Apart from his obvious connection to Christmas, Bing Crosby may be best remembered today for his appearances in TV commercials for Minute Maid orange juice in the 1960s and 1970s. But that obscures not only an unsurpassed career in music, film, and radio, but also an impressive television track record.
In fact, Bing was relatively active on the tube during the last 23 years of his life—though he was considered a latecomer to the medium when it was in its infancy. Bing made only a handful of guest appearances in America’s living rooms before unveiling his first television special on January 3, 1954—a modest, measured, filmed half-hour with bankable special guest star (and, by that time, relative veteran of the small screen) Jack Benny. A handful of guest spots and specials followed, and in 1956 Bing starred with Julie Andrews in the first made-for-TV movie, Maxwell Anderson’s High Tor.
Bing didn’t care for live television, so his first two specials were actually filmed at Paramount on the very soundstages where he made his films. Only with the advent of videotape did he begin to appear regularly on television. (Bing’s Edsel Show special became the first network show broadcast on videotape on October 13, 1957.)
The musical-variety special suited vaudeville veteran Bing, and he would make a handful of them nearly every year until he died, save for a stretch in the 1960s during which he was a semi-regular host of The Hollywood Palace – ABC’s answer to CBS’s ever popular Ed Sullivan Show.
Bing hosted The Hollywood Palace 32 times between 1964 and 1970. Bing also made a brief excursion into the world of sitcoms with The Bing Crosby Show in the fall of 1964.
Bing’s specials were the ultimate in “comfort television,” with Bing’s relaxed, mellifluous intonations seeming to reassure viewers that, despite cold wars, hot wars, inflation, and scandal, everything would be OK.
As was the case with his radio shows of the 1930s through the 1950s, Bing’s TV guests were among the brightest stars of the day, including Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney
, Dean Martin
, Perry Como, Peggy Lee
, James Garner, The Smothers Brothers, Mary Martin
, André Previn, The Supremes, Robert Goulet, Flip Wilson, Michael Landon, Carol Burnett
, Roy Clark, Jackie Gleason, Maurice Chevalier
, Fred Astaire, a young Bernadette Peters, and Bing’s perennial buddy, Bob Hope.
Bing was also a guest on numerous television programs from the late 1940s through the 1970s, including Frank Sinatra specials, Bob Hope specials, fundraising telethons, talk shows (The Mike Douglas Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), comedy and variety shows (Laugh-In, The Carol Burnett Show) and as a “regular guy”, hunting and fishing with his friends Curt Gowdy and Phil Harris, on The American Sportsman. He also was a guest on a number of British talk shows between 1975 and 1977 when he was once again doing live concerts. His presence as an on-air color commentator for the Bing Crosby Pro-Am helped make it one of the most watched golf tournaments ever televised.
Beginning with appearances alongside their father on The Hollywood Palace Christmas programs—which were naturally reserved for Bing to host—America watched the Crosby children, Harry, Mary Frances and Nathaniel, grow up, and by the 1970s the Crosby family’s annual Christmas specials became staples of family viewing.
These would culminate with something of a milestone in the 1977 entry, when Bing performed a memorable duet of “Peace on Earth”/ “The Little Drummer Boy” with the unlikeliest of singing partners, rocker David Bowie. Thus, a whole new generation of television viewers would remember Bing as the forward-looking septuagenarian who shared microphone and spotlight with the cutting edge of rock music’s 1970s elite.