Tag Archives: bing crosby


Train leaving San Francisco in 1949
Train leaving San Francisco in 1949

Every now and then, when I see images of old trains, I ask myself whether there is much interest in that form of travel anymore. Millions of children eagerly watch the television adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine, and some of them may see The Choo Choo Bob Show. On PBS, adults can view documentaries about iconic old routes like the Trans Siberian Express and the Durango narrow gauge mining network in Colorado. But the big excitement for most people relates to other forms of travel such as the space ships in the movie Star Wars, space capsules, and big airplanes like the Boeing 777. Even luxury cruise ships seem to attract more interest than trains.

But perhaps there are still people who appreciate old railroads. I hope so, because I want to talk about the role that trains have played in my life.

I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1943. I believe that my love of trains began even before I was born. In 1942, my father, then twenty one years old, was in his second year of service in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, working as an Operating Room Technician at the military hospital in Providence. At the time my mother was still in the East Bay Area of California, where the two of them had grown up, met, and married shortly before the start of the Second World War. When my mother became pregnant, the Navy paid for her and a friend to travel across the United States by train so that I could be born in my father’s presence. I have no conscious memory of that trip, but I am convinced that it was the experience that first made me love to travel by rail.

My mother and I lived in Providence with my father until he was assigned to be the entire medical department on a Navy destroyer that was directed to make its way south through the Panama Canal and then perform combat duty in the Pacific. Then for a while my mother and I lived in New York in the Bronx, where her father, recalled into the Navy, was imparting his experience as a gunnery officer to new recruits at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Shortly thereafter, unaccompanied except by me, my mother made her way back to the East Bay Area. I remember nothing about the trip. But I was told several times while growing up that a passenger on our transcontinental train was Bing Crosby. Insisting on no special treatment, he traveled on crowded troop trains just as my mother and I were doing. At one point my mother happened to be sitting across from him and introduced me. “Pleased to meet you, Gary,” Crosby said. “You know,” he added, “this is a special pleasure. I have a son named Gary.”

My next encounter with travel by rail occurred when I was eight years old. My mother, my five-year-old sister, and I were living in the Bay Area and my father was at sea on a Navy transport serving in the Korean War. We got word that his ship would be anchored for the summer of 1951 in San Diego Harbor and that it would be possible for the four of us to live together in San Diego during that time. My father came up to the Bay Area from San Diego to accompany us on the train trip south.

The Southern Pacific Lark, view in 1946
The Southern Pacific Lark, view in 1946

We put some of our belongings in storage, packed the rest in suitcases, and were driven to the railway station in Oakland by my mother’s parents. They waved goodbye to us as we boarded an enormous, chugging Southern Pacific passenger train, The Lark, to take us south. It is my first conscious memory of riding overnight in a rail passenger car — the lights passing by us outside the window of our safe compartment, the sounds of whistles and of bells at crossings, the constant rocking motion, the buttons and doors and secret spaces inside the compartment, the smell of fresh bed linen, and the certainty, whenever the porter answered our buzzer, that we were royalty.

Bedroom compartment
Bedroom compartment

For my sister and me, the summer in San Diego was hot and boring. I did enjoy some fascinating visits to my father’s ship and the harbor area. But otherwise I was anxious to leave.

Finally at the end of the summer we received news that we would be returning to the Bay Area where my father would be stationed at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. Within the week, we were on our way north. This time we went by plane. I had never flown before. The experience was an adventure. I even had the good luck to be invited into the cockpit and sit in the pilot’s lap and pretend I was steering. You would not be allowed to do that today. We were on Pacific Southwest Airlines, which had been founded by a World War II pilot and was only a couple of years old at the time. The owner happened to be acting as the co-pilot that day. He was fond of children and also knew how to please customers. But the most interesting thing to me about the flight, looking back, is that it did not enchant me the way my first train trip had.

After a few months at Mare Island, we got word that my father was being assigned to go north by ship to the Navy base in Bremerton on the west side of Puget Sound, where he would be serving at the large naval hospital. My mother, my sister and I would take the train north and move into the base housing that was being arranged for our family.

My mother’s parents, by that time relocated to the East Bay, drove us to the Southern Pacific station in Oakland where my mother, my sister and I boarded a train that went all the way east to Salt Lake City. There we transferred to the Northern Pacific line and made the rest of the journey to Seattle. The Southern Pacific train was sleek and modern. The Northern Pacific train was in good condition but very old in its decor, most noticeably in the dining car which had walls of brown wood, brass lamps on each table and red, cut glass chandeliers. This was my first encounter with fingerbowls. When the waiter put them on our table I thought they were rose-flavored cups of water for us to drink and I was lucky that my mother explained them to me in time.

