TV expanded Hope’s career–and reach

In 1950, Newsweek ventured: “(Bob) Hope may one day be to television what he already is to the movies.” Today, that bold prediction seems conservative.

With more than 500 shows (and counting) to his credit, Bob Hope has become more to television than he was to the movies. He became the master of the variety show, the professional ancestor of Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson–everybody but Milton Berle–andthe guru of ratings.

The National Academy of TV Arts & Sciences has honored Hope’s contributions, and he has showed mutual admiration, saying that Americans are well-informed by television. If Berle was television’s godfather, Hope was its favorite son.

He appeared on television as early as 1932, but it was more than 15 years later before he seriously considered it, and even then he publicly scoffed at the growing medium, opening his 1949-50 radio season with the jab: “(Radio) seems to have so much more to offer than television…things like money…”

Yet within a few months, in April 1950, Hope collected the phenomenal sum of $ 40,000 for his debut as a host of the 90-minute “Star Spangled Revue” on NBC. In June he did another show for the network, for which he was paid another $ 40, 000.

The star and the salary drew the attention of critics, some of whom raved about, and some of whom panned, the first show. Hope was reviewed as alternately “telegenic, easygoing and graceful” and “petrified with fear.”

Hope showed “esprit and cohesion, which is the trade-mark of the born showman” but the program “fell rather seriously short of expectations.” His personality was “much better suited to TV than to radio,” although, “he never quite succeeded…(in finding) some middle ground between movie technique and radio, to discover, in short, what television consisted of exactly.”

The Revue included guests: Beatrice Lillie, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Dinah Shore, setting the stage for later specials that would become star-studded lineups.

And his pay–already higher than any single performer had ever collected–was prophetic, too. After the second show, NBC offered Hope a deal for four additional shows at $ 25,000 each. By the end of the year he had a multimillion dollar contract. And by 1975, he had signed with the Peacock network for $ 18 million for three years.

His first contract coincided with the end of the Pepsodent show, and Hope promptly switched toothpaste brands, signing on with sponsor Colgate.

Film pact nixed

Hope was the first movie star to get a long-term television contract, a move that Paramount viewed as close to traitorous. The studio saw television as the death knell of theaters, and, arguing that Hope’s exposure on television eroded his draw at the box office, did not renew his studio contract when it came up in 1957.

Whether he bought this reasoning or not, Hope applied much the same theory to his television appearances. Through insight, instinct or luck, Hope didn’t sign on for weekly appearances, thereby preserving some of his exclusivity that undoubtedly contributed to his huge ratings later on.

Apparently enamored with his new medium, during his first years he would accept offers to be a TV correspondent to both the Democratic and Republican conventions, and host a telethon to send the U.S. team to the Olympics in Helsinki.

Hope broke more ground in 1953, starring in television’s first full hour of color, commercial television.

Veteran Hope writer Mort Lachman remembers the first time the crew did a color show, in a New York theater on upper Broadway. The front seats had been removed to make room for the cameras, and the audience banished to the balcony.

At the night-before-taping rehearsal, Lachman recalls, “Hope’s out there doing the monologue and he’s slowly going more and more on tiptoe, trying to see the faces of the audience.

“The stage manager was an old-timer, and as Hope walked off, puzzled, he said , ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, Mr. Hope. A lot of great comics have died here.’ Hope wigged out. He called, ‘Mort, Mort, come here. We’ve got to move!’ We moved to the Roxy. By noon the next day the cameras were up and there was an audience on the main floor and his face lit up.”

Hope never lost his love for a live audience. Once, while shooting a TV special in a London suburb, the power went out in a house of 1,500 people. Hope kept entertaining for close to an hour, sitting on a stool with a dead microphone and a candle.

For the most part, though, television served up the reverse of what the performer was used to. It lacked the spontaneity and intimacy of a live performance, yet it kept no secrets. Although visual gimmicks used for the live studio audience of the radio show could be recycled, television proved a one-shot deal.

Tougher medium

“It became a much more difficult medium,” says Lachman. “You needed to be a lot stronger. That naive audience was gone, and we went more and more into character comedy.”

Hope’s programs emphasized his monologues and his own persona, rather than the situation comedy many comedians needed to exist in television.

Yet, in what seemed like a reprise of reviews from his later years in radio, the comedian was chided for sameness. So, in pursuit of pizzazz, Hope harked to faraway places and hired strange-sounding names.

Asked to do a Command Performance in London in November 1954, he immediately canceled his scheduled NBC show in favor of an “international review” filmed in Europe with exotic personalities like Maurice Chevalier and Orson Welles. Ratings were great; reviews were average.

But Hope, evidently, had the international bug. In 1958, his broadcast of a special taped in Moscow ran into censorship problems when Russian officials suggested he cut, among other things, jokes about Sputnik. Hope argued against this, but his film was still in the Soviets’ hands, and he tried to allay the Russians’ concerns by quoting a few of his jokes about the American Space Program.

