Happy 114th Birthday, Bing Crosby!

Crooner-actor-comedian-show biz immortal Bing Crosby was born Harry Lillis Crosby was born 114 years ago today (or thereabouts—there’s some debate about the actual date, though the date now most widely agreed upon is May 3) in Tacoma, Washington. Here are 10 BC Did-You-Knows:

  • A true middle child, Crosby was the fourth of seven children. His father, a bookkeeper, was of English descent and his mother was a second-generation Irish-American. The family relocated to Spokane, Washington, when Crosby was three. When Crosby was seven, a neighbor, inspired by the Bingville Bugle, a popular humor feature in the Sunday edition of Spokane’s Spokesman-Review newspaper, nicknamed him “Bingo from Bingville.” The name stuck (though the -o was soon dropped).
  • Crosby attended Gonzaga University for three years, playing on the school’s baseball team as a freshman. He never graduated, but in 1937, the university gave him the benefit of the doubt, awarding him an honorary degree.
  • At 20, Crosby was asked to join a group of younger musicians in forming a combo called the Musicaladers (as to how that name was pronounced, your guess is as good as ours). One of the members of that group was Al Rinker, brother to Mildred Bailey, who would go on to great success as a jazz and swing vocalist.
  • In 1925, Crosby and Rinker headed for Los Angeles, where Bailey’s show-biz contacts helped them find work. They were eventually hired by the star-making orchestra leader Paul Whiteman. During a stint in New York City, the pair’s prospects were bolstered by the addition of pianist and songwriter Harry Barris. They became known as the Rhythm Boys and their collective star was on the ascent.
  • Extensive touring with the Whiteman organization allowed the Rhythm Boys to hone their skills and they became stars in their own right, with Bing being singled out for solo work on record and over the radio airwaves. They soon left the Whiteman group and signed on with Gus Arnheim, whose orchestra was featured nightly at the Cocoanut Grove night club at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel.
  • Bing Crosby was increasingly the focus of the act and he eventually made the logical move toward being a solo performer. Both his recordings and his radio program became huge successes. Crosby performed on 10 of the most popular 50 recordings of 1931. He began in films making shorts for Mack Sennett and his first feature-length picture, The Big Broadcast (1932), made him all the more successful. He would be a top recording, radio and motion picture star throughout the 1930s and ’40s and in the 1950s, he conquered television, too.
  • From the 1940s to the 1960s, Crosby was a minority owner (15%) of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team.
  • Crosby was the first choice to portray Lieutenant Columbo on the popular television series Columbo. After Crosby declined, he role eventually went to Peter Falk.
  • It could be said that, as Elvis Presley was to rock ‘n’ roll, Crosby was to jazz. He was one of the first—and certainly the most popular—white vocalists to embrace the new form of music. Jazz legend Louis Armstrong was an admirer of Crosby, describing his voice as being “like gold being poured out of a cup.”
  • Crosby notched 38 No. 1 singles over the course of his career, topping even Presley and the Beatles in the category.

Happy birthday, Bing Crosby, wherever you may be!

Bing Crosby

Happy 148th Birthday, Marie Dressler!

Beloved character actress and comedian Marie Dressler was born Leila Marie Koerber 148 years ago today in Cobourg, Ontario. Here are 10 MD Did-You-Knows:

