Bing Crosby and Gonzaga University: 1925 - 1951

Rhythm Boys  
 Rhythm Boys
1928

By fall of 1925, Bing and Al believed that they could do better elsewhere rather than Spokane.  In October, Bing and Al headed to Los Angeles, since Al’s sister Mildred Bailey lived there.  She too was a performer and could help them get started.  The two young men left in a Model T.  The trip took more than three weeks to get to Los Angeles. Their break came when Paul Whitman, then King of Jazz, heard them and offered them a contract.  They debuted with the Whiteman Orchestra in December 1926 at the Tivoli Theater.  With the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Bing and Al cut their first record.  Teaming up with Harry Barris, they became “The Rhythm Boys.” Bing recorded his first solo in 1931 “I Surrender Dear.”  With Bing’s solo successes, the Rhythm Boys dissolved.

After Bing left Gonzaga and Spokane in 1925 to pursue his career, he never forgot his hometown and alma mater.  Family members, friends, and memories of a happy childhood remained behind.  By the time he arrived back home in Spokane for the first time in 12 years, Bing was a star.  He had made several movies, recorded many hits, and was a radio and screen star.  Bing’s stardom would bring Hollywood and all its glitter to Spokane, both figuratively and literally.  Simply put, Bing put Spokane and Gonzaga on the map.

Crosby family 1937  
 Crosby Family, 1937
In October 1937 Bing returned to his hometown and his alma mater to a warm welcome.  This was his first visit since he left Spokane 13 years earlier.  During the four short days, Bing brought much to the city and university.  The headlines in the local paper on October 21, read “Spokane Welcomes Bing Crosby.”  After arriving by train at 7:00 a.m. Thursday morning, Bing went straight to Gonzaga for Mass.  Afterwards, the University awarded him an honorary doctoral degree.  After receiving his degree he thanked Gonzaga and Spokane for their support.

Crosby with key
Key presented to Bing
1937

That afternoon at City Hall, the Spokane Mayor Frank Sutherlin presented Bing with the key to the city, and made him mayor for the day.  That night the Kraft Music Hall radio show was broadcast from the Masonic Temple in Spokane, with Connie Boswell, Mary Carlisle, and Edmund Lowe.  A banquet for him and his costars was held at the Civic Auditorium following the broadcast. 

The next evening Bing presided over an show at the Spokane Armory in front of a crowd of 3,500.  Afterwards he was the final judge for a talent contest at the Fox Theater.  On Saturday night, he and his costars participated in a dance at Natatorium Park.  All of these events were well attended and raised about $10,000 for Gonzaga.

Homecoming 1937
 Bing presents watercart to
GU Football team, 1937

On Sunday afternoon, Bing attended the football game at Gonzaga Stadium between Gonzaga and San Francisco.  His former classmate and now football coach, Mike Pecarovich, made him the assistant coach.  Before the game started, Bing gave the football team a $1000 water cart.  He watched from the sidelines with his entourage of movie stars he had brought with him. Gonzaga’s football team lost, 7 to 0.  More than 12,000 people were on hand to get a glimpse of Bing Crosby, Connie Boswell and other movie people.  During halftime, the Gonzaga G club made Bing an honorary three-year letterman, giving him a blanket to mark his distinction.  And then, Bing led the glee club in singing the new Gonzaga fight song written by Bob Burns.  After the game, Bing left by rail back to Hollywood.  At his insistence and without fanfare he paid all of the trip’s expenses, around $5000, which included bringing his staff to Spokane.  All proceeds from public events were to go to Gonzaga into a scholarship fund for students.

Benefit 1950
Gonzaga High School Benefit, 1950

On August 13, 1950, Bing returned to Spokane for another benefit for Gonzaga High School.  This time Bing brought his four sons with him.  They were part of a softball team playing a benefit game for the Gonzaga High School building fund.   The opposing team was made up of Gonzaga High School students, who were in first place in the American Legion league.  Besides his four boys, playing on Bing’s team were family friends and fellow alumni.  Bing also met Miss Spokane at this event.

In addition to campus visits by Bing, a few Gonzaga groups visited him in Hollywood over the years.  In 1949 he invited the Gonzaga Men’s Glee Club to sing with him on ABC radio.  The 1951 basketball squad also visited him.  In 1949 he came to campus to give $75,000 towards building Gonzaga’s Dillon Hall, the new Engineering building.  In 1951 he returned for Gonzaga's homecoming.  He was the guest of honor at its alumni luncheon.  Bing met many old classmates, such as Fr. Francis Corkery, Gonzaga president.  Opportunities like these gave regular folk access to a celebrity and life in Hollywood.

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(Information from Gary Giddins' book Bing Crosby:  Pocketful of Dreams (2001) and from books, newsclippings, and other 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