Social Practice creates a unique/nagging/obligatory need/opportunity/desire to investigate/create/document the places where people are making connections. Recently for me, this has melded with my interest in vintage aesthetics, pre-internet mediation, and self-initiated institutions. Zooming out from this mess of ideas and influences, I started to see a shape forming, and that shape was of a fan club. It’s the perfect intersection of ephemera, human interaction, rules and devotion. I started to research fan clubs that had been around a long time, long enough to still have a bit of a pre-internet history, and was pleased to find that the Guiness Book of World Records’ longest running fan club was The International Club Crosby. The club was started by fans of Bing Crosby in 1936 and is still around today.
I was enamored by their website and particularly struck by the availability of the leadership’s contact information. There were people seemingly ready and willing to talk about the club and Crosby himself. It was a contrast from the way that many websites can feel like a barrier to talking directly to a real person (afterall, isn’t an FAQ page just a plea to not call and ask questions?). I contacted the American Vice President of the club, Perry Huntoon, who agreed to talk to me on the phone, and agreed again after I made a time zone mistake. What I found in talking with him was a personal bent toward fanaticism that reminded me of the way my own brain operates. I too am a completist, but for me this tendency has often felt isolating. In Mr. Huntoon, I saw the opportunity for special interest to become a point of connection.
Caryn Aasness: Could you tell me a little bit about Bing Crosby?
Perry Huntoon: A little bit about Bing you say? Okay. Sure. He was basically the Entertainer of the first part of the first half of the 20th century. He did it all, you know –superstar, he was big on the radio, big in the movies. And he was, far and away, the best selling record singer of the time up until probably the time of Elvis, when the rock age came in and changed music so dramatically. But he was also big in the war effort. He was very dedicated to helping out in any way he could. He was too old to be in the service, but did the USO [United Service Organizations] thing.
It’s an amazing story, but he discovered the use of the microphone. That’s what made him so popular and before his time. People were using megaphones or whatever they did. The electric microphone just wasn’t in existence. He knew how to use it. It changed the whole style of popular singing back in the 1920s. Instead of shouting to an audience, like you might hear in an opera setting or whatever, he could hold that microphone up and croon to the audience, if you will. That captivated the world and changed the entire style of male singing. Almost every singer that came along after him in that popular vein took after his style. People forget, they don’t think of him as a movie star. Especially because I think when you go back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, you think of the Clark Gables, the Cary Grants, the Jimmy Stewarts, people like that. But in the second half of the 1940s Bing was the biggest artist in the movies. He was number one at the box office for five or six years in a row. But of course he was singing in the movies. He wasn’t particularly thought of as a great actor, but he did get an Academy Award in 1944 and was nominated again in the 50s. So you know, he had a lot of talents. But the singing is what people remember today. I’m afraid that in today’s age, what they remember best are the Christmas songs because Christmas is in the background, but he was far beyond that. He could handle almost any style— pop stuff, jazz-oriented, Irish songs, old songs from the early part of the 20th century. He could even sing in Spanish or French if he had to. He could do everything and that’s why he had worldwide popularity, he sold a lot of records. He was a comedian too, he teamed up with Bob Hope, on the “Road” pictures(1). They were spectacularly successful. And he could ad lib. He could just speak off the top of his head, make it work— audiences loved it. It was just wonderful.
He was also a technological innovator; he decided after World War II he didn’t want to do live radio. He wanted to do it on tape where they could edit it. He’s the one that basically brought the use of tape to this country. The Germans had developed it, and he brought that to America and that became the industry standard in the later 40s. So performers didn’t have to go on live and worry that they made a mistake or go to a recording studio and cut a record and have to redo it because something got goofed up. You could cut and splice from that, it revolutionized the whole industry. So that’s a brief nutshell.
Caryn: How did you come to know about him? What’s your earliest memory of Crosby?