Northern Pacific dining car
Northern Pacific dining car

The last and final train trip of my early boyhood was the return journey from Seattle to the Bay Area after we had lived in Bremerton for about two and one half years. From that time on there was no need for long distance family travel because my father was able to get tours of duty at various Navy installations in San Francisco and Oakland.

My next train trip was therefore voluntary. In 1959, when I was in the tenth grade at Berkeley High School, my best friend Steve and I got jobs selling souvenir programs on Saturdays during the UC-Berkeley football season. We were good at it. So, when the news swept the Bay Area that Cal’s great football team would be going to the Rose Bowl, the supervisor of program sales invited Steve and me to be part of the small group of high school students who could hawk our wares in Pasadena.

Steve’s parents arranged for us to stay with friends of his family in Los Angeles. Soon thereafter we were on board a Southern Pacific train heading south. The trip took about twelve hours. It went down the Central Valley, stopping at numerous farm towns with names I found exotic, like Tipton, Tulare and Cucamonga. During a long, flat portion of the trip we went through the southern portion of the San Joaquin Valley at speeds of ninety miles per hour. The track bed was old and seemed not to be in good repair. Our train vibrated precariously but gave us all a good adventure.

Vista Dome-style passenger cars
Vista Dome-style passenger cars

The train had a couple of Vista Dome cars, the kind that were always featured in ads in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines of the era. The cars provided the part of the trip that was the most fun. They were filled with UC Berkeley students and several young musicians. Most wore white wool sweaters decorated with blue and gold UC Berkeley insignia. Everybody sang the famous Cal drinking song: “California, California, the hills give off their cry, we’re out to do or die, California, California, we’ll win the game or know the reason why.” This is just a part of the lyrics. The whole song takes around ten minutes; longer if you are drunk. Many of the students drank beer as they sang. Steve and I ordered Coca Cola.

After the Rose Bowl and a few days with Steve’s family friends, it was time to take the train back to the Bay Area. This trip was quiet. Everybody was tired. I slept part of the way but also managed to catch up on reading for my high school World History class.

My next big train trip occurred in 1964. I spent the summer of that year in Washington DC as a college intern at The Pentagon, thanks to a wonderful, generous program called Stanford in Washington. At the end of the summer, I drove across the country to Mesa, Arizona, with a college friend who lived there, and then boarded a Santa Fe train to take me north to the East Bay. There was a flash flood in the desert along the way, adding three extra hours to our trip while the train proceeded slowly and cautiously at each large gulley. The high point of the journey was the conductor. He had taught himself the history of the area and told us fascinating stories as he stood at the front of the our car and pointed out sights.

My last experience with train travel as it used to be came in 1971, after I got my Ph.D. in History at Harvard and returned to the Bay Area to look for a job. Because I needed several months to find employment, I had a lot of spare time. I spent a great deal of it with a classmate from Stanford, Bill Moore, who was working as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Bill had grown up in Arizona and had numerous memories of old trains. He had flair and an amazing ability to attract groups of people for bizarre adventures. One of his favorite activities was to organize Bar Car Expeditions. We would board the southbound Southern Pacific train in Oakland, have many drinks and tell stories in the bar car, enjoys the views of the brown hills dotted with Live Oak trees, get off in Santa Barbara, wait twenty minutes, and then board the northbound SP train to take us back to Oakland. The scenery was gorgeous, the drinks were excellent, and the shared feeling of friendship was memorable.

That’s about it. After 1971, when I got my own car, there was little need to travel by train. And I didn’t really want to travel that way. The old passenger lines like the Southern Pacific, the Northern Pacific and the Santa Fe went out of business and were replaced by AMTRAK. I do ride on AMTRAK from time to time and I feel a stubborn form of nostalgia whenever I do so. But it isn’t the same.

California Zephyr at Christening, 1949
California Zephyr at Christening, 1949

While he was a reporter at the Chronicle, and before he became Managing Editor of the Sacramento Bee, Bill Moore won a prize for an article he wrote about the last run of the famous Western Pacific train the California Zephyr. I never had the pleasure of riding on the Zephyr, but I sometimes encounter it in my dreams.

