Bob Hope started as a vaudeville dancer and comic, and became the 20th century's greatest entertainer.
By STEVE PERSALL
Published May 29, 2003
[AP photo 1970]
Hope entertains the troops at Cu Chu, 20 miles northwest of Saigon, during the Vietnam War. Hope spent about half a century entertaining troops, from World War II to the Persian Gulf War.
[AP photo 1943]
Five years after his big Hollywood break in The Big Broadcast of 1938 (in which he first sang Thanks for the Memory), Bob Hope was a major star.
A generation of Americans has grown up without Hope.
Bob Hope, that is.
Think about it. Anyone younger than 25 may wonder what all the fuss is about today, when the world celebrates the comedian's 100th birthday. Coincidentally, 25 is just about the oldest demographic that modern show-biz types aim to please.
Hope hasn't appeared in a feature film since a 1979 cameo in The Muppet Movie. Two years later marked his last original television special. Each TV appearance since then (except the creaky 1986 movie of the week A Masterpiece of Murder) has focused on archival footage of Hope's heyday, a source of nostalgia without much meaning for audiences that believe Robin Williams is still pretty funny for an old guy.
Baby boomers and their parents know better.
We remember times before cable television, when three networks controlled the airwaves and Hope was NBC's diamond performer. We recall how Hope's USO shows for military troops, done over a half-century, from World War II to the Persian Gulf War, brought a temporary reprieve from soldiers' danger and the home front's worry about the troops. We think back to a performer making his amiable craft look so easy that perhaps we could do it, too.
Nothing is easy for Hope these days. One hundred years of romancing the world takes a lot out of anyone. I've seen him in person twice, regrettably long after his peak.
At a Ruth Eckerd Hall performance in 1992, Hope constantly needed prompting by his musical director about the next anecdote he wanted to tell or ones left unfinished when his mind rambled. Four years later, Hope rode a golf cart in Disney World's 25th anniversary parade but only for a short stretch of Main Street U.S.A., where television cameras rolled.
After Hope passed the viewing platform, his golf cart was steered to a back lot. I followed with a camera, hoping to get a candid photograph of an entertainment legend. The pale, frail man being cautiously assisted looked nothing like the vibrant celebrity who had been waving to the crowd two minutes before. My camera never clicked. No thanks for that memory.
I would prefer to remember Hope romping through Singapore, Bali, Morocco and Hong Kong (at least Hollywood's soundstage versions) with Bing Crosby. I want to think of Hope's gingerly walk on the 18th green at his eponymous golf tournament, wisecracking with jocks and celebrities. I want to recall his vaguely smug smile when monologue jokes clicked and his feigned offense when they didn't. I want to remember a patriot who seldom seemed pushy about it, who showed his stars and stripes with winking satire and sincere actions.
That's what we should all remember today. Or what some younger Americans should learn.
Bob Hope was born on this date in 1903, the year Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the airplane.
Almost as if the Wright brothers knew how much Hope would need one.
By all estimates, Hope has logged enough air travel miles in his remarkable career to get to the moon and back. Eight times. That's a lot of lost luggage, as Hope would say, patiently awaiting the laughter, his eyes scanning the room to see if everyone got the joke.
Everyone usually did, from pampered Academy Awards audiences to troops sweltering in the jungles of Vietnam. Hope traveled where U.S. presidents couldn't, to Russia before the Cold War thawed and China when it was red. And he probably did more good for international relations with those nations than most politicians. In the era of The Bomb, Hope never bombed as America's ambassador, the comedian-in-chief.
All the world was Hope's stage, and the rest of us wanted front-row tickets.
Sofas in front of the television set were the closest most fans got. And that was good enough, because Hope's astounding 61-year collaboration with NBC brought hundreds of the comedian's favorite people and places into our homes.
