It is no longer well known in Los Altos, but singer-actor Bing Crosby played an important role in the development of the Los Altos Youth Center, today known as LAYC. His involvement may have faded for a reason, a story I unearthed recently with the help of Dianne Lee Shen in the archives of the Los Altos History Museum.
Crosby, who died in 1977 at the age of 74, was one of the best-known entertainers of the 20th century. Born in Tacoma and raised in Spokane, his singing talent made him an international celebrity. His 1942 recording of “White Christmas” remains one of the best-selling records of all time. Although he was never Hollywood handsome, he also became a movie star, winning an Oscar for his role in the 1944 film “Going My Way.”
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He founded the golf tournament that became the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. And he quietly worked as a philanthropist, donating millions of dollars to youth centers all over the country, especially in California.
In 1959, Chris Wilder, developer of Rancho Shopping Center, led an effort for a youth center in Los Altos and secured a pledge of $10,000 from Crosby. The building, directly behind Los Altos City Hall, was completed in late 1960 at a cost of $97,000, and most of the money came from donations that rolled in after that first big pledge from Crosby.
The dedication ceremony was set for Sunday, Jan. 15, 1961, and Los Altos was abuzz when the Town Crier reported, in its Jan. 11, 1961, edition, that Crosby would be there. The Los Altos News said Larry Crosby – Bing’s brother and publicist – reported the star would bring golfers Byron Nelson and Ken Venturi with him from Pebble Beach.
James Thurber was vice mayor then, and his widow, Emily, is still a Los Altos resident. I asked if she remembered the story. Still active and involved at age 89, she sounded puzzled and said she did not.
There is a reason for this.
LAYC was filled to overflowing that day. Some local teens even arrived on horseback, anticipating they would need good vantage points from which to spot the stars. But Crosby did not appear and neither did the golfers. Crosby’s check was good, but he sorely disappointed his audience. A photo in the Los Altos News shows unsmiling city leaders under the headline: “Mayors Show Crosby Plaque. Bing Not There To Receive It.” This was the day Bing Crosby’s name lost its power in Los Altos.
Emily Thurber laughed when I told her.
“Now I don’t feel so bad,” she said. “If he had been there, then I would have remembered.”
Robin Chapman is a journalist, historian and Los Altos native.