Snapshot in Prose: Bing Crosby

What a career Bing Crosby had. Is there anyone in popular culture who got his start in the 1920s who is as well remembered today as Der Bingle?

Perhaps Louis Armstrong.

Many folks 55 years old and younger will recall only the more sedate, older Bing, he of the briarwood pipes, stingy-brimmed fedoras, and cardigan sweaters.

But in his early years, Bing was like Elvis Presley—a white man singing music inspired and influenced by the music of the African-American community.

He also was something of a wild man off-stage, as he is said to have had, in those days, a penchant for going on alcohol-fueled tears.

By the time this profile was published in December 1935, Bing was long since a huge star, having conquered vaudeville, recordings, radio and movies. He had much great success still to come, but it’s interesting to consider this early look back at his rise to stardom.

Bing Crosby will tell you that he is the laziest man in the United States, but it is doubtful if a more ambitious and energetic person ever fought his way to the pinnacles of success.
A lazy man would have been content to do one thing. Bing, however, achieve his fame by doing well in half a dozen diversified fields of endeavor.
As a youngster, he was a star athlete. Growing up, he made himself an expert musician and a polished orchestra leader. Later came his success as a crooner and as the greatest entertainer in the history of the ether waves.
He followed this triumph with a thrilling and novel courtship of the sweet and beautiful cinema queen, Dixie Lee. Shortly afterwards, he became the first legitimate radio performer to make a permanent place in motion pictures. Finally, where an ordinary father would have been content with a single son, or even a daughter, Bing proceeded to have twin boys.
When the sun disappeared from view on May 2, 1904, a brand-new son brightened the home of the Crosby family in Tacoma, Washington. This newcomer, who is also the hero of our tale, was given the rather pretentious name of Harry Lillis Crosby, Jr. Papa Crosby had to do an awful lot of pickle manufacturing to provide for his seven young ones, so he took the whole caravan to Spokane, where business opportunities seemed brighter.
It was in Spokane that the resounding, vocal “Bing!” Bing!” which accompanied the waving of young Harry’s hand-made gun in a game of “cops and robbers,” earned for him the nickname that clings to him to this day.
As a boy Bing had no chance to get the habit of being lazy, what with splitting kindling, shoveling snow, mowing lawns, running errands, selling papers, and going to school. He did, however, manage to find time for athletics.
He had found visions of himself decked out in a grand uniform and playing shortstop for one of the big league teams. One day, when he was about twelve, he entered every event in a neighborhood swimming meet and wound up with nine first place medal, and two seconds.
Bing received his baptism of grease paint while attending Gonzaga High School in Spokane. One night, playing a dead Caesar, he turned a tragedy into a comedy by leaping upstage to dodge the falling curtain. After school he worked in the prop department of a local theatre, and broadened his knowledge of life behind the footlights.
Finding that he still had a few minutes of leisure each day, Bing began to deal out punishment to the drums in the school orchestra. The summer that he was sixteen he became a lumberjack in a relative’s logging camp, and in this capacity did more damage to his own person than he did to the forest. Bad cuts above each knee forced him to retire.
That fall he entered Gonzaga University with the idea of becoming a lawyer, but football, baseball and the glee club received most of his attention and efforts. The average person would have found it hard to keep up with such a schedule.
Together with a classmate, he organized a seven-piece band that was soon a necessary part of all the college parties. Bing played the traps and sang the vocals. The manager of a vaudeville house heard the band, liked it and engaged it for an indefinite engagement at his theatre.
This settled, once and for all, the profession Bing was going to follow. He and Al Rinker, his school chum, went to Los Angeles, where Rinker’s sister, Mildred Bailey, secured them employment in the Tent Café. After that they toured the Pacific Coast in vaudeville.
Back in Los Angeles at the Metropolitan Theatre, they sang one night for an audience that included Paul Whiteman. They did so well that the portly maestro signed them immediately. He took the young vocalists East, where an addition to their party made them the famous “Rhythm Boys.”
In three years with Whiteman their voices became known from coast to coast. In 1930 the trio was signed to sing at the Cocoanut Grove. It was here that Crosby began to make a name for himself as a soloist. He made records which became best-sellers.

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In Your Hat, pt. 8

Here’s Chapter 8 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll, in which she shares tales of by the many celebrities she encountered while working at Sardi’s, among them George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Norma Talmadge, George Raft, Wallace Reid, Ginger Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks, and many more.

     A STOOGE, in Broadway parlance, is the assist in the act. If you do an accordion routine and a heckler is paid by you to annoy your act from the box, then you’re probably Phil Baker and your stooge eventually becomes as famous as you are. Witness Sid Silvers of Take a Chance fame.
     Broadway is full of stooges, both in real life and on the stage. It may sound strange to you but the jester in the king’s court from the time of The Erl King (I don’t know why they insist on spelling Oil as Erl) has been brought down the years until now he is labeled “stooge.” His job is to take he hard knocks, furnish the opportunity for the gag to be sprung, and appear the perfect fool.
     When Phil Baker, who pumps a mean accordion, opened in a show in New York and had a stooge in the box doing the regular routine, Al Boasberg, the gagman who writes funny lines for a dozen or more comedians, wired Baker:


     Gracie Allen, of the famous team of Burns and Allen, is the stooge of the act, even though it is she who pulls all the funny lines. Recently she gave George Burns cause to laugh when she came to him with an idea.
     “Georgie, dear,” Gracie said. “I have an idea.”
     “Well, let’s forget it,” George answered characteristically, knowing it would bring on the usual headache.
     “I’ve thought of a line for our act,” she continued.
     “All right,” gave in George. “What is it?”
     “I can’t tell you until I’ve gotten a prop.”
     “What sort of a prop?”
     “A muff.”
     “What’s a muff?” George wanted to know.
     “It’s one of those things women used to carry around so that they could hold hands with themselves.”
     “All right, Gracie, get yourself a muff and let’s have the gag.”
     She went to the best furrier on the Avenue and ordered a muff made. It has to be matched sables, four skins, exquisitely sewn. The muff cost $250 and she charged it to Geroge Burns, her husband. She brought it to him one day.
     “Here’s the muff, George.”
     He examined it carefully. He approved.
     “I got it at a bargain, George.”
     George immediately became suspicious.
     “How much, Gracie? How much?” he pleaded.
     “Well—er—two hundred and—er—fifty dollars.”
     George felt around for support.
     “Two hundred and fifty smackers for that thing? Gracie, you’ll ruin me!”
     “But it’s a bargain, George, and the furrier let me have it at that price because there are two holes in it!”
     And she held up the muff to show him the holes in which one is supposed to insert one’s hands. Burns was nonplused.
     “But what about the gag?” he wanted to know. “Is the gag worth $250?”
     “Why, George,” giggled the she-stooge, “I just did it. You see, I come on with this muff and you ask me how much I paid for it and I say: ‘I got it at a bargain because it had two holes in it.”
     With which Mr. Burns fainted dead away. And that’s how jokes are born in case you’re interested.
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