RENO - Bing Crosby lassoed the hearts of locals as the proud owner of seven ranches around Elko at the height of his entertainment career in the 1940s and '50s.
The golden-throated crooner best known for "White Christmas" was named Elko's honorary mayor in 1948. He donated thousands of dollars to local causes and gave occasional free performances. He put Elko on the map by having the city host the 1951 world premiere of the movie, "Here Comes the Groom," in which he starred.
Thirty years after his death, angry family members and friends are accusing Elko's Northeastern Nevada Museum of showing disrespect to his legacy by drastically scaling back its Crosby exhibit. They're trying to prod museum officials to reverse the decision.
Crosby niece Carolyn Schneider, of Las Vegas, said the museum had featured the second largest public Crosby memorabilia collection in the country until it was dismantled this past summer. Gonzaga University in Crosby's hometown of Spokane, Wash., has the largest.
While Crosby's widow Kathryn Crosby, 74, did not wish to publicly comment, she privately expressed disappointment over the museum's action, Schneider said.
"To take that away from him is very unfair. It diminishes his show business career and importance to Elko and Elko County," said Schneider, author of "Me and Uncle Bing."
Hobie Wilson, president of the Bing's Friends and Collectors Society based in Petaluma, Calif., said the museum's move was insulting.
"(It) was a slap in the face to Crosby fans all over the world. It's like they're sitting on the man's grave," he said.
Museum Director Claudia Wines acknowledges Crosby's contributions to the mining and ranching town about 300 miles east of Reno. But she said the museum's mission is to showcase items from the region, and she won't reconsider the decision in which only memorabilia from Crosby's Elko days is now displayed.
The museum expanded its Crosby exhibit after Schneider in 2004 donated about 30 items unrelated to his time in Elko, Wines said. Included were photos of Crosby's home in Pebble Beach, Calif., a set of monogrammed bed linens, sheet music, record albums, Christmas cards and newspaper articles.
A new Crosby exhibit, which opened earlier this fall, is about one-quarter the size of the old exhibit, Wines said. It includes photos of Crosby taken around Elko, a branding iron from one of his ranches, a trophy he donated to a local rodeo and a denim tuxedo said to have been presented to Crosby.
"It's not like the rest of his life is being ignored. There are other places that tell the rest of the story," Wines said.
"In retrospect, we shouldn't have gone to the bigger exhibit. It wasn't the smart thing to do because it went against our mission of telling the story about northeastern Nevada."
Kathleen Oldham Taylor, 69, a member of a longtime Elko County ranching family, said she supports the museum's decision to display only Crosby memorabilia related to Nevada. Her father, a Realtor, became a close Crosby friend after selling ranches to the entertainer.
"Bing sang me to sleep many a night, and was such a fine man," Taylor said. "He enjoyed his privacy and laid-back life out here, and he would be as embarrassed as hell over this. He wouldn't think it's a big deal what the museum has done."
Nevada state Archivist Guy Rocha said donor relations are important for museums, and a key lesson of the dustup is not to build up donors' expectations too high.
"In their exuberance, they accepted more donations than they could use and promised more than they could deliver," Rocha said. "It really cost (the museum) a PR black eye."
Crosby was one of the most popular entertainers of the 20th century, a huge star on stage, radio, movies and television. His recording of "White Christmas" was for decades the biggest selling single of all time. He won the 1944 Best Actor Oscar for "Going My Way."
He became a familiar sight on the streets of Elko, wearing faded blue jeans and straw hat, while he owned a succession of ranches around Elko from 1943 to 1958.
The town was an escape from the pressures of Hollywood for Crosby, who enjoyed ranching, fishing and hunting, Schneider said. And he appreciated that the locals treated him as a "regular guy."
Crosby visited Nevada each summer with his four sons by marriage to his first wife, Dixie Lee, and paid them cowhand wages to work on the ranches, she said.
"He wanted to teach them the value of hard work so they wouldn't grow up to be spoiled Hollywood brats," Schneider said, adding he sold the ranches off after his sons expressed no interest in continuing the operations.
Dixie Lee died in 1952; all four sons also have since died. Crosby died at age 74 on a golf course in Spain in October 1977.
Despite an agreement signed by Schneider relinquishing control of the donated items, the museum board decided to return them to her, Wines said.
The exhibit has been moved from a back room to the museum's main gallery where more people will be able to see it, Wines said.
"We know Bing Crosby was very important to Elko County and put us on the map for a while," Wines said. "It's a fine exhibit and everybody should be happy."