Rosemary Clooney celebrates her birthday on a high note

Gannett News Service - 6-14-98

Rosemary Clooney is feeling ``very blessed'' these days. Her 70th birthday celebrations have been especially sweet because she almost didn't make it.

For the second time in her life, the Kentucky-born Hollywood actress and girl singer is back from the brink of death and still can 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.

``I saw signs of her not reacting very well, but I got her to the hospital on time,'' 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 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, Bennett won again, this time beating her ``Mothers and Daughters'' album, her fifth straight traditional pop nomination.

``Oh, how funny; it was so ridiculous,'' Clooney, says by phone from her New York hotel. She had just finished a nostalgic two-week run at Rockefeller Center's Rainbow and 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,'' 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!'' 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.

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.''

Clooney and 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,'' 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!''

Clooney, a native of Maysville, Ky., began her career singing duets with her sister Betty for WLW radio in Cincinnati in 1945.

``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!''

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,'' 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.''

Cincinnati was good to 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 says.

She looks back fondly upon her Maysville upbringing by her grandmothers Clooney and Guilfoyle during and after her parents' troubled marriage.

``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 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.''

Copyright 1998, Gannett News Service, a division of Gannett Co., Inc.