The most famous musician to graduate from Gonzaga left quite the shadow. Bing Crosby ruled the recording industry, movies, television and radio for the better part of three decades. He had more hit songs than Elvis, the Beatles and Michael Jackson combined.
Not bad for a small Jesuit university that once was more likely to teach an aspiring music student how to run a church choir than how to record a chart-topping song with David Bowie or win an Academy Award. Crosby likely wouldn’t recognize Gonzaga’s music department nowadays. And not just because of its new state-of-the-art performing arts center or that it now has one of the nation’s most-recognized basketball pep bands.
What might surprise him the most is the Gonzaga music department’s nearly 700 students enrolled in classes or participating in ensembles or choirs is basically what the university’s total enrollment was when he was roaming the campus in the early 1920s.
Despite the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center being one of the newest and most sophisticated theaters on any college campus in the nation, few in Spokane have seen a show there or even heard of it. Blame COVID-19 on that.
Right as the 755-seat theater opened, the rest of the world shut down. Along with classrooms and a small museum that explains the life of Woldson, it also includes a 168-seat recital hall – as well as some of the best views of the campus of any building at Gonzaga.
On the western edge of the Gonzaga University campus, near the Jundt Art Museum and St. Aloysius Church, the new theater cost more than $30 million to build. To put that in perspective, the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center cost $25 million when it opened in 2004.
Gonzaga music department chair Peter J. Hamlin said the performing arts center is a perfect fit with the university’s mission by being “interdisciplinary by design, and openly encouraging the consecutiveness of the arts.” Just as the Kennel is a huge part of the recruiting draw for the nation’s best basketball players, the theater does the same thing for students who want to keep music in their lives.
“Who wouldn’t want to play or sing or dance in a place that beautiful?” he asked.
The university’s main music building is elegant in a different way than the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center. It’s a mansion, originally built in 1901 by the Monaghan family. But Gonzaga students are much more likely to call it the Music Mansion. The three-story, 14-room, 7,000-square-feet building has been the home of the university’s music department since 1939.
Despite its character, it hasn’t always been the most comfortable place for a music department. Large ensembles used to practice in the old home’s attic, which is now being used to house the university’s sheet music collection.
As the department has grown through the years, expanding to other buildings across campus, the mansion is primarily used for offices, but it’s not unusual to hear music from its rooms.
The university’s glee club was once so well-known that it wasn’t unusual to hear them on national radio programs or even see them tour. Crosby was known to come back to Spokane to perform with them, or have them on his nationally syndicated radio show that was recorded in Hollywood.
Like lots of things that go in and out of style, the school’s glee club disappeared from the campus. But, Hamlin said as the university’s chair program began to grow again, it was decided to formally bring the glee club back six years ago.
The university’s glee club is made up tenors and basses from across the campus, regardless of whether the student is enrolled in the music program or not. The ensemble, with music spanning from barbershop to pop to a cappella, performs across campus, most notably for the Zag Family Weekend and the Candlelight Christmas Concerts.
The Bulldog Band, which provides the soundtrack for GU men’s and women’s basketball, has become one of the university’s most recognized music programs. That’s what happens when your band is on ESPN almost weekly in the winter and early spring.
The Bulldog also is unlike most collegiate pep bands because of how the music and athletic departments work together to make it happen. The band doesn’t have auditions and its nearly 100 members are all volunteers, who get no academic credit for being in the group. Hamlin said the band doesn’t even have a set size because the athletic department will expand the seating for the group regardless of its size.
Members of the band don’t need to be a part of the university’s music department and often aren’t.
That doesn’t mean the members lack commitment. “The students here are so service-oriented,” Hamlin said. “They truly do want to better the place they live and celebrate the place they live. With a tradition like that, it’s the inclusivity of our music programs that makes them so special.”