Festival preserves legacy of Washington native Bing Crosby

Dec 10, 2010

There are certain songs and films that are so ubiquitous they just scream the holidays are here. Some feature a legendary Washington native, Bing Crosby. The Christmases he used to know were in Spokane. This weekend the city hosts the Bing Crosby Film Festival, featuring “White Christmas” and “Road to Morocco.” But an equally strong draw is the promise of long-lost footage showing other dimensions of the Hollywood star.

If you’re under 40, the name of Bing Crosby probably conjures up "White Christmas" and maybe not much else.

Crosby’s songs and films remain a Christmastime staple well over thirty years since the entertainer’s death. But once upon a time, Bing Crosby presided over a 52-week-a-year multimedia entertainment machine, before “multimedia” was even a word. Nephew Ed Crosby is helping lead the effort to rekindle some of that magic for the 21st century.

 “He was the largest star of the first half of the 20th century. So a lot of the generation that listened to him and saw him have since passed on,” ssys Crosby.

Crosby lives in the Spokane area where Bing grew up and broke into showbiz.

“I think what the family is trying to do and what we’re doing here with the Bing Crosby Film Festival is just try to preserve his legacy and reintroduce people to Bing Crosby and maybe introduce some people who are not that familiar with him other than White Christmas,” he says.

Bing Crosby’s widow and children hired a man named Robert Bader to comb through the family vault and archive in California. Among the gems Bader found was an undated TV pitch for Washington State tourism.

“Hiya! I have a little pamphlet here that tells you all about Vacationland, the state of Washington. I have to brag a little you know, about my home state. It tells you right here all the things there are to see and do in Washington...” reads Bing Crosby in this TV pitch.

Curator Robert Bader says he found old films, thousands of radio shows, and music master tapes. He came to realize as he puts it, the Crosby’s have “an archive really to be reckoned with.”

“Those session tapes are just incredible. The fidelity on them is wonderful. There are hundreds and hundreds of songs that he didn’t release commercially. Just a wonderful, wonderful archive. The stuff is in pretty good shape. We have to do a little bit of work on it,” says Robert Bader.

A recent Bader find is a forgotten TV documentary about a Crosby visit to Spokane in 1968. The cameras follow Crosby as he shows his three youngest children the old family home and he picks up an award from his alma mater, Gonzaga University.

 “This choir for instance, it’s a beautiful choir. It’s a far cry from 1918 when I sang ‘How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm’ down in the little gym... I was out of tune too I think,” says Bing Crosby in the 1968 recording.

The Crosby estate has also re-released songs the crooner recorded during breaks from summer vacation on a northern Idaho lake.

“Seeing Bing coming in with little hand valise, what looked like a laptop bag of today. He always carried it around with him. I said, well what was in it? His microphone. He would bring it with him wherever he was going in case he recorded so he made sure it sounded the same as his other sessions,” says Robert Bader.  “You might automatically assume it’s going to be the sound of music from the 20’s and 30’s. But his music from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s is actually quite valid and contemporary and really good sounding.”

Bader says Bing Crosby’s image and legacy are getting some 21st century polish. Bing now has his own Facebook page, his music is selling on iTunes, and a YouTube channel is on the way. 

The Bing Crosby Film Festival is a one-day event on Saturday, December 11th in downtown Spokane. A variety of classic films and the rediscovered footage will screen throughout the afternoon and evening.