Perry: I came of age musically, when I was 15. Okay, probably late by today’s standards. A little behind the curve. And at that time, I’m talking 1953, he was still played a lot on the radio. Most top stations would have an hour or half hour devoted to Bing Crosby, I can remember listening to pop music on New York radio stations. From 5:30 to 6:00 on one station, that was Bing Crosby time. My older relatives had Bing Crosby records. I would hear them when I went to their homes, so it was kind of ingrained in me. I just realized this guy had the greatest voice ever. I just took right to it. Everybody was talking about Elvis or the Beatles. I was embarrassed to talk about Bing Crosby, it made me an old fogey living in the past. Now I’m kind of proud of it, you know? I have nothing to be ashamed of.
Caryn: When did you become a member of the club?
Perry: In the mid nineties. I don’t know how much you know about the club, but it originated here in the United States in 1936. Club Crosby, it was called, and that’s the club I joined in the 90s and then I found out almost immediately there was a twin club in England: The International Club Crosby. About two years later I joined that also, because they were publishing things that I was interested in— discographies, glossy magazines and things like that. And then about 2001, the two clubs merged. So we have one now: it’s the International Club Crosby, that’s the survivor, and we date back, as I say, to about 1936. It’s in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest standing fan club in the world.
Caryn: Yeah, that’s pretty amazing. How did you become part of the leadership?
Perry: Well, first I was just an innocent member doing nothing. They had an annual meeting in Leeds, England. I always wanted to attend one. And finally in 2009, I had a major trip planned and I tied that in, and I said Okay, I’m gonna go over there. That’s how I got to meet some of the people. I thought it would be a one time event, but as it turned out, I liked it so well, I went back every year. Then I started giving presentations there every year. We had an American representative that handled things over here for many years, but he had an accident. He was unable to carry on all of his chores and one of the chores was distributing the magazine to the American members. They come over from England in bulk and then we have to separate out the issues into individual mailing envelopes and mail them out. Once he was incapable of that, I volunteered to do that and I’ve done that ever since. Then when he passed on, I just took over the whole shooting match over here, so to speak, and they wanted to call me the American Vice President. That’s where I am. The problem we have is, it’s an aging membership. Bing died in 1977. The memories are getting further and further back and younger people just aren’t aware of or don’t care about him because we’re in a different musical age. So we have an aging membership and a dwindling membership obviously. But they’re very spirited, they’re very enthusiastic. I’m as enthusiastic as I was when I was a teenager.
Caryn: Is there a part of the club that is dedicated towards basically evangelizing for Bing?
Perry: Well, Facebook is one way. There are several Facebook groups devoted to Bing Crosby and our president in England posts almost every day to those groups. And, of course, he promotes the club, offering a free copy of the magazine or a PDF file. I mean this American club started in ‘36, and it was mostly young girls. I don’t think they were called Bobby Soxers back then, but that’s what they were called in the 40s. You know, they just loved certain artists and formed fan clubs. They were just infatuated with the artists and our club kind of started that way too. But it evolved into something much more serious, it’s much more male-oriented now. And people, they’re true collectors, true lovers of music, and they just want to collect it all. It’s amazing. I collect the music, but people collect all sorts of memorabilia that they can find. Whatever they can find with his picture on it or old photographs, old magazines that devote themselves to Bing, whatever. It’s amazing what’s out there. Even ice cream brands, people still have boxes, empty boxes, I’m sure, of the ice cream. So they’re more enthusiastic about doing that than I am. I just want the music; it is my focus. I have a complete collection. He recorded over two thousand songs you know, I’ve got them all, plus a lot that he had only done on the radio or TV or whatever, live performances. So it adds up to a monstrous collection. I probably have close to one hundred Bing Crosby CDs out of my 3,000 disc collection, and they get played a lot.
Caryn: Interesting. So your collection is all on CD?
Perry: Yeah, I went from vinyl records to tape to CD and that’s as far as I can go. People say it’s better with mp3 and blah blah blah, all the streaming. I have too big a collection and I don’t have the time in my life to convert it now. Which is a problem. Cars no longer put a CD player in the car and I play CDs continually. If I jump in the car I pop a CD in. I have an old Sony Walkman and that’s what I take when I do my three mile walk every day and if those things collapse on me I’m dead in the water, so I just hope it holds up for a few more years and that I can buy one more new car that still has a CD player, then I’m happy.
