Hope’s career defies the odds — and critics

Instead of sticking his hands and feet into the cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 1943, Bob Hope imprinted his nose. Having made that small dent in the sidewalk for the next 50 years — and still counting — Hope has continued to make a larger dent in the entertainment world, and to forever, well, cement his reputation as a comic personality.

Hope turned wisecracks and witticisms into wealth, along the way sharing a dance with James Cagney, a song with Judy Garland, a radio microphone with Jack Benny and immortality with Bing Crosby. His life has spanned the heydays of all the major media: radio, films and television, and he has been successful in all.

He took his radio show to the top of the charts, became a number one box office draw and made Nielsen history with his TV ratings.

A.C. Lyles, a longtime friend from Hope’s Paramount years, predicts “If there was a new medium being born right now, Bob Hope would be equally important in that.”

He radiated star power. Remembers longtime writer Mort Lachman, who started with Hope after World War II: “The day I was hired and I went to my first meeting, when he walkedin, you could feel the magnetism. You knew he was major. He’s no simple mortal. Clark Kent had it when he came in the room. Hope was the same thing without a cape.”

Hope’s story began in Eltham, Kent, England, where Leslie Townes Hope was born in 1903, the fifth of seven sons. His mother was a concert singer, his father a stonemason, the family poor. They immigrated to Ohio in 1907, where Hope’s father helped build a neighborhood Presbyterian church and so enjoyed the project that the family converted.

The brothers became U.S. citizens, and they quickly learned to appreciate money and American ways of acquiring it. He wasn’t above petty dishonesty if it meant a cash reward, and his childhood is filled with now-famous anecdotes of singing on streetcars in place of the fare and telling sad stories to gullible housewives who would give him a few cents.

Hope was further taught the value of money when he was selling newspapers and a regular buyer warned him not to take credit; he later learned his sage customer was John D. Rockefeller.

When he got older, Hope dropped out of high school, briefly sold auto parts and shoes, worked as a soda jerk and a newspaper reporter, and took a job as a dance instructor. He did a stint as an amateur boxer, tried a career as a saxophonist and studied dentistry.

Finally, the career dilettante decided his natural habitat was the stage. Resolutely ignoring attitudes that prompted shopkeepers to post signs warning “No Dogs–or Actors,” the Bob Hope-to-be advertised his services in a trade magazine: “LES HOPE AVAILABLE. SONGS, PATTER AND ECCENTRIC DANCING.”

His first professional appearance was a vaudeville act with partner George Byrne in a Fatty Arbuckle show; Arbuckle noticed the act and recommended them to another vaudeville producer. But success was not immediately forthcoming; Hope likes to tell people how he was once billed second to Siamese twins and trained seals.

His early vaudeville career would undergo two significant changes: Hope, discovering a talent for verbal comedy, went “single,” and Les, long taunted with a reverse version of his name, “Hope-Les,” became “Bob.” It was simple, friendly, all-American and hard to make fun of.

From a reasonably successful run on the small-time vaudeville circuit, Hope tried his luck in Chicago, where he starved for a few months before landing a job emceeing a show.

Vaudeville took him to Broadway, where he played in “Roberta,””Ballyhoo of 1932,””Say When,””Ziegfeld Follies” and “Red, Hot and Blue.” Hope’s early training proved useful on “Ballyhoo’s” opening night. In addition to his role in the show, he was sent on stage to do his vaudeville act when the lights shorted out.

Hope was starring in “Roberta” when a friend convinced him to catch the act of a young night club singer–Dolores Reade. Hope was smitten, and the two were married on Feb. 19, 1934.

Unable to have children of their own, the couple chose to adopt. Their four children are Linda, now 53 and a television producer; Tony, 52, a lawyer; Kelly, 46, a newspaper columnist; and Nora, also 46, a homemaker.

Stage appearances took Hope into radio, where he developed his trademark monologue. After guest appearances on several radio programs, Hope joined the Pepsodent show in 1938, where he remained as host for 12 years. At the same time his radio career was taking off, Hollywood called.

Hope had sworn off film after a disastrous screen test in 1930, but in 1937 Paramount convinced him to star in “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” which became the first of Hope’s 54 feature films.

During World War II, Hope began a lifelong love affair with American troops, as he toured army camps and war zones alike, entertaining through the United Services Organization (USO).

And in 1950, despite criticism from the motion picture industry, he tried out television, which eventually gave him enormous exposure through his well-watched specials.

He also displayed his affection for his first Broadway hit, “Roberta,” by reprising it twice on television: once in 1958 with Janis Paige, Howard Keel and Anna Maria Alberghetti, and again in 1969, with Paige, John Davidson and Michelle Lee.

Overlapping career

There were times when Hope’s stints in radio, television, movies and benefits all overlapped, and even he admits that quality suffered under quantity.

But he eschewed vacations and hobbies and scorned the thought of retirement. Hope’s infinite energy worried friends and family members, but delighted his audiences, since he very rarely canceled a performance, and seemed always game for one more show.