  • Dressler’s father was a music teacher and her mother a musician. When she was still a child, her family moved to the United States, residing in Michigan and Ohio. She grew appearing in amateur theatricals.
  • At 14, Dressler left home, lying about her age that she might join a traveling stock company that played mostly in the Midwest. Her older sister, Bonita, also worked with the stock company for a time before leaving to get married. Much of Dressler’s early stage work was in light opera.
  • Dressler made her Broadway debut in 1892 in Waldemar, the Robber of the Rhine, a production that enjoyed a brief five-week run. Dressler, who stood 5′ 7″ and weighed 200 pounds, had dreamed of being an operatic diva or a tragedienne, but the author of Waldemar, Maurice Barrymore, father to Lionel, John and Ethel, convinced her that comedic roles would suit her best.
  • Dressler’s first starring role came in 1896 in The Lady Slaver, which played for two years at the Casino Theatre.
  • Throughout the 1900s and ’10, Dressler kept busy in Broadway productions and in vaudeville, and during World War I, she toured the country, selling Liberty bonds and entertaining the troops.
  • Aside from cameo roles playing herself in a pair of film shorts, Dressler’s movie debut came in 1914 at age 44 when fellow Canadian Mack Sennett hired her to star opposite Charlie Chaplin (in a villainous, non-Tramp role) in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, one of the first full-length, six-reel motion picture comedies. The movie was a hit, and Dressler continued to enjoy success in film comedies into the 1920s.
  • Her movie career on the wane in the late ’20s, Dressler, now in her late 50s, was considering taking a position as a housekeeper on Long Island—another story has it that she was on the verge of committing suicide—when screenwriter Frances Marion convinced MGM to cast her in The Callahans and the Murphys (1927). That hit picture revived her career.
  • Dressler won the Best Actress Oscar for Min and Bill (1930), the first of three popular pictures she would make with Wallace Beery. Only the fourth actress to win that award, she was the third Canadian in a role to do so (after Mary Pickford and Norma Shearer). She received the award the day after her 63rd birthday.
  • At age 65, Dressler was named the top box-office draw of 1933 by the Motion Picture Herald.
  • The house Dressler was born in Cobourg still stands. Known today as the Marie Dressler House, it was a restaurant from 1937 through 1989, when it was damaged by fire. After being restored, it served as the office for the Cobourg Chamber of Commerce for a time until it was transoformed into a Marie Dressler museum and information center for tourists visiting Cobourg.

Happy birthday, Marie Dressler, wherever you may be!

Marie Dressler

Happy 108th Birthday, Carole Lombard!

Carole Lombard, the Great Dame of American cinema, was born Jane Alice Peters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, 108 years ago today. Here are 10 CL Did-You-Knows:

  • Lombard’s parents divorced when she was young, and it was during a Southern California vacation that her mother decided to relocate there with her three children (Carole had two older brothers).
  • Lombard was discovered at age 12 while playing baseball in the street by director Allan Dwan, who cast her in his picture A Perfect Crime (1921) as a tomboy. It was the only picture in which she would be listed in the credits as Jane Peters.
  • At age 18, Lombard was in an auto accident that scarred the left side of her face. Plastic surgery repaired the damage sufficiently for her career to continue after her recovery.
  • Lombard appeared in more than 35 silent pictures, many of them comedy shorts made by the Mack Sennett Company, where she honed the comedy skills that would serve her so well later in her career. She made 42 talkies before her life tragically came to an end at age 33.
  • Her name appeared in movie credits as Carol Lombard until an E was mistakenly added to her first name in the credits for Safety in Numbers (1930). The studio decided that would be the spelling of her name going forward, and she went along. She had her named legally changed to Carole Lombard in 1936.
  • Lombard was nicknamed the Profane Angel for her lovely appearance and, er, colorful vocabulary (it’s said she swore like a sailor).
  • Lombard’s first marriage, to actor William Powell, was short-lived—they were married just 26 months—but they remained devoted friends for the rest of her life.
  • She and second husband Clark Gable first met while serving as extras on the set of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925). They were extras on three films together and made one feature—No Man of Her Own (1932)—together, but wouldn’t become romantically involved until 1936.
  • For all her success in screwball and romantic comedies, Lombard turned down the female lead roles in three classic of those genres: It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and His Girl Friday.
  • Lombard and her mother were on a war bonds tour when the TWA plane they were traveling on crashed 33 miles southwest of Las Vegas in the Spring Mountains. The flight’s three crew members and all 19 passengers were killed. She was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the first woman killed in the line of duty during World War II.

Happy birthday, Carole Lombard, wherever you may be!

Carole Lombard