Caryn: That’s the dream.
Perry: It’s just too late for me to make the transition to the new technology. I’m comfortable where I am.
Caryn: I think there’s something to be said about the physicality of a CD or tape or whatever it is. Having an object and having the liner notes, the booklet and everything.
Perry: Well, if they are commercially made, they have liner notes, yeah. In the old days we would buy albums that were 12 inches by 12 inches, so you could fill the back of an album cover with a lot of notes. And I thought, Boy, with a small CD, how do you do it? Well you do it with a booklet now. That works very nicely.
Caryn: Are there other celebrities or topics that you consider yourself to be a big fan of? Have you ever been part of other fan clubs?
Perry: Oh, I have a lot of interest. We have highway groups, right? Driving the old roads, interstates, that kind of thing. And I’m very active in the Jefferson Highway Association, which is an old route from Winnipeg all the way to New Orleans, or the Lincoln Highway Association from New York to San Francisco, and looking for remnants of the old highways— old motels and cafes, and so on, that are not the standard. Every exit now on the interstate has a McDonald’s or Burger King and KFC. No! The old mom and pop places are what we love! I’ve crisscrossed the country. All the US Highways from number one to 101, I want to go from the East Coast to the West Coast and from Canada to Mexico or the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve done them all. It takes a lot of years and a lot of miles, but it’s fun, and we have groups that thrive on that kind of thing. There’s all sorts of varying interests I have, but I think right now, music is what keeps me young. I love it. And I’m compulsive. I’m a completist, you know, when I like something, I want everything of it. When [I’m interested in] an artist, I want everything they ever did. I want to ride a highway, I want to ride it all. I’m just that way, so that’s why I have all Bing Crosby. I didn’t start out thinking I wanted all this stuff. It’s not all totally to my liking, because he did every type of music you can think of, but take it all together and it’s a wonderful panorama.
Caryn: Yeah, neat. What have you learned about Bing Crosby in the fan club that you don’t think you could have learned elsewhere?
Perry: I was focused primarily on the music, and I realized that many members of the club go far beyond that. Film was important to them. I was very casual about Bing Crosby’s movies. Now I have taken a much greater interest and there’s a historical value to it. You’re going back in time, you’re watching the evolution of an artist. That was big. His entertaining on the radio, which was mostly before my time… And I don’t care about their love affairs, marriages, and all that. But in Bing Crosby’s case, how instrumental he was for World War II, or how instrumental he was in the technology of pioneering tape. There was a lot of resistance to that when he did that. Kraft said, No, no, we have got to do the show live. He said, I’ll go to another network, and [so he went to] the Philco show, on a different network. Within two years, all networks fell into line and almost nothing was done live anymore. So those are fascinating things. Historically, quite a bit of interest, and that’s what you learn from interfacing with other people. Because they have their own focus, they can pick up on what they like and kind of run with it. It just broadens and deepens your interest. You kind of cling to each other after a while because not everybody out there enjoys what you do. So when you do you find a kindred spirit? Boy, it’s something a little bit special.
Caryn: So special! What do you think is the role of a fan club in 2021?
Perry: I have no idea if there are fan clubs today even comparable to what they were, because I don’t know the music scene today. I mean, music of today’s age, from really from the 60s on, I know nothing. I mean, I hear some of it, but I don’t care about it. I’m not an expert on it. But back in the pop music days, in the 50s, I can remember there were lots of fan clubs for different artists, mostly younger people. And it was just a form of adulation for the most part. Our fan club is more serious, but the intent is keeping the legacy alive. The number one thing they want to do is keep it alive. They want to publicize, for example, who Bing was– a really important guy and a wonderful singer, a wonderful entertainer, and spread the word. They want to get beyond the Christmas thing and say Hey, he’s good for all seasons.
