I didn't know about the bus, so I offered to give them a lift. As we drove up Division, I pointed up Sharp Avenue and said casually that Bing Crosby -- "you know, the singer?" -- grew up a few blocks up this street.
I have never forgotten their response. "What? What? What! The Bing Crosby?" They were so excited I made a right turn and took them past the Crosby house, which they proclaimed on the spot to be the highlight of their trip.
It's not exactly a coincidence they turned out to be fans. Crosby, we can forget, isn't just the famous person who happens to come from our town. Many cultural historians consider him the greatest all-around entertainer of the 20th century. He had more best-selling songs than Elvis Presley and the Beatles. "White Christmas" remained the nation's best-selling song for more than half a century (until it was surpassed by Elton John's "Candle in the Wind").
Crosby was also a radio pioneer, having maintained a top weekly show for 20 years; a major box office draw at the movies and winner of an Oscar for Going My Way; and half of one of the most famous comedy teams of the century.
Bing's partner in those famous Road movies, Bob Hope, was in Spokane that Expo summer and took the opportunity to make fun of Crosby's stature. "I'm so thrilled to be in the town where Bing was born," Hope said (with artistic license: Bing was actually born in Tacoma). "I'm going over to see the manger tomorrow."
Hope overestimated Crosby's stature in his hometown. Not only was there no manger; it was years later before there was a statue, and that's on Gonzaga's campus. There is nothing in downtown Spokane whatsoever suggesting this is where Big Crosby started.
Even Hope has "Bob Hope Way" in Cleveland. Spokane could do that much. If that were the option chosen, Sprague Avenue -- named to flatter some long-forgotten railroad executive -- would be the obvious choice for "Crosby Avenue." Crosby and his little musical ensembles appeared in at least three establishments along Sprague, including Lareida's Dance Hall in the Valley. Also, Crosby's favorite hangout, Stubeck's Confectionary, was at the corner of Sprague and Wall. Bing joked about it many times later in his national radio show.
But set aside that civic problem for a moment. Here's another one. The Met Theater, one of finest old movie houses in the West, is badly named. "The Met" made sense when its corporate sponsor, Metropolitan Mortgage, was paying its bills. But now that there is no such justification, "Met" sounds pretentious, like we think of ourselves as a tiny New York or Paris.
A historic fact about the Met that is better known since Gary Giddens published the first volume of his biography of Bing in 2001 is that it is the very place where Bing Crosby launched his career.
In 1925, Crosby and his piano-playing accompanist, Al Rinker, were hired to freshen things up between silent movies with 20 minutes of live entertainment. For about five months, May to October, the two improvised their way to an education in how to work an audience.
Crosby was forced to try out the entertainment potential of a wit that until this time he had wasted on the wise guys who hung out at Stubeck's. He also discovered, Giddins points out, the power of ballads, like his signature song, "When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day," "allowing him to purr and trill his high notes," to the delight of his audiences.
When Crosby and Rinker finished their gig at the Clemmer, they were ready. They headed straight for Hollywood and fame.
We have two problems. Why not solve both at a stroke by changing the Met's name to "The Bing Crosby Theater"?
Mitch and Cindy Silver, owners of the theater, may have their reasons, of course. Even if they are persuaded by the logic of the situation, I can imagine they might have a practical objection to replacing what is, in fact, a very pretty sign saying "The Met" with something different, particularly since they are already doing more than their share by keeping the beautiful but hardly self-sustaining little theater open.
Any new sign should rightfully be the public's contribution to the idea, perhaps through a benefit. The second volume of Giddins' biography is due out in 2008. Probably he could be persuaded to give a talk in the theater. Perhaps Gonzaga's choir and string ensemble would perform. I bet a member of the Crosby family could be lured to town to put in an appearance for something called the Bing Crosby Theater.
Tickets aren't available yet, but stay tuned.
William Stimson is author of Spokane: A View of the Falls.