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PBS documentary explores life of Bing Crosby; ‘White Christmas’ a Chicago tradition

He was an entertainment media mogul decades before Oprah, Beyonce or Jay-Z.

For the first half of the 20th century, Bing Crosby was the man: most popular singer, radio star, television star, film star — he was the tops in all categories. At one point, 50 million people tuned in each week to hear his radio show.

A new PBS documentary, “American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered,” airing at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 7 on WTTW-Channel 11 (repeating at 9 p.m. Dec. 26), explores Crosby’s multifaceted life — from his birth as Harry Lillis Crosby Jr., the fourth of seven children in a Catholic family in Tacoma, Washington, to his eventual journey to Los Angeles in 1925 to pursue a career in music, to his segue into vaudeville, Hollywood, radio, records and television. Oh, and that whole “Bing” thing? The name came from the “Bingville Bugle,” a parody feature in the Spokane Spokesman-Review that delighted a 6-year-old Crosby.

His intimate voice would be described by critics and fans as seductive, sensual, sexual and perfect — or as Crosby biographer Gary Giddins (and one of the many talking heads in the documentary) explains: “[Crosby] brought an eroticism to music that no one had done before. He understood the nuances of his voice.”

The term “crooner” may not have been coined specifically for Crosby, but his voice and demeanor epitomized its meaning, paving the way for so many others who would follow, including Frank Sinatra (it wasn’t until the 1960s that Sinatra would outsell Crosby’s recordings). In his career, Crosby would eventually garner 41 No. 1 hits and 23 gold and platinum records, becoming the most electronically recorded voice in history. His resume boasts 600 singles (that’s 1,200 songs, since most of the time his music was released as individual two-sided records as was the practice during the ’30s ’40s and early ’50s). And he was a hit crossover artist in myriad genres including pop, jazz, R&B, Hawaiian and spiritual/hymns.

But the documentary does not solely concentrate on the positives; there are plenty of negatives revealed, including Crosby’s penchant for partying hard and playing the field as a young bachelor in Hollywood. There is his troubled first marriage to onetime singer/showgirl Dixie Lee (a lifelong alcoholic, she would die of cancer at the age of 40), who gave Crosby four sons — Gary, Phillip, Lindsay and Dennis — who had difficult relationships with their famous father.

“American Masters” also examines Crosby’s subsequent marriage to actress-singer Kathryn Grant, who would give birth to sons Nathaniel and Harry and daughter Mary Crosby (the “Dallas” TV series actress at the center of the most famous cliffhanger in television history).

“Nothing was off-limits,” said Kathryn Crosby in a recent phone conversation, about the family’s decision to open its archives and lives to PBS and Emmy-winning director Robert Trachtenberg for the documentary. “I’m fine with all of it. I’ve been in the public eye since I was 3. We have a basement full of wonderful [memorabilia] and are very busy getting them restored, so it seemed like the right time, and PBS was very excited about having access to all of the items.”

As for the “sexuality” of Bing’s voice, Kathryn Crosby knew it from the first time she met him.

“I was walking to the drama department at Paramount Studios, where I had been under contract for about six months at the time, and I heard a voice behind me say, ‘Hi, Tex [Kathryn hails from Houston, Texas], what’s your hurry?’ I couldn’t walk another step. I was just riveted by this voice. His voice had such power and it came through on his records.”

When it came to Bing Crosby’s most famous recording, the Oscar-winning “White Christmas” (originally used in the 1941 hit Crosby film “Holiday Inn” and later the film that got its title from the iconic song), there were mixed emotions about it, the documentary reveals.

“[‘White Christmas’] was not nearly the film it could have been,” Crosby is heard saying about the 1954 film, which also starred Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Judy Haynes, during an archival interview. “With that music, that cast … It could have been one of the all-time musical classics,” Crosby deadpans.

“[Bing] was never pleased with any of his work,” Kathryn Crosby said, when asked if her husband truly disliked the film. “He always thought it could have been better.”

The song became an American anthem for U.S. soldiers during World War II, and Bing Crosby is shown on several of his trips overseas to entertain the troops, something he dearly treasured, Kathryn Crosby said.

“He always made time for his trips to be with the troops,” she said.”It’s amazing that the most important things he did were those trips for servicemen in World War II. There were so many boys who’d never been away from home, so the song became such a comfort for them.”

Asked to describe her husband as only she could, Kathryn said: “I’d have to say he was very humble and modest. He really didn’t know what a star he was. And he was so handsome with those big blue eyes and really didn’t know it. I think this movie will set the record straight. He was such a funny man. He never went out of his way to be mean to anybody. He was the kindest man I’ve ever known. He was the man I loved. We had 20 years together, which was so good.”

And as for all those television Christmas specials, which starred the Crosby clan, Kathryn said they were a high point of the year for her.

“I always wanted to do the specials,” she said. The children loved it too, no matter what they tell you. [Laughing] Nathaniel would have preferred to be playing golf, but he always did the shows. We were a show business family. So when the director said come do it, we did. And we had more fun on those shows than I can tell you.”

Though the opening lines to Crosby’s iconic holiday tune (written by Irving Berlin and dropped by nearly every artist who has recorded the song) longed for a Christmas “up north,” the Crosby household actually celebrated the holiday south of the border in Las Cruces, Mexico.

“We had a big Christmas tree at the stairwell of the house, full of handmade ornaments that we all made. I could work on the ornaments on the plane ride down [to Mexico] every year,” Kathryn Crosby said. “We’d get behind the piano. Harry would play. We’d all sing while Bing was in the library pretending to read the sports pages. And there would always be ‘White Christmas’ among the songs.”

NOTE: You can catch “White Christmas” in a double bill with “It’s a Wonderful Life” on the big screen in Chicago at the 30th annual “Music Box Christmas Show,” Dec. 12-14 and Dec. 18-24. The theater is located at 3733 N. Southport. Santa Claus welcomes one and all to this cherished Chicagoland tradition, which includes the singing of Christmas carols to a live organist’s accompaniment. Individual and double-feature tickets are available. For screening times and prices, visit musicboxtheatre.com.