Of Bing and Broadcasting

We’ve already touched on various aspects of the career of Bing Crosby (1903-77) here, including posts on his early years with Paul Whiteman and the Rhythm Boys. his cinematic team-up with Bob Hope, his marriage to Dixie Lee, and even a little thing on his brother Bob Crosby. Today we thought we’d take a brief look at his work in radio and television.

Thanks to broadcasting, Crosby was a ubiquitous factor in American popular culture for nearly a half century. He started with a 15 minute show on CBS radio in 1931. CBS was to be his home on radio for over 30 years, with a wide variety of sponsors during that time. The longest lasting was Kraft, which produced Kraft Music Hall. Bing hosted the show from 1935 through 1946, taking over from his old boss Paul Whiteman, and handing it over to various others, including, ironically, Al Jolson. (I call it ironic because Bing was considered both Jolson’s successor and his antithesis. Jolie sang in that theatrical belting style, while Bing crooned quietly and intimately into the mic). Bing’s other major sponsors included Cremo Cigars and Chesterfield Cigarettes — funny for a singer (and a pipe smoking one at that) to be hawking these voice-killing products, but it was not just common but near-universal to do so at the time. Philco, G.E. and Ford were also among Crosby’s sponsors. His last regular radio program was a daily show he co-hosted with Rosemary Clooney, which ended in 1962.

Televised tribute to Fred Astaire, 1970s

Naturally, that was nearly a decade into Bing’s television career. Much like his old partner Bob Hope, Bing preferred specials to the grind of weekly tv series. His first was in 1954. From 1958 until his death, no year went by without one or several Bing Crosby TV specials, which built on his history as a warm, easy-going, and marginally hip radio presence, and added TV variety staples like comedy sketches, dance numbers, scripted patter and banter with special guests. From ’58 to ’61 Oldsmobile sponsored bi-annual Bing Crosby specials. From 1964 through 1970 he guest hosted 32 installments of the Hollywood Palace. Occasionally he would team with a younger star, like Dean Martin or Carol Burnett , ostensibly to bridge generations. And naturally there were numerous Christmas specials, where he sang “White Christmas”, “Silver Bells”, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and the like. His voluminous family would join him on these shows. And of course he appeared in the specials and weekly variety shows of others, like those of Hope, Danny Thomas, Jackie Gleason, Joey Bishop, George Jessel, and Kraft Music Hall, now hosted by Perry Como.

On one occasion Bing did experiment with a weekly show, his own sitcom, The Bing Crosby Show (1964-65), with Beverly Garland (later of My Three Sons) and old Hollywood cohort Frank McHugh. On the show, he played a dad who was a “former singer”, who could always be coaxed out of retirement to croon one number every show. The program did not fare well, and was rapidly put to bed. It had been co-produced by his Bing Crosby Productions, which also had a hand in Hogan’s Heroes and Ben Casey. Over the years, Crosby also hosted and produced televised golf tournaments, and travel-themed shows where he took audiences to places like Ireland.

Crosby died on October 14, 1977, long enough to get one last Christmas special in the can. He lived long enough to do sing a duet with David Bowie! From Paul Whiteman to Bowie…that is one long cultural reach.

For more on show business history, including radio and TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,