Christmas wasn't complete without Ol' Ski Nose in a Santa suit singing carols with Jill St. John or some other dish of the day. No college football season was complete without Hope wisecracking introductions to the All-America team. If a movie was hot at the box office, Hope would spoof it. If a politician got huffy, Hope was there to deflate him. Wars didn't stop Hope; he just grabbed his fatigues, a golf club and Miss America, and headed to Southeast Asia or the Persian Gulf, or in times of peace, a military base, to remind us that troops were still out there protecting us.
Although a registered Republican, scandals such as Watergate only inspired his bipartisan wit. Punch lines about questionable Washington politics were interchangeable among administrations. Ten U.S. presidents took Hope's jabs, then invited him to the White House because they knew he had a point, and a constituency.
"I know they like the jokes I've done about them," Hope quipped in 1975. "The tax man told me when he came to take away my garage."
Not that Hope's humor is timeless. A recent DVD viewing of The Ultimate Bob Hope Collection, more than six hours of vintage Hope television specials, showed that much of his humor is hopelessly dated.
Gags about former New York City Mayor Abe Beame and WIN buttons are years beyond obscurity. The constant parade of women as sex objects is passe. Some skits are downright embarrassing when viewed through 21st century eyes, such as the All in the Family spoof in which John Wayne played a cowboy Archie Bunker railing against his son (Hope) marrying a "redskin." Similar stereotypes in skits of Asians, African-Americans and senior citizens are evidence more of how far the art of humor has advanced than of what Hope contributed to it.
Nor was Hope's humor especially original, clinging to vaudevillian mechanics of setup, punch line and bring on the girls. Hope got more mileage from running gags than anyone in the history of comedy: never winning an Oscar for acting (although he has five honorary awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), flirting with beautiful women in vain and a severe aversion to bravery. He couldn't resist other comedians' running gags, either: comparing noses with Jimmy Durante and Danny Thomas, calling Jack Benny cheap and accusing Milton Berle of stealing jokes.
Let's be honest. I've never heard a successful standup comedian in the past quarter-century cite Hope as a stylistic influence. Lenny Bruce? Sure. George Carlin and Bill Cosby? Absolutely. But Bob Hope, with his obvious cue-card readings and redundant wit? No.
Perhaps no modern comedian would want to do Hope's material, but they might love to have his life: married to the same woman for 69 years, wealthy beyond words and internationally cherished as a fun personality, if not a classically funny person.
Today's comedians would love to have his connections. Hope was the only person Johnny Carson allowed on the Tonight Show uninvited, any time he wanted to appear. Hope had the entertainment and sports communities on constant call; he was able to talk tough guys such as Lee Marvin, Joe Namath and Steve McQueen into playing goofy or convince Lucille Ball to recount her embarrassing audition for the Scarlett O'Hara role in Gone With the Wind. If he were physically able (and commercially viable) today, Hope might be nuzzling up to Britney Spears for a duet or spoofing The Matrix with Keanu Reeves.
Never again will any television performer attract such a game galaxy of stars and be so generous with the spotlight as Hope. He wasn't the funniest comedian or a great singer or even a passable actor, but he did a little bit of everything well enough, and long enough, to be regarded as the top entertainer of the 20th century.
New century, different entertainment tastes. Bob Hope's career could never last in 2003, nor would he wish that.
Comedy has a harder, cynical edge these days, much coarser than Hope would endorse. Celebrities are generally too cautious about their images to spoof themselves before a national TV audience. Entertaining soldiers overseas is taken as a political statement, not a patriotic act. Racial and sexual stereotypes aren't funny anymore. Political humor now divides, where Hope's somehow brought us closer together.
Some observers will say that time left Hope behind. Others may think that it was a wise choice on his part to remain grounded in the past because the present isn't as innocent. His humor is quaint compared with today's comedians, less physical, more cerebral and definitely cleaner. Bob Hope simply wouldn't do what it takes to make people laugh nowadays.
Perhaps that is the best thing to celebrate today: a time when everybody took themselves less seriously and the performer who was there all the way, showing us how to do it. There aren't enough thanks for those kinds of memories.