by Ann Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & heard the story within the first 24 hours of my initial visit to Spokane. "Bing Crosby grew up here, you know... Yeah, he lived over by Gonzaga. They've got a building on campus named for him, and a statue. Wanna go see it?"
It's a point of pride around here -- after all, Bing Crosby is the most famous person ever to come from Spokane. At one time, you could argue, he was the most famous entertainer on the planet.
While technically not a native son -- he was born in Tacoma in 1903 and moved to Spokane with his family three years later -- Bing Crosby spent his formative years here in the city by the falls. As a child, he came to a wild Western boomtown; less than 20 years later, he followed his dreams to Hollywood, leaving behind a city that had already seen the peak of its Gilded Age. As Bing Crosby's star rose, his hometown lost some of its luster, becoming a place that ambitious young people strive to leave rather than the magnet that it had been just a few years before.
Eight decades later, as the city seems on the verge of a resurgence, teetering toward the future in a kind of two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance, Bing is coming back home again. On Friday, Crosby's widow, Kathryn, brings her stage show to town to help rededicate the theater where Bing got his start in show business back in 1925. Originally known as the Clemmer Theater -- and later the State Theater -- it's been the Metropolitan Performing Arts Center since 1988, named for the corporate benefactor that restored it to its original glory. Come Friday, the name will change again; the 750-seat theater will officially become the Bing Crosby Theater.
"I think he would've been so happy to know the Clemmer will be the Bing Crosby Theater," says Kathryn Crosby about her famous husband. "For a small town, Spokane had some great opportunities."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & ne of the biggest opportunities for the young Bing took place in 1925 at the Clemmer, on the very stage where Kathryn will perform Friday. Ten years earlier, mining magnate August Paulsen had funded the building of a state-of-the-art theater for moving pictures, the rising form of art and entertainment. Located across Lincoln Street from the glorious new Davenport Hotel and designed by architect E.W. Houghton, the theater was operated by former dentist Howard Clemmer, whose brother James was considered Seattle's "dean of moving picture managers." Spokanites flocked to the Clemmer to watch silent movies accompanied by the grand Kimball organ.
By the mid-'20s, the big Hollywood studios were scooping up theaters all across the country, and the Clemmer was no exception. Universal Pictures bought the theater in March 1925 and hired a new manager, Roy Boomer. He decided to hire some local entertainers to perform before the showing of each film, as was popular in his previous home of San Francisco. Two local kids, Al Rinker and Bing Crosby, whose band the Musicaladers had just disbanded, ended up with the job. Without their band, the two had to come up with an act that would hold the audience's attention for 20 minutes before the movie began. Al played piano in the pit, so it was up to Bing to relate to and entertain the crowds.
The pair honed their skills for five months on the stage of the Clemmer before Boomer decided to do away with the stage show. Unemployed but newly confident in their abilities, Al and Bing climbed into an old Tin Lizzy on October 15, 1925, and drove away from Spokane on their way to Los Angeles. A month after arriving, they had work in L.A.; within a year they joined the Paul Whiteman orchestra and toured all over the country.
Jazz critic and Crosby biographer Gary Giddins thinks the gig at the Clemmer in Spokane was seminal to Bing's development as a performing artist.
"It forced him to stand on a stage and account for himself, especially when Rinker took the piano and basically became Bing's accompanist," says Giddins. "Bing became a soloist who had to stand on a stage and engage the audience. The whole experience there is the beginning of his and Rinker's ability to take a stage and work out an act."
The marvelous acoustics of the Clemmer aided Bing's ability to connect with the audience, Giddins says. In the days before microphones and electronic amplification, most singers -- including Bing, at other venues -- either "belted" a song like Bing's idol Al Jolson or used a megaphone. At the Clemmer, with its domed ceiling and intimately enfolding hall, such a prop was unnecessary. Bing could make eye contact with the audience, and his conversational, easy-going vocal style -- later dubbed crooning -- helped him form a more personal connection.
"It was the first time he could hear himself," Giddins says. "He didn't have to sing over a band, or over dancers who weren't really paying attention, like at the Lareida [Dance Hall]."
With the advent of the carbon microphone just a year later, Bing found the perfect instrument for his natural singing style -- a style that would lead him into recording, radio, films, television and the heart of American popular culture. At the height of his career in the 1940s, he was the most recognizable and admired American public figure according to polls done at the time. He sold more records than Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley or the Beatles.