And his insatiable appetite for work invited more projects. He did countless benefits, launched a daily newspaper column for Hearst, “It Says Here,” and published 10 books: “They’ve Got Me Covered,””I Never Left Home,””So This is Peace,””Have Tux, Will Travel,””I Owe Russia $ 1, 200,””Five Women I Love,””The Last Christmas Show,””Road to Hollywood,””Confessions of a Hooker” (about golf) and “Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me.”

Hope has wielded tremendous influence. He became friends with presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan at the same time they became the target of his jokes.

The poor kid from Cleveland also rubbed elbows with Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill and scores of celebrities. The privileged ones were included in Hope’s peculiar manifestation of an inner circle: his midnight telephone tree.

This circuit, comprised of friends and associates, was a roundtable of trading jokes and talking business. “Everybody was on his list for different things,” says Faith. “You were all categorized.”

Besides entertainment, Hope has achieved fame in at least two other categories: golf and money. He has reportedly tied Arnold Palmer in one department and few have tied him in the other.

Once a major landholder in the San Fernando Valley, Hope made millions when residential development became a major industry in Southern California.

A shrewd businessman, Hopealso invested in oil and sports, as well as forming his own company in the 1940s, North Hollywood-based Hope Enterprises.

Much of his money has gone to charity; one high-profile event is the Bob Hope/Chrysler Palm Desert Classic golf tournament. He’s received more than 1,000 different awards for his humanitarian efforts, his service to the country and his contributions to entertainment. Among his awards is the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal, yet missing is a coveted Oscar for acting.

Hope’s comedy parallels Will Rogers’ down-to-earth, gently satirical role of national seer, and the two have been frequently compared. But everything was preceded by a joke or followed by one, shutting the lid on his inner character–if one existed.

Character lines blur

Associates say the on-stage character of Bob Hope began as an exaggeration of the man, but over the years the distinction blurred, and the Bob Hopes of on- and off-camera became inseparable.

Whether his many facets were constructed to protect a hidden core is debatable. Undoubtedly Hope knew the value of publicity and image, yet he claimed to be hiding nothing.

He wrote in his 1954 book, “Have Tux, Will Travel”: “I’ve got news for those who’re hoping to read ‘With Bob Hope in a Platinum-Lined Snake Pit.’ That breezy Hope–that Hope with a bounce you see on the screen or on your TV set–is me.”

Yet he still seemed wary of personal revelation. His “secretary for movies” was once quoted as saying: “Bob doesn’t like to talk about his health, politics, religion or his adopted children.”

One reporter, dissatisfied with the answers Hope gave for why Hope worked so hard, was finally rewarded with the explanation that as a child Hope had to compete for his mother’s attention. A later article revealed that Hope gave the answer–suggested by a colleague–only to get the reporter off his back.

His lifestyle meant he spent most of his life away from home, yet even his absenteeism was a source of jokes. The towels in his home, he joked, read “Hers” and “Whose.”

But constant traveling and immense fame took its toll. One colleague reported Hope had “problems” with his children, and that his relentless pursuit of women was not limited to his act. Still, he stayed remarkably unaffected by scandal, although his ultra-conservative politics during the Vietnam War did chink his shining armor of public approval.

By then, Hope’s personality was evolving. Writes Faith: “While he was interested in performing for youth, and maintaining his appeal, Hope’s comic persona was undergoing a gradual change. The drugstore lecher, the flip-and-brash smart aleck, was beginning to seem a little like an elder statesman.”

In a Reader’s Digest survey of high school students, Hope was named an “outstanding entertainer”–second to the Beatles.

Critics charged that the American public laughed at Hope because they had been programmed to do so for decades–not because the man was truly funny all the time. But, says Bob Thomas, an AP correspondent who covered Hope, “Some critics might think his jokes are pretty stale, but then he throws in a zinger. Nobody’s going to hit a bull’s-eye every time. He has good jokes and bad jokes, but the average is pretty damn good.

“I think it’s possible he was the one who really established topical humor–particularly political humor–as a valid field. From Mort Sahl to Lenny Bruce to Johnny Carson to Jay Leno to Dana Carvey, I think they owe a small debt to Bob for being the pioneer in the mass media.”

Hope has long expounded on his theory that laughter is indeed the best medicine. He craved an audience. Once, driving through the Mohave desert, Hope stopped his bus, unloaded his company and gave an impromptu, hour-long show to three Indians.

Jokes on the line

“He works to anybody,” says Lachman. “He works to his janitor, to the band, to five people in the audience. You call him up and he’ll tell you three jokes before you say hello. You’ve never met a man who likes a joke better than Bob Hope.”

One writer remembers a trip during which Hope locked his writers into a London hotel room to work. Three days later, expressing remorse that the men had seen none of the city, Hope promptly sent up 40 post cards from the hotel gift shop.

“He gave loyalty and he required loyalty,” says Faith. “He wanted you to be his and only his. And he gave in return. Unless you actually stabbed him in the back, he would support you.”

Early biographies describe Hope as someone who appreciated fast driving, TV sports, mechanical toys, practical jokes, detective stories and billiards. He was superstitious. He framed bad reviews. But by later life such simple characterizations seem inadequate.

Bob Hope is a man who resists failure, who defies categorization, who even outgrew comparisons to Will Rogers. Toput it in the words of Mort Lachman: “Bob Hope is Bob Hope.”n

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