luck hail. "I don't need any of that!"