Part of what made Bing a beloved entertainer was his everyman attitude and his easy, laid-back manner -- qualities that grew out of his upbringing in Spokane as the child of a large working-class family.
"I think that's a decisive influence, as it would be with anyone," says Giddins. "Partly it's the home he came from, with the extremely overbearing humorless Irish-Catholic mother who didn't suffer laziness, especially in Bing."
Although Bing could be cool and private, he was not intolerant, Giddins points out. "He didn't tread on others. He was ahead of his time in civil rights -- he always insisted on working with black performers. He always stood up for his friends. And he had a tremendous sense of self and confidence and discipline. But Spokane -- the amazing thing is that Bing grew up with this live-and-let-live attitude. And he got it there."
Kathryn sees Spokane's influence in her husband's personality as well. "He was very basic and honest and neighborly," she says. "Bing talked a lot about the Shoulderer sisters, who would take him in after school. The neighborhood there helped rear the children. Bing used to say, 'Hard country makes good people,' when he'd talk about the people in Spokane. Spokane is beautiful, but it's not always Shangri-La: It's cold and hot, and people there had to work hard."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here's a time-worn sentiment that no prophet or visionary is accepted in his hometown -- the Jesuits at Gonzaga will tell you that's been part of human nature since long before Mary and Joseph's kid started preaching in the streets of Nazareth. People here love to claim Bing for Spokane, but it's often with an undercurrent of cynicism. He never came back, people say; he went off and became a big star and let his hometown wallow in its long economic isolation.
But Giddins disputes that characterization. He writes in his biography of Crosby's early years: "When it came to money, he devised intricate ways to be charitable without the appearance of actually giving money. These ranged from schemes to allow Gonzaga to participate in a TV show to arranging bit work to making secret bequests."
And he frequently visited Spokane, even though he never came back here to live. Bing returned to Spokane every year throughout their marriage, Kathryn Crosby recalls.
"You know, two weeks after we were married [in 1957], we came to Spokane," she says. "That was our first official appearance as a married couple. We came to Spokane, to Gonzaga, and they dedicated the opening of the Crosby Library, which Bing and [childhood friend and Gonzaga president] Father Corkery had worked so hard for."
Initially, Bing had wanted to get married at St. Aloysius church on the Gonzaga campus, she says. As his childhood parish and the place where he went to Mass daily as a student at Gonzaga High School (now Gonzaga Prep), it would have been fitting. But Bing and his friend Fr. Corkery thought the campus would be overrun by photographers and reporters once news got out. "Bing thought it should be a sacred occasion, something private," says Kathryn. "So we called it off."
In later years, Bing would return to the Inland Northwest to go hunting and fishing. "He loved the outdoors," says Kathryn. "Since childhood, he loved Hayden Lake, Idaho. He always loved fishing, and he always loved walking -- that's what I loved, too, but I could barely keep up!" He enjoyed pheasant hunting near Weiser, Idaho, she says, and planned an Alaskan salmon fishing journey each year that would depart from Spokane.
As an outsider who's spent time in Spokane and studied the connection between Bing and his hometown, Gary Giddins thinks the Clemmer-State-Met-Bing Crosby Theater is a gem that Spokane should be trumpeting and promoting to the rest of the world.
"The theater should be a major destination for tourists in the Northwest," he says. "It's like stepping into a time capsule from the '20s. I know I got chills the first time I walked in there." Many other historic theaters of similar vintage across the country have been torn down or recklessly remodeled, he adds, crediting Paul Sandifur, Jr. and Metropolitan Mortgage with a careful and respectful restoration 20 years ago. "They did it with such care. The theater is something that Spokane should be proud of."
A Wing-Ding For Bing is Friday, Dec. 8, at The Bing, 901 W. Sprague Ave. All day Friday, you can view memorabilia from Gonzaga's Crosby Collection, including Bing's Oscar for Going My Way and his platinum record for "White Christmas." At noon, three Bing Crosby films will be screened, starting with Going My Way, then The Road To Morocco (2:30 pm) ending with White Christmas (4 pm). At 6:30 pm, The Big Bing Theory vocal group from Gonzaga and Randy Wagner, baritone and choral director at EWU, will perform. At 7 pm, the Bing Crosby Theater will be formally dedicated. Finally, at 8 pm it's the musical revue "My Life With Bing," with Kathryn Crosby. Tickets for "My LIfe With Bing" are $25-$100; proceeds will help pay for the new marquee and endow a planned Bing Crosby Foundation. All other events are free. Call 325-SEAT.