Tuesday, March 6, 2012
BING AND REGIS PHILBIN
It all began with Bing Crosby during the Depression of the thirties. I must have been six or seven years old at the time. My family lived on the bottom floor of a two-story house on Cruger Avenue in the Bronx, and every night at 9:30, I sat by my little radio in our kitchen and listened to a half hour of Bing's records regularly spilling out over WNEW. His voice was so clear, so pure, and so warm that after a while I thought of him as my good friend. Even though he was out in faraway, glamorous Hollywood and I was in the humble old Bronx, in my mind we truly were friends and would always spend that special half hour together, just the two of us.
I listened to those songs of the Depression era and, even as a kid, I understood that the songwriters were trying to give hope to a struggling and downtrodden public. I grew to love those lyrics and what they said to me. I swear to you that those same songs have stayed with me for the rest of my life, and during various dark periods when I hit those inevitable bumps along the way, I would actually sing them to myself. Like "When skies are cloudy and gray, they're only gray for a day, so wrap your troubles in dreams and dream your troubles away. . . ." Those were the sorts of lyrics that helped cheer an entire nation wallowing in hard times together, not to mention those who experienced bleak moments of their own in decades to come. Certainly they kept me going. So Bing Crosby remained a big deal to me-his mellow voice, his carefree persona, his very special aura. Dependable as could be, he was the friend who could always be counted on to make me feel better.
Now all through high school and college, my parents would ask me over and over again, "What are you going to do with your life? What do you want to be?" Well, in my heart I wanted to be a singer like Bing, but I worried about the reality of that dream. Did I think for one minute that I had the voice to pull it off? Of course not. It never occurred to me. I just wanted to be Bing! So I could never tell them I wanted to be a singer. They might think I was crazy or trying to achieve the impossible. But I did promise my folks that I would make my decision before graduating from the University of Notre Dame.
During those college years, my hope of becoming a singer did wane slightly. I majored in sociology and never took a single music-related course, much less any kind of class in public speaking-no confidence for it, none-yet I still had a passion for it that burned inside me.
Two weeks before graduation, I discovered that one of my friends could actually play the piano. Gus Falcone was his name, and I explained my awkward situation to him. This would be the last chance to tell my parents my long-held secret, and with Gus at the piano, I could show them it wasn't altogether that impossible as a professional dream. Over and over, for two weeks, we rehearsed one of Crosby's great songs, "Pennies from Heaven," in the campus music hall. Finally, the day before graduation, my folks arrived at Notre Dame, thoroughly shaken up by a severe thunderstorm they had encountered a half hour outside of South Bend. They got out of the car, already off balance due to the bad weather, but I bravely proceeded anyway: "Mom, Dad-don't say anything. You've waited a long time for this, so now I'm going to tell you what it is I want to do for the rest of my life. Come with me."
We walked across the campus. My parents looked relieved. They were understandably eager to hear about my career decision. Gus, meanwhile, was waiting for us at the piano in one of those rehearsal rooms. We walked in and, right on cue, he started to play "Pennies from Heaven." This, after all, was the audition of my life. We got off to a fairly good start. I thought maybe this was actually going to work-until I saw my mother's eyes brimming with tears and my father's eyes filled with bitter disappointment. I realized I couldn't do this to them. This wasn't the reason they had sacrificed so much to send me to college. The song came to an end. There was silence. Deadly silence. From the two people who naturally meant the most to me in the world. I admitted immediately that this was all wrong, that it was a silly idea. They had paid four years of tuition at one of the finest universities in the country . . . and I wanted to be a singer? It was ridiculous. I said, "I'm so sorry, let's try to forget it. I'll find something else to do, maybe in television, hopefully." TV, after all, was suddenly becoming a hot and clearly unstoppable medium.