I grew up on the cusp when rock just came in, you know. The biggest star of my high school senior year was Elvis Presley. And at that point I didn’t care a bit about Elvis Presley. Then, when the Beatles came a few years later, I went back in time and everybody else was moving forward. But the fan club serves the purpose by keeping the name alive. When Bing died, as opposed to when Frank Sinatra died, Bing’s family, his widow, couldn’t do much to keep that flame alive. Whereas the Sinatra people immediately took his name and capitalized on it, to keep it going, going going and twenty years ago. Oh my god, I could run around Chicago and there’s Frank Sinatra on jukeboxes— people are listening to him still, even when he’d been dead for years. That wasn’t so with Bing Crosby, and it was only much later that the estate finally realized they were missing the boat. There was a lot to capitalize on. Not that our club was the total instigator, but the fact that we existed and communicated with them and pushed the issues, I think that helped a lot. All of a sudden, they found archives that Bing had stored away. And they started making sure to do stuff with the public or they got a channel on the streaming audio systems, you know, so you can listen to Bing just like you can with Frank or Elvis. I think all that was a plus. So I think we served a little purpose. We’re here to publicize Bing Crosby and his work. To perpetuate that is our main interest in life and to enjoy it. I mean, whether it’s watching his old movies or putting on the records, in one form or another, that’s our purpose. To spread the joy, so to speak. That’s the main thing we care about.
Caryn: I know that there’s also been things written that have been pretty negative about parts of his life. I don’t necessarily expect you to speak to that, but I’m curious, what do you see a fan club’s role or a fan’s role when it comes to scandalous things or difficult issues in a person’s past?
Perry: Well, yeah, you know, like in Bing’s case, when he died in 1977, within a year, a pair of writers put out a book that absolutely tarnished, almost destroyed Bing’s reputation. The title of the book was, “The Hollow Man.” They were saying he wasn’t what the image of him was at all. They said he was terrible to his children, beat his children, blah, blah, blah, you know. And then his son, his oldest son wrote a book also and elaborated more on that. But he later retracted most of what he said. But those two books really were devastating to the image of Bing Crosby and I read those books and they just washed over me. I didn’t care what they said. I liked Bing for the talents he had and I didn’t care so much about his personal life. But I realized all of this was overstated, and Gary Giddins, the current biographer, has set the record straight on all that. But we do live in a different age today. My God, you know, I wasn’t beat with a strap, but I was sure spanked when I was a kid. Now you don’t even spank a child, let alone anything else. Times change. But I think Bing made up for it. He had a second family and all those kids idolized him, they kept the flame alive very nicely. But yeah, they’ve all grown up to be outstanding citizens as opposed to the four children from the first marriage. Two of them committed suicide, one turned into an alcoholic. It’s very sad to see it, but that’s the sordid side of his personal life. You know, every family has its bad side. Things became a little more public because of the two books that came out after he died. That very much hurt the image. People still refer to that, that he was a terrible father. Today they believe that because they read it once upon a time, and they don’t get dissuaded from it. None of which is true in my opinion. And I’m not an idolizer here, but I saw it for what it was.
Caryn: Okay, that’s interesting. You’re talking about all this information coming out and becoming public, whether or not it’s true about his life. How much information about a celebrity’s life do you feel like we’re entitled to as fans?
Perry: Well, you know, I think today, the internet age with all the cable channels and everything, people like to dig deeply. They go to the checkout counter in their store and see all the tabloid publications there that sensationalize everything. There’s a fair amount of the public that thrives on that. I can’t say that I do. Most of it is misinformation – and hyped up. But how many people are following Britney Spears’ problems, the conservatorship, and all that. I don’t, because Britney Spears means nothing to me. But there’s an element of our society that grew up with Britney. They thrive on all that stuff. I guess it’s been true throughout history. Except that it was a lot easier to hide more of that back in the day, you know, you didn’t have people on your back all the time and photographers chasing you around and all that kind of stuff. But it’s always been there. I pay little attention to it. I guess I could separate the talent the artist has versus their feelings. Elvis Presley for example, a wonderful artist, but my god there’s no reason for him to be dead at age 43. He let himself go and got bloated, got on pills, and whatever, this, that and the other thing, and it just crushed him. Does that change the image the public has? They still love him, they love him! You’re twenty?
