His Name In Lights Again

By William Stimson & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & man was telling me recently about his visit to the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore, Okla. I looked it up on the Internet and read about a "nine-gallery museum with theaters, interactive TV, art and artifacts" that honors the famous writer and actor.

For not a tenth of what that must have cost the state of Oklahoma, I personally think we've done even better for our own famous son, Bing Crosby. Because of Mitch Silver's willingness to hand over the naming rights to his theater, at a cost of only $47,000 -- the amount we raised in the recent campaign -- Bing will be remembered through an authentic historic site, the place he began his career. The sign is being designed and will go up within the next few months.

It's not a museum -- leave that on the Gonzaga campus -- but there is much to be said for a memorial that is a living, working theater. Bing is honored in a place where music and creativity are daily occasions. And the theater is right in the middle of the city, where lots of people will see it.

There is a third advantage to the way Spokane honored its great son. People tell me that a campaign like that usually takes about a year. They told me that too late. The fact that the whole thing had to be done in about 10 weeks (our deadline set by the appropriateness of a December event to honor Bing) caused Spokane to make a decision. It was either rally to Bing's cause or to conspicuously not honor Bing Crosby by not showing up.

Because of this emergency, publicity director Steve Blewett was able to draft the best professionals in town to the cause. I hate to think what those services would have cost if we had paid for them. One of his recruits to our all-star board was Stefanie Pettit, recently retired publicity director for Eastern Washington University. Ultimately, the Dec. 8 event had headlines in newspapers all over the country, from the San Francisco Chronicle to CBS's Sunday Morning show with Charles Osgood. Even Steve Blewett was surprised when he asked the Spokesman-Review for a few extra inches of newspaper advertising for the small amount of money we had to pay. Shaun Higgins of the Spokesman-Review judged the project needed some really serious advertising and donated two full-page ads.

That kind of thing happened again and again. We went to arrange for flowers for Mrs. Crosby at Peters and Sons. They did up the bouquet and refused to let us pay for it. The Davenport took one look at our pathetic order for cheese and crackers to serve at Kathryn Crosby's reception and added expensive plates at no extra charge.

When we mentioned at a breakfast meeting held at Gonzaga that we would like to have old-fashioned theater ushers, four pretty young GU students instantly volunteered to be those ushers. That was perfect -- except for the fact that we had no ushers' uniforms. Someone talked to someone else and in the end, Summer Berry of GU's drama department made the uniforms for us. At the same meeting, Jeff Thomas of the Spokane Club offered to organize our major-donor mailings.

Ticket sales suddenly surged the last week, and the evening of the show people swarmed to the door an hour and a half before the show. The whole evening was a spontaneous celebration of Bing we could never have planned. As Barry Watkins, the long-time Spokane DJ, said later on his radio show: "You had to be there."

Kathryn's act was a beautiful 90 minutes of songs and reminiscence that was perfect to the occasion. (One anecdote: She said Bing had first arranged to marry her at St. Al's, but backed out because he realized the press would flood in and take away the hometown feeling he wanted. When Bing cancelled two more weddings with other excuses, Kathryn broke the engagement and swore she would never speak to him again. To the day of their eventual wedding, she was so suspicious he would back out again that she refused to talk to him. "My first words to Bing," Kathryn said in the show, "were, 'I do.'")

She got a standing ovation and we presented her with a plaque noting the nice historical fact that the first-ever act in the Bing Crosby Theater was Kathryn Crosby's "My Life With Bing."

When members of the Board of Advocates for the Bing Crosby Theater said goodbye the next day, she had tears in her eyes. I think Bing would have been pleased with the way his hometown treated Kathryn.

A common question I got from reporters, especially national reporters, was: Why isn't there already something with Bing's name on it in downtown Spokane? My own analysis is that Spokane loved the fact that the great Bing Crosby got his training in Spokane, but had gotten dulled to the significance of that fact.

The emergency of the Dec. 8 dedication framed the question squarely, and the whole the town turned out to support Bing.

William Stimson is a journalism professor at Eastern Washington University and a frequent Inlander contributor. It was his idea, first published in these pages, to name the old Clemmer Theater (most recently the Met) after Bing Crosby.

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