I did, of course, eventually find my way into television, taking all kinds of jobs, climbing the ranks rung by rung. Anyway, it was several years later, when I was working nationally in Hollywood as the announcer and second banana on ABC-TV's late-night entry, The Joey Bishop Show, that I had my big moment. To help Joey relax before every show, he and I had a private daily ritual of walking from our studio on Vine Street to Hollywood Boulevard and back again. During those strolls we talked about everything, until finally one afternoon we got around to that old topic "What did you want to be when you were a kid?" He told me that, at ten years of age, he would entertain people on the street corners of Philadelphia, telling jokes that left them rocking with laughter. He knew then that he wanted to be a comedian. And so I confessed my dream: I told him that, at the age of six, I decided I wanted to be Bing Crosby-that I knew every lyric of every song Bing had ever sung, that nothing had made me happier than singing along with Bing on the radio.
So it had to happen -- three months later, Bing was booked to be a guest on our show. I remember spotting him backstage-this easygoing but towering legend wandering our hallways-and I truly couldn't take my eyes off him. Unfortunately, there were no plans for him to sing that night; he'd simply agreed to come on the show as a panel guest, along with his beautiful wife, Kathy, and share some of his great old stories, then leave. But it was all still terribly exciting. Especially for me. Especially when he walked out and sat right next to me. My whole life flashed before me-thirty years prior to all this I was just a dream-filled kid, freezing on those cold Bronx winter nights, listening to Bing sing on my little radio. How did all this happen? Who could have imagined that now, so many years later, I would be sitting next to Bing Crosby on a big network TV show in Hollywood?! It's one of those times when you have to pinch yourself in order to believe it.
The show's producers, of course, would have loved for Bing to sing anything that night, but they were afraid to ask him. Then, as the interview progressed, Joey had an idea. He would try to talk him into it by using me as his pawn, right on the air! "Bing, see this kid," Joey said, nodding toward me. "He's the biggest fan you ever had. It would be the biggest thrill of his life if you would sing a song for him. How about ‘Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral'?" I was getting nervous. How would Bing react? Well, he turned, looked directly at me, and simply sang the song a cappella. He sounded great. It was so exciting, my head was spinning. How could I tell him what he had meant to me all these years? I should have, but I couldn't.
After the applause, Joey continued. He hadn't had enough. He said, "Bing, this kid knew all your songs when he was a little boy." I couldn't believe he was going to tell that whole embarrassing story, but thank God he didn't. Instead he said, "Regis would now love to sing one of your songs to you!" Is he nuts? I thought. Is he looking for a few laughs at my expense? How do I get out of here? Bing turned and gave me a pleasant enough look-but straight at me. I can still see those steely blue eyes. He didn't know what to expect either.
It had been nearly fifteen years since I had sung "Pennies from Heaven" with my pal Gus at Notre Dame for my bewildered parents. I was nervous, but when was I ever going to get a chance to sing to Bing Crosby again? So I went for that song with all I had, even including the little-known opening verse. I looked right at Bing, singing every word of it directly to him. I could hear the band, Johnny Mann and His Merrymen, struggling to find my key for support. Two great musicians were the first to get into it, God bless them: Herb Ellis on guitar and Ray Brown on bass. And Bing himself even joined in with some notes here and there. It was a supreme moment in my life. I'll never forget it. The next day, believe it or not, I actually received a recording contract from Mercury Records. Would I want to do an album and include some of Crosby's songs? I said yes, of course, but I was terribly self-conscious about the whole thing. Nevertheless, the first track I recorded for them was (you guessed it!) "Pennies from Heaven."
I never saw Bing Crosby again in person. Foolishly, I was too intimidated to call him and say thanks for playing along with me on that special night. Ten years later he died of a heart attack on a golf course in Spain. It hit me hard, just like losing a lifelong friend. To have that magnificent voice silenced forever-I couldn't believe it. I have never forgiven myself for not reaching out to tell him what a thrill it was to meet him and what he'd meant to me growing up.
