5 Things You Didn't Know About Bing Crosby

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You know him as the man who sang "White Christmas" and co-starred in a slew of movies with Bob Hope, but what don't you know about Bing Crosby? Here are five facts that might surprise you.

1. He Got His Name from a Comic Strip

The entertainer was born Harry Lillis Crosby, which doesn't have quite the same ring to it. The nickname "Bing" found him when he was just seven years old. The Spokane Spokesman-Review ran a comic feature called "The Bingville Bugle," which was a parody of hillbilly newspapers. The young Crosby thought the feature was a riot, and he would giggle uncontrollably when reading it. A neighbor noticed his laughter and started calling Crosby "Bingo from Bingville." The "o" eventually went away, but the nickname stuck.

2. He Was Almost Columbo

When television fans think of Columbo, they probably envision Peter Falk starring as the title character. However, the job could have been Crosby's.

The Columbo character made his debut in 1960 on The Chevy Mystery Show with Bert Freed portraying the detective. Thomas Mitchell also spent some time in the role, but the character really exploded when NBC decided to make a television movie in 1968.

The film's producers wanted either Crosby or the great Lee J. Cobb to portray Columbo, but Cobb couldn't squeeze it into his schedule. Crosby turned down the role for a funnier reason: he thought it would interfere with his golfing. At that point Bing considered himself mostly retired, and he didn't want to deal with the long drag of shooting keeping him off of the links.

3. He Was Serious About Golf

Maybe turning down an iconic role for golf isn't so surprising considering what an avid golfer Crosby was. Crosby wasn't just any old amateur player; he was serious about his game and whittled his handicap down to two while playing in both the British and U.S. Amateur championships. In the late 1940s he signed a contract with ABC to do a weekly radio variety show, but he made a seemingly strange request: that the show be taped instead of live. This stipulation was a first for broadcast radio, but it enabled Crosby to spend more time on the golf course.

Although Crosby was a fine player, his most enduring contribution to the game was probably the tournament he started in 1937. The first "Crosby Clambake" was played for a purse of $3000 that came out of Crosby's pocket, but it gradually grew into a major event. The tournament is now known as the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, one of the PGA Tour's most beloved events.

4. He Could Placate David Bowie

The Thin White Duke was set to appear on Crosby's Christmas TV special in 1977 when the production hit a snag. The producers had decided that Bowie would sing "The Little Drummer Boy," but Bowie felt the song wasn't really right for him and refused to sing it.

The nervous producers huddled and decided to rewrite the song in an attempt to get something Bowie would actually perform. With just hours to go before the broadcast, the musical team wrote an alternative version with a new melody and alternate lyrics. Bowie liked the new version, dubbed "Peace on Earth," and agreed to perform it with Crosby, complete with a stilted intro sketch. Check out the amazing clip:

The song actually had staying power, and RCA ended up releasing it as a single in 1982. It still gets little resurgences each holiday seasons; in 2006 it reached #3 on the charts during December.

5. He Liked the Ponies, Too

Crosby wasn't just a golfer; he also enjoyed a little bit of action at the track. In 1937, he teamed up with a group of fellow superstars to open the Del Mar Racetrack just north of San Diego. In addition to Crosby, the team of investors included Jimmy Durante and Oliver Hardy. Crosby was at the track's gate on its opening day, shaking hands and greeting guests, and the track soon became one of California's hottest spots for celebrity sightings.

The racing itself wasn't too shabby, either. The track played host to the famous winner-take-all two-horse race between Seabiscuit and Ligaroti. The race was such big national news that NBC radio made it the company's first-ever national broadcast of a horse race.

Another funny story about Crosby and racing: in 1943, the singer's house burned down. That's a bad piece of luck, but Crosby managed to salvage some of his spirits. As he was picking through the ashes and rubble in search of any useful relics, he found a shoe in which he'd hidden $10,000 in track winnings. The money was still intact.

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.

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January 29, 2010 - 8:27am
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