The Russians laughed, gave in and released Hope’s footage–along with a bill for $ 1,200 for film processing. Hope, claiming that two film clips weren’t delivered, never paid it. He turned the whole experience into a book, “I Owe Russia $ 1,200.”

The program got more than a one-third share of the audience (not all that high for Hope), but this time attracted critical recognition, winning the 1958 Peabody and Sylvania merit awards.

With those accolades, NBCscheduled a rerun.

In the 1960s, Hope began his 10-year relationship with Chrysler Corporation as a spokesman and host of weekly theater-style dramas that won Emmys for quality acting and production.

However, the high-brow entertainment proved too lofty for the American public , and the shows were canceled after three years. But Chrysler continued to underwrite Hope’s popular comedy specials, which gave exposure to new talent while showcasing established stars.

Hope was always at the helm, his hand in his pocket, standing slightly in profile to flaunt his ski nose and jut chin.

His shows reflected topics that interested him, or were close to his heart. In 1977, after Bing Crosby’s death, Hope abandoned an almost-completed show, “The Road to Hollywood,” which focused on his movie career and tied in with his book. Instead he produced “On the Road with Bing,” which featured the “Road” movies and Crosby’s contributions to entertainment.

Hope seemed to thrive when he got to travel, telling his jokes through an interpreter, if necessary. In 1978 he taped a special based on a trip to Australia and New Zealand, and with “Road to China” in 1979, finally realized a six-year quest to be the first American entertainer allowed to do a variety show from China.

“He wanted to keep that edge of being first to do things,” says biographer Bill Faith. In addition, “He tried to have something for everybody. If he had music, some of that music would be aimed at the younger audience.”

One brilliant innovation was making television specials from his annual Christmas tours. The program from his 1954 trip to Thule, Greenland, pulled a 60 % share, Hope’s largest up to then.

He broke a record again with his 1964 trip, which pulled more than half the audience, and it was the highest rating Hope had ever received, with 24.5 million viewers. The show from the 1965 tour registered a 55% share, and the 1966 show pulled a 56.

In 1970, during the Vietnam War, his Christmas tour of military bases was turned into a TV special and broke Nielsen records for an entertainment program, with a 46.6 rating and 64 % share.

In 1981, Variety published Hope’s 30 years of numbers and concluded he was TV’s all-time Nielsen winner.

In addition, Hope’s 1962 Christmas trip, aired in January of 1963, won the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globe Award, as well as a TV Guide award. His 1965 trip won him his only Emmy.

Hope kept careful control over all his projects. He backed them with heavy promotion, and frustrated some producers with the little autonomy he allowed them. At one point he even had a falling out with daughter Linda, who had produced some of his shows.

“She really took the reins away from her father and he had always been the executive producer of the shows,” says Faith. She later returned, however, and still works for Hope Enterprises.

By the early 1970s, Hope decided his TV specials needed a booster shot. He acknowledged he had “gotten in a rut,” and admitted he was spending more time and effort on publicity than on product.

He instituted a longer format, saying it gave him more freedom, and, at new sponsor Texaco’s suggestion, fired his staff. In addition, he made a move to more theme shows–new talent, comedians, leading ladies from his films. Leading ladies, in particular, worked.

Another guaranteed topic was Hope himself, and his first special for Texaco was “A Quarter-Century of Bob Hope on Television,” which aired in 1975.

A New York Times review stated that Hope was “an extraordinary figure,” and the show was good enough toprove what “all the fuss is about.”

Yet at the same time it denounced Hope’s “open courting of the establishment status quo. Almost invariably the material from the earlier TV years is superior stuff…Too frequently the later skits rely heavily on extraneous gimmicks, on silly drag costumes, on the mere presence of celebrity.”

Hope seemed to be playing it safe, turning to friends and favorite stars, people he knew he could get and people with whom he knew the chemistry worked.

“Beatrice Lillie could hardly be considered someone the whole world wanted to see,” says Faith.

In addition, the image of the elder statesman began to replace the saucy comedian. “It came to a point,” Faith suspects, “where there were certain people who wouldn’t work with him.”

By 1991, the appeal of his programs had slipped. A “Yellow Ribbon Salute to the Gulf War Troops” after the war ranked only 30th for the week.

Still, even when his specials were losing momentum, the monologue was not. In “Ladies of Laughter,” a recent special featuring comediennes, Hope kept up-to-date, telling jokes about Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and Madonna’s book, “Sex.”

Just as on radio, the monologues were the cornerstones of his shows. He taped them only a day or two before the air date, so they would be fresh, and it paid off with audiences. Even if the remainder of the show lost viewers, says Faith, “The ratings didn’t change until after the monologue.”n

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