About two years ago, however, I finally had the unexpected privilege of touring the very places where Bing had grown up. My concert booking agent from William Morris Endeavor, Kenny DiCamillo, brought me an offer from an Indian casino near Spokane, Washington. Because it's such a long haul from New York to Spokane, he wondered if I'd be interested in making that far-off trip. "Spokane!" I said. "Why, that was Bing Crosby's hometown!" I told him of course I'd love to go there to do a show, but more so to explore the actual home Crosby grew up in and Gonzaga University where Bing completed his college career. Before we even left New York, Kenny had made arrangements for me to visit the Crosby home, which during Bing's youth was located across the street from the university but now has been absorbed right onto the expanded campus grounds. Every morning Bing would pop out the kitchen door of that house and go whistling all the way to his classes.
Of course, Gonzaga remains one of the finest Jesuit universities anywhere-and the Jesuits, as you've probably heard, are known for their teaching prowess. Crosby was a terrific example of their schools' graduates. Not only was he a very good student, bright and well mannered, but it was at Gonzaga that he developed his wonderful vocabulary and elocution, which helped him deliver those songs so memorably. You can hear it in his always precise inflections, whether in song or in film or in later television appearances. He attributed all that smooth expression and eloquence to those exacting Jesuit teachers.
Anyway, Kenny and I rolled into Spokane after a long night's drive through the far Northwest. Then we checked into the historic Davenport Hotel in the heart of town. Looking out of the window of my room, right there across the street I saw the glittering marquee of the Bing Crosby Theater. This was the same theater I read about in Gary Giddins's fine Crosby biography, A Pocketful of Dreams. Back then it was called the Clemmer Theatre; Bing, in fact, worked there as a stagehand at the age of fourteen and witnessed the great Al Jolson giving one of his typically thrilling performances on that stage. The young Crosby was knocked out by the unmatchable way Jolson dominated that auditorium. Four years later, Bing happened to be working backstage again, picking up a few bucks, when Jolson returned to Spokane and was still pure dynamite in front of that Clemmer Theatre audience. More than ever, Jolson had at that moment inspired Bing to consider a career of his own in music. The two of them actually met that night (briefly, I'm sure), never knowing that in later years they would work together countless times, performing the most unforgettable duets on Bing's Kraft Music Hall radio shows. And they were a brilliant match, too: Jolson, dynamic, dramatic, over the top; and Crosby, laid-back and solid with that beautiful voice and ability to play perfect straight man for Al, while still getting his own share of laughs. I remember lying in bed listening to those shows when I was a kid. I loved them then and still do, thanks to remastered radio recordings of the two of them live together in action so long ago.
Anyway, on that first night in Spokane, I stared out my hotel window for a long time at this grand old theater, which had been renovated and renamed many times through the years until its present owner was persuaded, in 2006, by a citizen's group to at last christen it in Bing's name. I couldn't believe it; right there across the street was the place where Bing Crosby began his illustrious career, by doing the very same job that would decades later serve as my own beginnings in television. That is, we had both started out as stagehand prop house guys!
The next morning was spent wandering through the Crosby home-the one he left each day whistling as he made his way to campus nearly a hundred years ago. Now on that Gonzaga campus there's an enormous statue of Bing wearing his fedora hat, pipe in hand, presiding over everyone strolling by. But as years pass and memories fade, I wonder how many of today's young students really know just what a giant king of American culture he was. One Gonzaga building holds the Crosby archives, with its phenomenal collection of records, movies, photos, radio broadcasts, TV shows, books, magazine clippings, and articles of clothing worn by him-all of it fascinating and mind-boggling at once. He was the one who simply invented pop singing-the Voice who started it all-and everyone who followed him happily admitted as much, none more so than Frank Sinatra.
But let me add a special postscript for you here -- nearly forty years after the Bishop show went off the air, I happened to receive a package in the mail. Of course, I receive a lot of these-video or audio copies of things viewers thought I'd enjoy-and I'm certainly grateful to get them. This one was from someone in Wisconsin. It looked like another CD to me. So much material like this comes in that it's hard to keep up with it. But one day I finally got around to opening this package and, sure enough, it was a CD. I put it in my disc player . . . and I could not believe what I was hearing! It was a recording of that remarkable night when Bing Crosby and I sang to each other on Joey Bishop's show. Why I had never asked for a copy of that program after it aired, I'll never know. I've always regretted not having it...