Bing Crosby and Gonzaga University: 1903 - 1925

Young Bing  
 Bing Crosby

Located on the banks of the Spokane River, Gonzaga University houses a large collection of material relating to Harry Lillis (Bing) Crosby.  Bing was born on May 3, 1903 in Tacoma, Washington, the fourth child of Harry Lowe and Catherine C. Crosby. The family moved to Spokane in 1906, and throughout his life Bing considered Spokane to be his hometown.  At first, the family rented a house until Harry Crosby finished building a home in 1913, a few blocks away from the rental.  This boyhood house, located where Bing’s father Harry Crosby built it, is just north of the University’s Administration Building. 

Webster Baseball
 Webster Grade School
Baseball Team, 1912

In the fall of 1908, young Harry Crosby enrolled at Webster Grade School, where he played on its baseball team four years later.  In 1910, he received the nickname "Bing", a shortened name of his favorite comic strip character "Bingo" from the "Bingville Bugle," a popular section in the local newspaper.  Everyone, except Bing’s mother, would call him “Bing.”

The Roman Catholic Church played an important role in Crosby’s upbringing and life. Because of the location of his home, Bing was raised in the shadows of Gonzaga University and High School, an institution run by the Jesuit order.  Bing’s boyhood neighborhood was mainly Catholic; in fact, it was later called “the Little Vatican,” or “the Holy Land.”  Most of his friends followed him through elementary, high school, and college.  At thirteen years of age, he became an altar boy at St. Aloysius Church, which was a block away from his home.

Performing group
 Bing with school performers, 1914

As a youngster, Bing started singing and performing in public venues, as organized by his mother.  In 1914, Bing and his older brother Ted with classmates were part of a program, which played at Gonzaga University as a benefit to raise money for grade schools.

GHS Speakers
 1920

In September 1916, he entered Gonzaga High School as a “commuter.”  Throughout his high school years, he proved to be a good student.  At the graduation ceremonies, he was one of four people to speak.  His speech was titled “The Purpose of Education.” Crosby graduated from Gonzaga High School in 1920 in the Classical Course.  Over fifty students received their diplomas on June 9, 1920.

That fall, he enrolled at Gonzaga University as a day student, following the footsteps of his three older brothers.  At the time, Gonzaga High School and Gonzaga University were located in the same building.  The all male students would normally graduate from the high school and begin taking college courses at the University. At the time Gonzaga University boasted a student body of 300.

GHS basketball team
 Junior Yard Association
Basketball Team, 1920

While attending Gonzaga High School and Gonzaga University as a pre-law student, Bing participated in various sports.  Bing proved to be good in athletics.  At high school, he was captain of the “Dreadnoughts” football team one year and played on the Junior Yard Association Baseball, Basketball, and Football teams.  In college he played on the varsity baseball team for one year.  While he loved baseball, Bing was even better at swimming.  In 1915 won seven medals in swimming and diving.

Drama
 GU Dramatic Club
1922

While in school, Bing also was involved in music, debate, elocution, and drama. Classes in elocution taught him not only to enunciate a lyric but to analyze its meaning.  This training helped him later with diction while singing.  He was a member of the Gonzaga Dramatic Club, House of Philhistorians, and Gonzaga Glee Club.  

The Spokane newspapers and Gonzaga publications mentioned Bing participating in numerous plays and performances presented at Gonzaga High School and Gonzaga University.  The reviews and announcements gave positive assessments of his performances.  In 1923 in reviewing the play “It Pays to Advertise”, the newspaper said that “Harry Crosby [and Michael Pecarovich] carry off all the play’s hilarious moments…. Mr. Crosby bursts over with spontaneity in getting his amusing lines across the footlights.” Two years older than Bing, Pecarovich proved to be an excellent actor and football player.  The friendship continued after Bing left Gonzaga; and Bing gave Pecarovich bit parts in a few of his movies.
Bing and Pecarovich
 Crosby and Pecarovich
1923

Though most day students were not accepted as equals by the boarders, Bing appeared to be popular among his peers as demonstrated by his election to offices throughout his high school and college years.  He maintained a B average during his first three years of college, prior to studying pre-law.  Participating in plays and musical events were becoming more important to Bing.  His interest in education was waning.

Bing held various jobs throughout his high school and university days.  He was a morning paperboy; locker boy at a city swimming pool; lifeguard; caddy at a city golf course; janitor at the Everyman’s Club for loggers and miners; worker on an alfalfa farm; topographer with the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company; worker at a pickle factory, where his father was company secretary; and law clerk, to name some of the unique positions Bing briefly held.

Al Rinker  
 Al Rinker
In 1924, Bing bought a bass drum through a mail-order catalog, despite the fact that he was not a very good drummer.  Alton Rinker, a North Central High School student led a small band needing a drummer.  Although he was five years younger than Bing, Alt asked him to try out for the Musicaladers, a group of high school students, which included his brother Miles, Bob and Clare Pritchard, and Jimmy Heaton.  Bing told the group that he could sing.  The group asked him to join them.  None of the members could read music, but Alt could adapt arrangements from records and assign appropriate notes for each musician.  Bing renamed him “Al”.

Musicaladers

 Musicaladers, 1924

The Musicaladers played at social gatherings at Odd Fellows Hall, the Elks Club, and the Manito Park Social Club.  For three or four months, the group had a job playing twice a week in a Chinese restaurant called the Pekin Café, a favorite weekend hangout for high school students. The money was good, so Bing’s mother allowed him to perform there.

Bing’s interest in school was fading.   His grades were dropping and the Musicaladers earned more money than at the law office.  Family and friends tried to change Bing’s mind about dropping out of school.  Bing finally quit college a year short of receiving his law degree, much to his mother’s chagrin.

The band began playing at Lareida’s Dance Pavilion in Dishman, 6 miles east of Spokane.  This gig lasted 18 weeks.  By the spring of 1925, the group disbanded.  Bing and Al were hired on at Doc Clemmer’s Theater, now the Bing Crosby Theater.  They played 15 minute ent’actes between pictures.  For the first time, Bing sang, while Al played on the piano.  They played for five months.

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(Information from Gary Giddins' book Bing Crosby:  Pocketful of Dreams (2001) and from other books, newsclippings, and primary sources from the Bing Crosby Collection at Gonzaga University.)

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For more information, please contact Stephanie Plowman, Special Collections Librarian, plowman@gonzaga.edu