Caryn: I’m 27.
Perry: You’re in a different musical world. And I wouldn’t expect you to know anything about the music of Bing Crosby. People almost my age don’t know more than White Christmas. They don’t remember all the big hits because they were too young.
Caryn: Yeah, I guess I know more about him as a performer, as an actor. One of my favorite movies is High Society, and I tell people about it all the time.
Perry: I have a son who is 45 and I brought him up listening to my music at a very young age. And he knew it, he would know Benny Goodman. He would know who Bing Crosby was or whatever. But by the time he was eight or nine he was drifting off into the world that he’s comfortable with and much to my chagrin, it’s heavy metal for him. Metallica, all those groups. We go out, I mean, I’ve been to some concerts with him and I walk out and I’m half deaf!
Caryn: Have you been to a Metallica concert?
Perry: No, I haven’t been. Not the biggest names, but more second tier groups. It was always puzzling to me to walk into an old movie theater and find all the seats have been ripped out. Nobody sits there. You’re just milling around, you could smell the marijuana in the background. But it’s loud. I could get a kick out of it just for the experience, but I’m not going to run out and go play the music on my own. Yeah, and even that music if it’s at a low decibel level in the background, it doesn’t bother me at all because when I go out to the bars, people are playing stuff on the music system. But if it gets too loud, if it gets in my way where I can’t have a conversation with somebody, I gotta get out. I can’t handle that. But my music was loud. Even my favorite big bands, they were loud. But they weren’t amplifying you know, they didn’t amp it up. Because, hey, the brass section can belt out that stuff! An amplified guitar can make a lot of noise. or a drummer that’s amplified. I can remember vividly when rock and roll first came in. I thought it would be gone in a year, because the year before it was the mambo craze and the mambo came and went. I thought rock and roll would do the same thing, and here I’m stuck with it the last 60 years. The early stuff I kind of enjoy, but I don’t care if I ever hear much of it. It bothered me when we’d go to a club with pounding music where you can’t talk. You can’t hear yourself talk and it’s all highly amplified guitars and a drummer. Oh, I got to hate that. Doesn’t anybody remember how to play the trumpet or trombone? But that’s me, and a lot of people my age feel the same way, I’m sure. You adapt to the times and you finally take it for granted.
Caryn: If someone was wanting to listen to some Bing Crosby or watch some Bing Crosby, what’s your number one recommendation? What’s the first thing they should watch or listen to?
Perry: I think there are two avenues. Number one: you can watch a film. Get a sense of him visually; I think that would be important. And a film like High Society would probably be an outstanding bet because it was a later picture, in color and very carefully staged, and if you got tired of Bing, you had Grace Kelly to look at. Or, go back earlier to get the comedy. I would advise them to watch one of the Bing Crosby Bob Hope Road pictures, specifically, The Road to Morocco. That would be a wonderful film. Considered the best. And they were a classic comedy team. But also musically, I would say to seek out a Best Of. The guy had 21 gold records, pretty good sellers. An album that comprises the best of those gives you a very good background of what he was about musically. If you like some of it better you can even veer off into different categories. I like the more swinging stuff. I like stuff where he’s backed by a bigger band, or a little bit jazz-oriented. That’s my cup of tea, but I can listen to it all. And of course, YouTube has all this stuff. I have been amazed at how I could fill out an artist’s repertoire by going on Youtube! I could find the songs that I didn’t actually physically have the record of. Having the toolkit of a computer, you can access all that stuff. It’s amazing. It’s all out there!
(1) The “Road” pictures were 7 comedy films starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby released between 1940 and 1962.
Caryn Aasness (they/them) has been club secretary in every club they have ever been a part of.
Perry Huntoon (he/him) is the American Vice President of The International Club Crosby.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program