July 28 — Hope springs eternal, or pretty darned close. For a century, Bob Hope moved through life with the breezy grace and buoyancy of a casual champion, much like Daniel approaching the lion’s den, confident of the outcome. That cocky stride as he went for the open mike was quite a sight. It was brash ambition in motion, and it got him everywhere.
It got him beloved. He is still our court jester, a generational hand-me-down who traveled well — mostly without injury — through the contradictory tastes and time zones of the 20th century, singing, dancing, cracking wise, making us laugh in all mediums known to man.
He played vaudeville, Broadway, radio, movies, foxholes, television, golf tournaments, military tours, charities, personal appearances. It has been said that, in all the annals of show business, no one individual ever traveled so far — so often — to entertain so many.
Big screen or small — but, especially, small — Bob Hope has proved a huge crowd-pleaser.
He drew legendary ratings for NBC, from his debut special on Easter Sunday of 1950 (“Star Spangled Revue”) to his almost 300th special in 1996 (“Bob Hope Laughing with the Presidents”). And before TV, remember, there was radio where he was no slouch, either.
In between were the films. He signed on with his signature tune, “Thanks for the Memory,” in “The Big Broadcast of 1938”— and then let the memories mount. He worked great as a single, of course, but his most memorable outings may well have been as part of a triple — his seven “Road” romps with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour (1940-1962).
Two honorary Oscars
Hope emceed the Academy Awards show 16 times, but not one of 54 film performances got near a nomination. Usually he feigned indignation at being slighted at the Oscars (“or,” he used to say, “as it’s known at my house, Passover”).
But over the years, in fact, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him two special Oscars, two honorary Oscars and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
At the end of the day, Bob Hope emerged as the most honored entertainer of them all. He holds the Guinness world title to that effect, as he does for being “the entertainer with the longest running contract with a single network” (61 years in the service of NBC).
Trouper for the troops
Seriously, folks — as he’d say, waiting for a slow-acting laugh to materialize — he didn’t do it for prizes: “For me, the greatest thing in the world is laughs. Laughs are excitement.”
It’s an axiom he lived by, thrived by — and almost died by, as the inevitable battlefront fixture whenever America went to war. He began entertaining troops nine months before the Pearl Harbor attack, in May of 1941, when he took his radio show to March Field, Calif. By the time they flagged him down 49 years later, he was doing his 1990 Christmas show in Saudi Arabia for the “Operation Desert Storm” troops.
His only dip in popularity came about because of his Vietnam campaigns.
In the divided America of that era, his stance was viewed as hawkish. “The reaction of some of the kids to his Vietnam shows hurt,” said Dolores, his wife of 67 years. “He never backed down. He believed in what he was doing for kids over there, but it still hurt.”
Hope had played to hostile audiences before, but wartime conditions gave that phrase a special spin. One of his performances was punctuated with sniper fire, and on another occasion he narrowly missed being killed in a bombing raid. Three times his plane was attacked by enemy fire. But, through it all, Bob Hope soldiered on — with his country.
Harry Haun is author of “The Cinematic Century: An Intimate Diary of America’s Affair with the Movies.”