They were the original song and dance men of the outdoors: one a movie personality, raconteur and legendary imbiber; the other a master crooner, Academy Award-winning actor with a wit drier than Death Valley. Each an original, each made in America.
Phil Harris was from Indiana. He could make you laugh on sight. Often wearing a headband, which in those days was a symbol of rebellion, and sometimes a black state trooper's jacket, which was not, Harris walked the high wire separating good and bad taste like a Wallenda. But whatever he said or did, it was styled with so much charm that only a novitiate could find fault.
Crosby, from Tacoma, Washington, was his straight man — quiet, dignified and blessed with a voice made by a celestial florist. Bing's honeyed tones complemented perfectly the gravel-bed that ran through Phil's throat. When they sang together, Vaudeville was reborn — comical, lyrical and touching.
Once a year we held a reunion on the 'American Sportsman' television series. Cameras and good times rolled as we followed bird dogs across sun-burnished fields and flying fish across golden oceans. We were adult children let loose with fly rods and shotguns in Nature's favorite playgrounds. Hunting and fishing were our excuse to join laughter and memory.
We'd plan the trips months in advance. Each was busy with family and career. But somehow we always found a free week, each juggling dates to keep our rendezvous. Each day, no matter what the weather, a warming trend developed in each of us. Phil insisted on spiritual fortification against the elements.
Phil drank whiskey like Picasso painted, which was all the time. Yet his constitution compared in strength and clarity — if not in humor — with the one written by our forefathers. Never, to my knowledge, did he fumble a line or a glass; and when he swung a 20-gauge on a bird he was world class.
"These get-togethers are among my favorites times," Bing once told me. "I love that guy (Harris). His approach to life is so right — never sweat the small stuff."
Crosby and Harris appeared on the 'American Sportsman' 16 straight years. It was for outdoor fans a ritual no less anticipated than Bing's annual Christmas show on NBC-TV was by the rest of America. When they came on 'The Sportsman,' hunters and fisherman would stop whatever they were doing, sit down and be lifted by the routine of Mister Crosby and Mister Harris.
In the middle of a hunt, they might break into their act. It was drawn straight out of a Minstrel show:
"Oh, Mister Crosby?"
"Is that you, Mister Harris?"
"Indeed it is, Mister Crosby, and how is your day going?"
"Poorly, Mister Harris."
"Oh really, and why is that, Mister Crosby?"
"I forgot my socks, Mister Harris, and my feet are turning blue."
And sure enough, the camera would pan down to Bing's boots and bare ankles, whereupon a chuckling Mister Harris would offer Mister Crosby something liquid to warm his toes.
They're both gone now, and with their passing we lost a strand of magic. Crosby died on a golf course — his second favorite place to be.
Once, I called Phil's wife, actress Alice Faye, who lived in Palm Springs, and asked if she knew where I might reach the man. She answered that she hadn't a clue. "But when you finally get hold of him," she said with a lilt in her voice, "tell him for me to straighten up and fly right." Harris passed away in his sleep. I hope he was dreaming of white-winged doves dipping and dodging against a blue desert sky.
CITGO's In Search of Flywater will return to ESPN2 in January 2002. A new Curt Gowdy memory appears in this space every other week.