Bing’s Spokane and Gonzaga University…
I’d like to take us to the Pacific Northwest to explore the life of an iconic crooner—Tacoma’s Bing Crosby.
Bing, or Harry Lillis Crosby Jr., was the fourth of seven children born to brewery bookkeeper Harry Lillis Crosby Sr. and his wife, Catherine, in 1904. The family lived in a home their father built at 1112 North J. Street in Tacoma, Washington. However, the family moved from Tacoma to Spokane in 1906, which is where Harry Jr. was primarily raised.
In 1917, Bing took a summer job as a property boy at Spokane’s “Auditorium,” where he witnessed some of the finest acts of the day. While Crosby graduated from Gonzaga High School in 1920, and enrolled in Gonzaga University’s law program, thereafter, he did not complete his Bachelor’s degree. Instead, Crosby became more interested in playing drums and singing with the local band. The group was largely comprised of high school students a few years younger than himself. They dubbed themselves the Musicaladers and performed at dances for high school students and clubgoers. The group also performed on the Spokane-based KHQ radio station, but disbanded after two years.
By 1925, Crosby had formed a vocal duo with partner Al Rinker, brother of singer Mildred Bailey. Bailey introduced Rinker and Crosby to Paul Whiteman, who was at that time America’s most famous bandleader. Hired for $150 a week in 1926, they made their debut on December 6 at the Tivoli Theatre in Chicago. As the 1930s unfolded, Crosby became one of the leading singers in America. Ten of the top 50 songs for 1931 featured Crosby, either solo or with others. He would appear in 79 pictures, and signed a long-term deal with Jack Kapp’s new record company Decca in late 1934.
Crosby starred with Bob Hope and actress Dorothy Lamour in seven Road to musical comedies between 1940 and 1962, cementing the two entertainers as an on-and-off duo, despite never officially declaring themselves a “team” in the sense that Laurel and Hardy or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were teams. The series consists of Road to Singapore (1940), Road to Zanzibar (1941), Road to Morocco (1942), Road to Utopia (1946), Road to Rio (1947), Road to Bali (1952), and The Road to Hong Kong (1962). Appearing solo, Crosby and Hope frequently made note of the other during their various appearances, typically in a comically insulting fashion, and they appeared together countless times on stage, radio, and television over the decades as well as cameos in several additional films.
Today, Spokane, houses a great deal of Bing-related history, with particular thanks to Gonzaga University. Bing’s childhood home still stands at 508 E. Sharp Avenue. The house served as the Crosby family’s home for 23 years, including when Bing attended Gonzaga High School and Gonzaga University (1914-24).
The C. P. Higgins family purchased the home from the Crosby family in 1936 for $3,600, and owned it until 1978. The Gonzaga Alumni Association purchased the house in 1980 and used it for alumni events with staff offices upstairs until 2010, when the Alumni Association moved to the Heutter Mansion across the street.
The Crosby House is now used as office space for a couple of university departments. The home celebrated its 100th anniversary in October of 2013 with an open house party for the public.
Gonzaga University also has an annual Bing Crosby Film Festival. It’s also not atypical to catch the university’s a cappella group, “The Big Bing Theory,” serenading some onlookers with a certain Berlin tune.
All the more exciting is the Crosby collection housed at Gonzaga. They have an extensive collection of original manuscripts, records, trophies, plaques, music, photographs, and so much more. The vast majority of these items were donated by Bing himself. The university’s website offers a wonderful virtual tour of the collection. If you are interested in viewing the collection, please be mindful of the building’s hours.
Four years after Bing’s passing, the town dedicated a statue to Bing Crosby on the grounds of Gonzaga’s campus. Crosby’s widow, Kathryn, was in attendance for the dedication, and Bob Hope also took part in the ceremony via phone, being telecast over a loudspeaker. The statue is situated outside the Crosby Student Center and portrays Bing in his familiar hat, with a golf bag and clubs at his feet. The statue will also occasionally feature him smoking a pipe. However, the pipe is now used only for special events, because pranksters like to steal it. Now the pipe can be unscrewed for safe-keeping and re-attached when needed.
The Bing Crosby statue is situated outside the Crosby Student Center on the grounds of Gonzaga University’s campus.
Bing remembered Spokane as his hometown, and he had deep ties with his alma mater, from which he received an honorary doctorate. During his life, and after his death, Crosby had donated over a million dollars to Gonzaga and Gonzaga High School. Bing had a deep appreciation for the education he received, and the faculty he had the opportunity to meet at Gonzaga.
In the mid-1950s, Gonzaga was in need of a library building, and Bing was a major financial supporter. He contributed to the library building campaign by organizing a television show and giving the production rights to Gonzaga to secure funds for the library. The show, starring Bing, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Bob Hope, and Rosemary Clooney, was sponsored by the Ford Motor Company to introduce its new “car of the future.” The Bing Crosby Edsel Show, aired on CBS on October 13, 1957 and received an Emmy Award. Although sponsored by the Ford Company, Crosby was able to remind his nation-wide audience that he was a “Gonzaga man” through some skits.
He raised $700,000 for the library, dedicating it with the following words: “If I am any kind of a success here or in show business, it is the result of the time I spent at Gonzaga in the elocution, the debating and the dramatic societies…. If I am a good Catholic, and I hope I am, it is directly attributable to the influence of the good priests here; and if I am successful, it is because of what I learned here…. I am tremendously grateful and I love this school and the people here.”
The library was later redesigned as the Crosby student center, as a need for more space and technology was met with a new building decades later.
Crosby’s career and legacy are extremely well-documented in Spokane. As affluent as he became, Bing never forgot his beginnings, and was quick to give back to the town in which he grew up. I highly encourage a visit to his alma mater which has done a phenomenal job of preserving Bing’s legacy, and has so readily shared their collection with countless visitors. I doubt Bing would ever have asked for more.
–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub
Annette Bochenek is an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age and Travel Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more about Annette’s Classic Movie Travels at Hometowns to Hollywood