Unraveling a mystery: Where is Bing Crosby's storied denim tux?
Updated 11:06 pm, Sunday, August 17, 2014 By Evan Sernoffsky
Carolyn Schneider's quest to track down an unusual tuxedo that belonged to her uncle - the legendary Bing Crosby - has become a hobby bordering on an obsession.
In a dossier in her Las Vegas home are documents, photos, newspaper clippings and other evidence, clues in a puzzle she has been putting together over the past decade.
"I guess I watch a lot of murder mysteries or something," she said. "It's kind of a detective story."
At the heart of the story is a one-of-a-kind piece of clothing with a singular backstory - a double-breasted denim tuxedo jacket that Levi Strauss and Co. gave Crosby in 1951 to right a wrong.
Schneider's search for the suit, and her certification by Levi's as a forensic expert on the garment, are a tribute to a man with whom she feels deeply connected.
She knows that she may never locate it. But Schneider hopes her exhaustive investigation will at least iron out what she sees as rampant wrinkles of misinformation.
"I've met some very interesting people and heard some very interesting stories," she said. "But I want the truth - the truth of the jacket."
Schneider, who declined to reveal her age, grew up in Alameda and went to San Jose State on Crosby's dime. After graduating, she lived with him in Los Angeles, while briefly considering a career in acting.
Her affection for her uncle inspired her to write "Me and Uncle Bing," a book published in 2002 that details growing up knowing the celebrated crooner and actor.
But it wasn't until 10 years ago - well after Crosby's death in 1977 - that Schneider set her sights on the tuxedo.
In doing so, she dug into how her uncle got the jacket, a story that went viral decades before the Internet and endures as part of Levi's folklore.
Legend has it that sometime in early 1951 - when Crosby's fame was at an all-time high - he and a friend were on a fishing trip near Vancouver, British Columbia.
When the two went to get a room at a local hotel, they were turned away because Crosby, whom the clerk didn't recognize, was wearing a dingy denim jacket.
The hotel manager, though, spotted the star, apologized and offered a room.
The tale traveled all the way to San Francisco, prompting Levi's to make the singer a custom, Western-style, double-breasted denim tuxedo jacket, complete with a riveted boutonniere, made from the iconic red tabs that flag the back of Levi's jeans.
It was a statement by the company that denim could be appropriate for any occasion.
On June 30, 1951, local dignitaries presented Crosby with the jacket at the Silver State Stampede, a rodeo in Elko, Nev.
"As Bing's career and fame grew, he became interested in property, especially ranch property," Schneider said. "Once Bing bought those ranches, he became involved with the community. He was considered a friendly fellow rancher."
Crosby was so well-liked in the small cattle town that he had been made honorary mayor and presented a key to the city in 1948.
At the rodeo, Elko's mayor, Dave Dotta, also got a jacket from Levi's. On the inside of each tux was an oversize leather patch signed by the president of the American Hotel Association.
The patch was a "notice to hotel men everywhere," which entitled the wearer "to be duly received and registered with cordial hospitality at any time and under any conditions."
The event was a publicist's dream.
Soon the story - along with pictures of Crosby wearing the jacket - was printed in newspapers around the country.
Paramount Pictures was set to release the star's newest film, "Here Comes the Groom," and executives jumped at the chance to parlay the press into promotion.
A month later, the film premiered at the Hunter Theater in Elko, and standing proudly out front was Crosby in his denim tux. After the premiere, though, the jacket disappeared.
But as the picture opened in other cities around the country, Levi's urged its retailers to exploit the story by sending them promotional window displays with replica tuxedo jackets, each with the leather patch that said, "Presented to Bing Crosby."
The jackets, Schneider said, were supposed to be shipped back to Levi's, but few were.
Over the years, she said, the replicas circulated around the world - one traveling to Japan and another to England. She ended up with one herself.
The sad truth
Many owners knew the story about Crosby and the Vancouver hotel, and after looking at the patch figured they had his jacket. At the time, few understood there were replicas.
Schneider's job has been to break their hearts.
She said she could pick the real jacket out of a lineup of look-alikes - and was even ordained as an expert by a former Levi's historian.
"Mrs. Schneider is eminently qualified to examine any Bing Crosby tuxedo jacket and determine its authenticity," reads a letter given to her by Levi's.
But Schneider won't say how exactly she can identify her uncle's jacket, explaining that she fears someone might alter it. Several replicas have been auctioned on eBay for thousands of dollars.
So far, Schneider has contacted more than a dozen people with jackets, including a museum in Elko that has the original tuxedo given to Dave Dotta.
As part of her investigation, she either tries to see a jacket in person or asks the owner to send her detailed photos of the front, back and inside.
"I would love for you to have Bing's jacket, but what you have is a replica," Schneider recently told Rex Allen Jr., son of famed Arizona singing cowboy Rex Allen.
"Generally speaking, the owners are not happy to hear from me," she said, "because they love Bing."
One such fan and jacket owner is troubadour and cowboy folk hero Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who lives in Nicasio in Marin County and turned 83 this month.
"I've always been utterly charmed by (Crosby's) rather relaxed way of wording and singing his songs," Elliott said. "It sort of makes you want to tap your foot and smile."
Elliott was given his jacket as a present from a friend who used to deal antiques. In 1995, he wore it to perform at the Grammys in Los Angeles, where he accepted the award for best traditional folk album.
'It looked splendid'
"It looked splendid and it used to fit me. Now it's a little tight on me," he said. "Its made out of old-fashioned, tough, thick denim the cowboys used to wear."
Schneider spoke briefly on the phone with Elliott a number of years ago, and asked for pictures of the coat - but he never sent her any. For all she knows, he might have her uncle's original denim tux.
This year, Levi's reissued the jacket with a limited run of replicas. A display set up at Levi's headquarters in San Francisco mimics the Silver State Stampede stage where Crosby was first presented with his jacket.
Schneider hopes her search ends soon - so she can track down her uncle's famous jacket before more people come out of the woodwork falsely claiming to have the original.
She is adamant that she has no interest in possessing the tux. She simply wants to set the record straight, and she clearly takes pleasure and comfort from the adventure.
Schneider hopes whoever has the jacket is taking good care of it.
"It's become," she said, "kind of a holy grail for me."
Evan Sernoffsky is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @EvanSernoffsky