The California Zephyr in its later years
The California Zephyr in its later years


Los Angeles-area freeway

(In this second post, the focus moves from northern to southern California, and the time shifts from 1961 to 1973 when I was looking for work after completing graduate school at Harvard, returning to California, and, because of the scarcity of job openings in academia, finding nothing promising up north. I didn’t locate suitable work in southern California, either, and I eventually went to Washington DC where I worked for several years thereafter.  But I did learn some fascinating things while I was in southern California, as the post explains.)


I thought I might find work in Los Angeles. I left Monterey County, where I had been living and working for three years after graduate school, and drove down south and stayed for a month with friends. The Los Angeles region was energetic and infinitely interesting.  I lived in Santa Ana with a friend, Robert, who was a professor of philosophy at one of the local colleges.  He, his wife, and two daughters, ages four and seven, lived in a quintessentially suburban house dating from the early 1950s. They were kind hosts and welcomed my stories, each evening at dinner, of the things that happened as I explored greater Los Angeles trying to decide whether it was the right place for me.

One of the things I wanted to do while in Los Angeles was to visit a few movie studios. I thought I might try to get a job as a screenwriter. This was an unrealistic goal, an example of the habit I had inherited from my migratory family, of thinking I could enter into any new world at any time.

The famous Hollywood sign

I reasoned that I ought to begin my quest with a tour of a movie studio. Some of the old lots, I discovered, were no longer around. For example, the old Twentieth Century Fox complex had been torn down and developed into the Century City real estate complex. The old MGM lot in Culver City was still there. It was almost abandoned, though, and not open to the public. The Paramount Studios, just a few blocks from the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine, was fully operational but did not offer tours to the general public. I stood outside its ornate, neo-Moorish entrance for several hours one day, taking in all the ceremonial comings and goings. A tour was available, and very widely advertised, at the big Universal City complex, a couple of valleys away from town. But, judging from the ads, the tour there would have been too mob-oriented for my tastes.

Warner Bros. Studios, Hollywood

The Right Fit

Fortunately, the old Warner Brothers studio, in Burbank, offered  just what I was looking for. Each tour group was limited to ten people, and you were assured that your guide would be someone who knew the movie business well. For my group, the guide was a longtime member of the studio staff who had once been the private secretary to Jack L. Warner. He was about forty years old, thin but muscular, of average height. He talked in a quick, animated manner and made lots of artistic flourishes with his hands. At the same time, he had what I thought was an overly formal manner. He wore black, heavy-brimmed glasses and a green blazer with a tie. He must have been uncomfortable in the outfit in the summer heat. He seemed proud that the Warner Brothers tour was more reflective than the ones given by other studios, and yet he could not quite attain the scholarly demeanor, or even the mannerisms of a movie critic, that he was striving for.

Our tour began at the main entrance – a neo-Spanish, stucco, tan colored gateway with red tile roofs and porter’s lodges on each side. The gate was beautifully situated under a grove of palm and eucalyptus trees that cast their dappled shadows over the area and cooled the air. Across the small, quiet street there was a tiny group of old storefronts. One was the first stop on the tour. Supposedly it was the pharmacy with the soda fountain where Lana Turner had been discovered while wearing a tight sweater and sipping a cold drink. The overt sexuality of the story was so appealing that we all wanted to believe it whether it was true or not.

From the drug store we went onto the studio grounds and toured a couple of sound stages. They looked like big hangars for airplanes. Inside, we saw a courtroom set where Ben Gazzara was starring in a made for television film about persecution of Jews in the Second World War. In another studio we walked through a set that was an elaborate replica of the interior of a Japanese thermal bath and health club. The set was made of fragile plaster of paris and papier mache, but it was visually convincing. Robert Mitchum was scheduled to act there in a few days in the concluding, very violent scenes of The Yakuza, a movie about gangsters in Tokyo. The scenes to be filmed were so violent that the Japanese government had refused to let them be made in Japan. The set was going to be demolished as soon as filming was concluded. I was startled by the way a place could be copied on demand – placelessly, as it were – with no regard for permanence or actual location.


I experienced the same shock when we left the sound stages and went out to the back lot. We passed through an area of scruffy bushes, trees, and bamboo, called “The Jungle,” which served as the all purpose locale for movies about exploring in Africa, war in the Pacific, and gunfights in the American West.

