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40 years after death, Bing Crosby’s legacy lives on in Elko

Updated November 7, 2017 - 4:59 pm

Nevada history? Well it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that Bing. And it does.

“People who knew of his career were thinking, What is Bing Crosby doing on a cattle ranch? But that’s who he was, he wanted to be a regular guy,” says Las Vegan Carolyn Schneider, the famed crooner’s niece, about the uncle who made Nevada — specifically, Elko — his home away from Hollywood for 14 years, in between hit records, concerts, movie-headlining and radio stardom. “He liked to stop in at the drug store that had a counter in it so he could get a milkshake.”

Soon, the eternal presence of the entertainment icon dubbed “Der Bingle” with his “bababa-bing” singing style will re-emerge as the holiday season arrives.

Try finding a mall, restaurant or outdoor speaker not soothing us via the silken sounds of his timeless “White Christmas” (generally regarded as the world’s best-selling single, with sales exceeding 100 million copies). With this year marking the 40th anniversary of Crosby’s death on Oct. 14, 1977, Schneider remembers that the man who made all those “Road” movies with Bob Hope enjoyed escaping the hectic Hollywood life by traveling the road to Nevada.

“He just fell in love with the area,” says Schneider, who authored “Bing: On the Road to Elko” and “Me and Uncle Bing,” both affectionate memoirs that include chronicles of Crosby’s love affair with Elko beginning in 1944, when he purchased the Quarter Circle S, the first of seven cattle ranches he owned until 1958. “He never acted like a movie star when he was there. The ranches were his getaway, where he could fish on his own property, fire a gun if he wanted to, and he made friends with all his neighbors.”

Regarded as America’s biggest star when he took a shine to the rustic town — having scored a Best Actor Oscar for portraying Father O’Malley in 1944’s “Going My Way — the avid hunter and fly fisherman caught Western fever after starring in the 1936 cowboy musical “Rhythm on the Range.” Racking up Elko ranches including those named the 7Js, PX and Spring Creek Ranch, Crosby developed a reputation as a seasoned cattle and horse rancher. As he was quoted in the biography, “Call Me Lucky,” Crosby cherished never being pestered for an autograph, or to give performances or do anything but “mind my own business.”

So comfy was the crooner in the environs of Elko that he would stroll around town minus his hairpiece, and was moved to become involved in the community as well. “The Silver State Stampede (the oldest rodeo in Nevada) was on hiatus for 13 years and he was instrumental in bringing that back. It’s been up and running since then,” says Martin T. Smith, author of “The Nevada Trivia Game,” noting that it was a fund-raiser for the local hospital. “A lot of people admired him for that.”

Adding that he is “very well-remembered,” Toni Mendive, archivist for Elko’s Northeastern Nevada Museum, home to a Crosby exhibit, says he helped raise the town’s profile by holding the world premiere of his 1951 film “Here Comes the Groom” in Elko and supported local businesses. “He and the mayor would take pictures with nearly every business owner in town, just to be with them and help the community,” Mendive says.

As a gesture of affection and respect, Elko named Crosby honorary mayor in 1948 — the first one in Nevada history — and he was equally appreciated by the area’s Native-Americans. Adopted into the Shoshone-Paiute tribes, Crosby was dubbed “Man of Many Songs,” an honor that brought him to tears. “He believed in hard work and that’s why the Indians embraced him,” Smith says. “He helped a lot of people and not just by throwing money at them. He hired a lot of people as an employer.”

Those jobs were on his multiple ranches, which also figured into the parenting of his four sons from his first marriage to wife Dixie — Gary, Lindsay and twins Dennis and Phillip — which later erupted in controversy. Determined that they not become spoiled Hollywood kids, Crosby put them to work on the land.

“They had jobs just like regular ranch hands and he paid them the same way,” Schneider says. “That’s the kind of person he was.” However, in his scathing 1983 book, “Going My Own Way,” Gary accused his father of physical and emotional abuse, triggering a scandal and media coverage, including a piece headlined “Daddy Dearest?” in People magazine.

“I refuse to read the book,” Schneider says. “I know Uncle Bing was a disciplinarian. Gary didn’t want to obey the rules of the house. I know he was punished, how severely I don’t know.” None of the sons took to ranching, as Crosby had hoped and, as Smith notes, “it was pretty tragic for every one of his sons.” Emotional problems, alcoholism, drunk driving arrests and multiple divorces beset the brothers. All four are now deceased: Gary from lung cancer, Phillip from a heart attack, and Lindsay and Dennis from self-inflicted shotgun wounds.

After his wife’s passing from ovarian cancer in 1952, Crosby became less of a presence in Elko, finally selling off all his properties by 1958, and eventually marrying his second wife, Kathryn, with whom he had three more children. “Dixie was very much a part of the Elko experience and then she was gone,” Schneider says. “There were a lot of painful memories.”

Yet Crosby left a lasting mark on Elko, which, his niece says, deserves recognition. “Can you believe there isn’t a Crosby Street or a Bing Avenue?” she says. Adds Smith: “He probably should get some kind of accolade.”

Professional accomplishments and personal history can combine for a complex legacy, as it does with many entertainers, and Bing Crosby’s reads: Singer/Actor/Pop Cultural Icon/Nevadan.

Crosby Highlights:

• Between musical recordings (2,000-plus) , radio programs (approximately 4,000), and film and television appearances, Crosby is considered the most-recorded performer in history.

• Crosby scored 41 No. 1 records, more than the Beatles (24) and Elvis Presley (18). Crosby recordings have reached the charts 396 times, more than Frank Sinatra (209) and Elvis Presley (149) combined.

• Thirteen Oscar-nominated songs featured Crosby vocals, including four that went on to win the Oscar for best song: “Sweet Leilani” (from “Waikiki Wedding,” 1937); “White Christmas” (from “Holiday Inn,”1942); “Swinging On a Star” (from “Going My Way,” 1944); and “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” (from “Here Comes the Groom,” 1958).

• Crosby teamed with Bob Hope for seven “Road” movies from 1940 to 1962: The “Road” led them to: Singapore, Zanzibar, Morocco, Utopia, Rio, Bali and Hong Kong.

Contact Steve Bornfeld at @sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com. Follow @sborn1 on Twitter.

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