Last month, CC and I were in Spokane for a quick trip, but while we were there, we took time to visit the Bing Crosby House Museum on the Gonzaga University campus.
I’ve been a Bing fan as long as I can remember. Both of my parents liked his music, so I grew up listening to it.
I had no idea what to expect when we drove down a tree-lined street toward a lovely two-story home with a broad, welcoming porch.
The upper floor of the house is used by the university, but the ground floor is open to visitors and packed with memorabilia from the life of one of the most popular recording artists of the 20th century.
Harry Lillis Crosby was born May 3, 1903, in Tacoma Washington to Harry Lowe and Catherine Harrigan Crosby. Bing, as he became known, had no birth certificate. Because his sister Mary Rose was also born on May 3, he celebrated his birthday on May 2. When he died, a priest in Tacoma disclosed his baptismal records that showed his birth date of May 3, 1903. Bing had four brothers—Laurence Earl, Everett Nathaniel, Edward John, and George Robert— as well as two sisters: Catherine Cordelia and Mary Rose.
The Crosby family moved to Spokane in 1906 and rented at house at 303 East Sinto Avenue, a few blocks to the northwest of the Crosby House. Harry Crosby worked as a bookkeeper for Inland Brewery. He built the Crosby House in 1911 with the help of house brothers Frank and Lloyd. The house has always been located one block north of College Hall. The house features four bedrooms and two bathrooms.
Bing attended Webster Grade School and sometimes played hooky. Once, after he and friends were caught throwing stolen cinnamon buns at cars, he spent a night in juvenile detention.
A neighboring family, the Hobarts, had a son, Valentine, who shared an interest in with Bing in the comic feature “The Bingville Bugle,” in which the lead character was named Bingo. In 1910, Valentine began calling Harry “Bingo.” This caught on with his friends and family, and the name was shortened to “Bing,” although Bing’s mother always referred to him as Harry.
As a child, Bing loved to whistle and sing, but wasn’t wild about performing. He played baseball, basketball, handball, and football through high school, but was too small to play in college. In his book, Call Me Lucky, Bing wrote that he was “nutty about baseball.” He played semi-pro with the Spokane Ideal Laundry team.
Bing graduated from Gonzaga High School in 1920 and in the fall began attending Gonzaga University, planning to become a lawyer.
While attending Gonzaga, Bing began playing drums and in 1921 joined a six-piece group called The Musicaladers. They played at dances and private parties and were known around town.
Since the Crosby brothers enjoyed athletics, nice clothes, and recreation, they all worked jobs to pay the expenses. Bing worked for the Spokesman-Review, folding and delivering newspapers. He also worked on area ranches, picking apples, and in logging camps. He put in time as a janitor at his father’s office. He also worked as an assistant in the prop department of the Auditorium Theater, a job he greatly enjoyed. While there, he saw performers such as Al Jolson.
Eventually, Bing left school to focus on music. He and fellow Musicalader Al Rinker drove to Los Angeles in 1925, ready to hit the big time. Al’s sister, famed jazz singer Mildred Bailey, arranged an audition for the two. Within three weeks of arrived in LA, the pair launched their careers in the vaudeville circuit.
Bing’s recording career began on October 18, 1926 with I’ve Got the Girl, a record that also featured Al Rinker and the Don Clark Orchestra. Bing’s records occupied the number one position on the charts 44 times, for a total of 179 weeks in the top spot. His first three number one records were as the vocalist in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. His final recording, Once In a While, from October 11, 1977 – just three days before his death – marked the end of a career that included over 2,000 recordings.
In 1930, Bing married star Dixie Lee. They had four children: Gary, Dennis, Phillip, and Lindsay. Dixie died of cancer in1952. Five years later, Bing wed Kathryn Grant and had three children: Harry Lillis, Mary Frances, and Nathaniel.
Bing received an honorary degree from Gonzaga in 1937 and was a long-time supporter of the university.
Through his impressive career, Bing embraced change and adventure. Not only was he one of the most well-known singing artists of his time, he was a radio star. His work in this medium began as an anonymous band singer, and carried on through decades of Bing-led series, specials and guest appearances. He began in the industry’s formative years, and remained a regular radio performer – creating original programming specifically for radio listeners. In the early 1960s, he could still be found performing there, long after his contemporaries had moved on.
Bing also starred, co-starred, narrated or had a cameo appearance in 104 films. From 1944-1948, Crosby was the top Hollywood box-office star and ranked within the top ten Hollywood stars for fifteen years. Bing is currently ranked #7 on the Motion Picture Almanac list of the highest grossing movies stars of all time.
Bing could even be found on television, starring in Minute Maid orange juice commercials, and television specials.
On October 14, 1977, Bing had been playing golf in Madrid, Spain. He died just a few yards away from the clubhouse of a heart attack.
Some interesting facts about Bing’s life:
- He made more studio recordings than any other singer.
- He recorded the most popular record ever, “White Christmas”, the only single to make American pop charts twenty times.
- Between 1927 and 1962 he scored 368 charted records under his own name, compared to Elvis (149), Beatles (68).
- He scored the most number one hits ever, 38 compared to the Beatles (24), Elvis (18)
- He was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor three times and won for Going My Way in 1944.
- He financed and popularized the development of tape, revolutionizing the recording industry.
(Giddins, Pocketful of Dreams, 2001)
- Bing owned a ranch in Elko, Nevada, where he became a member of the community and taught his sons about ranching, hunting, and rural life.
Going through the house where he once lived was a special experience.
This room in particular was so interesting with his awards and gold records on display.
Before we visited the museum, I hadn’t ever given much thought to all that Bing had accomplished in his lifetime.
Or how generous he was in his support of various charities and endeavors.
This clock was so neat to see.
Who knew there was a Bob Wallace doll? So fun!
This radio was on display and I just thought it was so unique.
One of the many ways Bing will remembered is for his efforts in entertaining the troops during World War II.
I’m so grateful we had the opportunity to visit the museum and learn more about a man who’s voice has charmed so many generations of listeners.
It just wouldn’t be the holiday’s without Bing singing “White Christmas.”
If you are a Bing fan, what is your favorite song or movie?