Depending on camera angles and adjustments to the vegetation, “The Jungle” could be made to seem to be all these things. Not too far away, we came upon a set that was, our guide told us, the exterior of the house made famous by the TV series “The Waltons,” about a closely knit farm family in Virginia in the 1930s. The house had no interior and only one side: the front. All the interior scenes were done on sound stages. The voiceovers by the narrator, in his rich, archaic, very local Virginia accent and phrasing, were recorded separately. And not too far away from the Walton’s house we found ourselves at an outdoor set that was a copy of a street in an American city of the 1920s. In the middle of the block was the façade of a movie theater that, we all suddenly realized, we had seen in many films, ranging from “Al Capone” to “Give My Regards to Broadway.” The feeling of disorientation was even greater by the time we left the outdoor sets and went into a big building that was a prop warehouse. Here, our guide showed us a room that contained several hundred chandeliers. Some were on the floor in boxes; some were on big shelves; many were hanging close to each other from the ceiling. Our guide pointed to one of the chandeliers that had been in several Bette Davis movies and had also been part of the room décor in some of those war movies where Nazis are always taking over tastefully decorated European mansions.

Hollywood Everywhere

Hollywood had a way of permeating everything in Los Angeles. I saw this vividly one Saturday when my friend Robert, the college professor, invited me to go with him to visit his father, who lived about an hour’s drive east of Santa Ana near Riverside. Bob’s wife and children stayed home. They had been out to see Bob’s father just a few weeks before, and saw no need to make the trip as often as Bob. We got in Bob’s old Volkswagen van and drove out to Riverside. We kept the windows open as we drove to prevent asphyxiation. Bob did not have much money and had not yet replaced the broken muffler. In Riverside, I was surprised to find that we did not stop in the downtown area or even in one of the suburbs. We continued east and were probably beyond the city limits although still in Riverside County. We were almost as far east as the beginning of the desert. The topography was hilly, strewn with boulders of all sizes. The ground was very dry and there were few trees. Most of the vegetation was cactus and mesquite. The landscape was purgatorial. I realized I had seen it as the background in hundreds of Hollywood westerns.

Postcard view of Riverside farmland and nearby mountains, c. 1910

Knowing I would have questions, Bob explained a bit about his upbringing. His father, who was Irish, had married a Mexican woman, Bob’s mother, who was deceased. Bob had been raised on the outskirts of the city of Riverside and had been educated in the public school system. He was bright and won a scholarship that started him on his way through the University of California all the way to his Ph.D. in Philosophy. His parents respected education but had little formal schooling. Bob’s father was an itinerant mechanic, carpenter, and ranch hand. The father could not have afforded to pay Bob’s way through college. After the death of his wife, and with his son securely in college, Bob’s father moved farther away from the city. He was still able to earn a living. But, Bob explained, it was just a matter of time before Bob and his family would have to take the father in.

Turning off the paved, two lane, county highway, we made our way up a dusty, winding road and parked near a complex of about ten mobile homes that rested, weather-beaten, on a low, small mesa that was surrounded by boulders. I felt as if I had come upon a tenuously constructed community – the kind that renegades would create. We went into one of the mobile homes and I was introduced to Bob’s father. He was a short, wiry man with skin so tanned and wrinkled that he looked like a Native American. His movements were quick and agile. His eyes were alert. His voice was strong and animated. He had obviously lived an intense life, but did not look aged enough to be Bob’s father. He did, however, look as if he had spent his bodily capital rashly – on cigarettes, alcohol, and fistfights.

For the next couple of hours, the three of us drank beer and talked. Bob’s father was an intelligent listener and questioner. He was soon up to date on his son’s activities and also learned a great deal about me. We didn’t need to ask questions to learn about him. He loved to tell stories and launched into them with no prompting. There were stories about the hippies who had recently moved into the two trailers at the top of the hill. There was a story about an escaped prisoner, hiding in one of the trailers, who had been caught recently. The longest story — oddly and yet not so oddly — had to do with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. In the 1930s and 1940s, apparently, there had been a Mexican bar a few miles down the road where the two celebrities used to go when they wanted to take a break from shooting their movies scenes. Few people at the bar ever recognized them, and there were no reporters around. Hope and Crosby could say “fuck” as often as they wanted to, and get drunk and play cards. As I listened to the stories Bob’s father told, I decided that I had wandered into some kind of weird Catholic morality play. Hope and Crosby, pursuing their profession as purveyors of fantasy in Hollywood, had discovered this locale in the desert – a place that seemed so unreal to me – and had come to it again and again for the chance to let off steam and get away from the constrictions of the roles that Hollywood required them to play.

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in Road to Bali, 1952