Watching the microphone-wielding cabaret
singer, dressed in a black bow tie and white, double-breasted
jacket, at the Triad Theatre in Manhattan Tuesday night was a
blast from the past, indeed. Bay Ridge native Martin McQuade
sang Bing Crosby songs from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, and even
showed off the crooner’s merchandise from that time period: a
vintage mousetrap and ice cream box.
The theme of his unorthodox set, accompanied by Dave Gross on piano, was celebrating the work of the legendary Crosby. While the overwhelmingly positive songs were from Crosby’s numerous films, the household items were examples of the singer-actor’s entrepreneurial prowess, helming Crosby Enterprises, which not only made mousetraps and coffee filters, but also emblazoned his name and visage on the packaging a la Paul Newman.
Among the members in the candlelit audience sipping their cocktails and singing along was Crosby’s widow, Kathryn, who had traveled from Nevada for this month’s cinematic tribute to her husband at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. That retrospective of Crosby’s movie career, "What a Swell Party This Is!," continues through July 26 and is co-curated by McQuade.
In addition to performing Crosby’s songs and collecting "Crosby-anna," McQuade, 52, is Mrs. Crosby’s special events coordinator and her public relations manager when she’s in New York, he told GO Brooklyn. The surprising partnership between the owner of the now-defunct Flotsam and Jetsam memorabilia store in Bay Ridge and the former Hollywood actress, who was married to Crosby for 20 years, was sparked by their meeting at Hofstra University in 2001. The school was presenting a symposium in honor of the centennial of Crosby’s birth, and it was here that McQuade "gathered his courage" and offered to give Mrs. Crosby a tour of an exhibit he curated about Bing.
Now the duo routinely pair up in Brooklyn for tributes to Crosby’s work, whether at the Fort Hamilton Army Base in honor of Crosby’s contributions to the U.S.O. or at bookstores where Mrs. Crosby, 72, signs copies of her books, "My Life with Bing," "My First Years with Bing," and "My Last Years with Bing." Their shared mission is keeping Crosby’s legacy alive.
Like a minister’s wife - albeit a svelte, glamorous one decked out in sparkling jewels - Mrs. Crosby patiently and graciously greeted the swarm of Bing’s fans and former colleagues that approached her before and after McQuade’s concert.
As McQuade is quick to point out, Crosby was a star on the big screen as well as on radio and on television during his career, which spanned 1930 to 1966. According to McQuade, who describes himself as being "bonkers over him," Crosby introduced 14 Oscar-nominated songs and four Oscar-winners and was the first musical star to win a Best Actor Academy Award (for Leo McCarey’s 1944 film "Going My Way"). His recording of "White Christmas" remains, after 65 years, the best-selling record of all time, said McQuade, with 50 million copies sold. Despite these awards and accomplishments, McQuade said there has never been a retrospective of his films, and he likened Crosby’s disappearance from popular culture to an eclipse.
"[McQuade] has tremendous knowledge about Bing Crosby’s career," said the Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s Joanna Ney, who collaborated with McQuade on the film series. "He’s devoted himself to Bing Crosby. He’s a Crosby historian and he, along with Mrs. Kathryn Crosby, brought to light that nothing had been done for Bing, this extraordinary talent."
Mrs. Crosby, who’s played opposite Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in the course of her own movie career, will introduce "High Tor," on July 24 at the Film Society retrospective. Directed by James Nielsen, the 1956 film is considered the first made-for-TV movie. Crosby had intended to release "High Tor," named for a mountain in Connecticut, as a theatrical feature after its broadcast, but thought the set looked too artificial on the big screen, Mrs. Crosby told GO Brooklyn.
"He didn’t like the papier mache rocks, but I think it’s great fantasy. It’s very charming," she said.
Based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, "High Tor" is a ghost story with a young Julie Andrews making her screen debut as the phantom (prior to her Broadway stardom in "My Fair Lady"). The movie was only broadcast once on TV, and has never been seen as the Film Society will screen it - uncut and without commercials. It was a real coup when Mrs. Crosby found the archival print on "a shelf in the basement after 50 years," she told GO Brooklyn.
Among the upcoming films in the series, which began on Wednesday, are "High Society" (1956), "Blue Skies" (1946), "Robin and the Seven Hoods" (1964), a new print of "High Time" (1960) and "Going My Way." McQuade, whose father was a film projectionist and ignited his Bing "fascination and obsession" by buying the crooner’s albums for him, will be introducing many of the films.
"[Crosby] had a unique personality, and people watching or listening to him felt as though they knew him," said McQuade, explaining Bing’s enormous popularity. "He comforted them through the Depression and World War II."
The Bing devotee can go on for hours about Crosby’s accomplishments, and it’s not likely that his Bing tributes will come to an end anytime soon. In fact, he’s planning to perform another musical homage on July 27 at the Greenhouse Cafe in Bay Ridge and says plans are in the works for a Bing retrospective at the Museum of Television and Radio.
"[Crosby’s] approach to singing is devoid of artifice. It’s very honest and sincere," said McQuade. "Dean Martin said it best when he said, ’A song’s best friend is Bing Crosby.’ Bing had tremendous talent and technique but it was always in service to the song."
Martin McQuade will perform songs made
famous by Bing Crosby at the Greenhouse Cafe (7717 Third Ave.
at 77th Street in Bay Ridge) on July 27 at 8 pm. For more information,
"What a Swell Party This Is!: A Salute to Bing Crosby" continues at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater (165 West 65th Street on the plaza level in Manhattan) through July 26. For program information, visit www.filmlinc.com or call (212) 875-5600. Tickets are $10.