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MUSIC: The holiday season and Rosemary Clooney seem to be inseparable.

December 13, 2000

By STEVE EDDY - The Orange County Register

It's the dead of winter in New York City, and Rosemary Clooney is ... cold.

"Oh, there's something about being in New York," she says by telephone. "You know. The big tree at Rockefeller Center."

But Clooney doesn't mind saying that she pines for the warmth of home, and the lyrics of the song she'll sing at her "White Christmas Party" on Thursday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center seem so appropriate: "The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway. I've never seen such a day, in Beverly Hills, L.A."

"I have to get home," she says. "I have 10 grandchildren to shop for!"

Indeed, since appearing in the classic Irving Berlin-scored film "White Christmas" with Bing Crosby in 1954, Clooney has been inextricably linked to the holiday. And it isn't just show biz, folks - it's the real thing.

"My mother and father divorced when I was little, and I was always around a lot of relatives," she remembered. "I had two wonderful grandmothers who cared very much about Christmas.

"We were always together, and it was a celebration. A time I remember fondly. But I also remember the sad time during the second world war when my uncles were away."

Clooney said that at her Beverly Hills home - the same one she has lived in for more than four decades - "there are the same trees every year, one in the living room and one in the hall. The children always expected those trees, and now the grandchildren do, too."

At the same time, Christmas can be bittersweet for Clooney, especially when she thinks about her pal and co-star Crosby.

"'Count Your Blessings' was Bing's favorite song in the picture," she recalled. "He did it with such tenderness - not in a preachy way, but in a way that showed love. He was a favorite person of mine. I miss him every day of my life. A lot of my pals are gone."

On a brighter note, Clooney said she spent "a most interesting evening" during her visit to New York.

"At one table there was Harry Lillis Crosby III, Bing's son. At another was Irving and Ellen Berlin's daughter."

Berlin's music, she said, "captured everything. It was so deceptively simple. But try writing a song like 'Always.'"

Clooney, an immensely popular singer in the '50s with such mega-hits as "Come On-A My House" and "Hey There," has sort of reinvented herself as a jazz singer in recent decades, her shows a mixture of tastefully performed standards and marvelous little tales from her long, rich career. (On Thursday, she'll be abetted by daughter-in-law Debby Boone, pianist John Bayless, two choirs and members of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra.)

Sometimes she's not so sure about the jazz label.

"I don't have the improvisational skills that Ella (Fitzgerald) had," she said. "That Carmen (McRae) had, or that Mel (Torme) had. That's a big part of it. I sing in tune and I have good timing. I do sing with some very good jazz musicians, if that puts me in the 'jazz' category."

Her latest album, the bossa nova-rich "Brazil," was indeed recorded with a top jazz player, guitarist John Pizzarelli.

"It was wonderful, very satisfying," she said. "Something I've always wanted to do."

The ever-touring Clooney, now 72, was asked if she ever considers slowing down, taking it a bit easier.

"I'm comfortable," she said. "Maybe I worked a bit too much in the middle of the summer - about six weeks of doing an awful lot of traveling. It's the travel that gets you more than the work. If I could only find some magical way of getting there without flying or driving.

"But performing is a part of my life."

Highlights in the life and career of Rosemary Clooney