When Bing Crosby wrote Joe Albi in April 1942, Albi was a local attorney and a sports fan.
Albi oversaw the Athletic Round Table, which turned Spokane into one of the great sports cities on the West Coast by hosting fundraisers like golf tournaments to help athletes travel to competitions.
ART members loved to stage elaborate pranks, one of which Bing mentions at the end of his letter.
That spring of 1942, in the first months of the world war, members of Congress were preparing to vote on a bill to give themselves pensions. Albi issued a public statement that Congress must indeed be in dire need if it had to divert its attention from the onslaught of the Japanese navy to its own need for pensions. So, announced Albi, the Athletic Round Table would immediately begin collecting old clothing and other useful items and truck them to Washington D.C. to meet this emergency.
Newspapers all over the country ran stories about these “Bundles for Congress.” A well-known stripper in Detroit, Sally Rand, announced she would donate “my last stitch” to Congress. The laughter sank Congresses’ pension plan.
Albi then requested Bing’s help in returning home to help raise funds for new facilities that would become Esmeralda Golf Course and Joe Albi Stadium. And Bing’s reply makes it clear he wanted to. But as he hints in the letter, Bing had some other obligations: The script for Road to Morocco was coming in, and Holiday Inn was being completed. (When Bing sang “White Christmas” for the first time in Holiday Inn, he unilaterally established the American tradition of wistful Christmas carols.)
A bigger obstacle turned out to be those little jaunts to military bases. They bloomed into national tours — one of which, called the Hollywood Victory Caravan, featured more than two dozen top movie stars, including Bob Hope, Cary Grant, Groucho Marx, Olivia De Havilland and Claudette Colbert. Even in this group, Bing was the standout. One of those present, actor James Cagney, wrote many years later in his autobiography that when Bing walked onto the stage in Chicago on May 6, “the walls of the stadium nearly buckled” from the cheers. “Never in my life have I heard anything like it,” Cagney wrote.
These tours made it impossible for Bing to return to Spokane for Albi’s tournament, before the war cancelled such tournaments for the next couple of years.
Finally in 1946, with the war over, Bing came to Spokane to help with the budding campaign to build Spokane a football stadium. He brought along Bob Hope. Over the next few years, Bing returned to Spokane repeatedly to help the fundraising campaign.
Why did he do it? Bing never lost the sense of being a part of Spokane. Many of his close friends from school days were still here. A handful of priests at Gonzaga served as his spiritual guides. When he rented a cabin at Hayden Lake to golf and swim, he never had to wear his movie toupee and no one asked for autographs.
In a December 1952 interview in Spokane, Crosby remarked that “this business of being a Hollywood star is apt to make you antisocial because you simply can’t have any privacy.” But, he added, “They let me alone up here.” At the end of the interview, the Spokesman-Review reporter said, Bing “departed to wander through the city alone, free from the crowds.”
It seems incredible that the person who brought tens of thousands to their feet in Chicago could walk down Riverside Avenue unbothered, but many people have testified this was true. Al Ruddy, the long-time information specialist at Washington State University, had a job as an usher at the State Theater (now the Bing Crosby Theater) when he was a teenager in the 1950s. One afternoon, Ruddy reached out to take a ticket from the next customer: “I looked up, and it was Bing!” With no further ado, Bing Crosby walked in and found a seat in the theater.
Bing Crosby could feel famous anywhere. In Spokane, he could feel at home.
The fourth annual Bing Crosby Holiday Film Festival is Friday, Dec. 4, at the Bing, 901 W. Sprague. Holiday Inn plays at noon, Road to Zanzibar at 2:30 pm, and White Christmas at 7:30 pm. Free. Call 842-8664.