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100 years of Hope -- Thanks for the memories
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 4/18/2003 8:39:36 AM ET 2003-04-18T12:39:36

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.

Image: Bob Hope
Bob Hope, in January 1999
No place is Hope-less. More than four billion people around the world know his name. His profile is probably the most caricatured and recognizable of all time. The familiar, steep slopes of “Old Ski Nose” seem almost suitable for inclusion on Mt. Rushmore.

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.

File photo: Bob Hope
Bob Hope, after receiving an honorary knighthood in 1998 at the British Embassy in Washington
Then there were the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts, the Congressional Gold Medal, the American Comedy Award, lifetime achievement awards from the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Press Association, two competitive Emmys (for a 1965 Christmas show and 1994’s “Bob Hope: The First 90 Years”), two honorary Emmys (the Governor’s Award and the Trustees’ Award), a Golden Globe (Ambassador of Good Will Award) — in all, more than 2,000 medals, awards, citations and honorary doctorates for humanitarian or professional efforts, including — by virtue of being born in the Eltham sector of London — honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth.

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.

File photo: Bob Hope
Bob Hope on stage with Les Brown's band during a 1967 USO show to entertain American troops in Vietnam
Hope first entered a combat area in 1943 and became a USO mainstay throughout World War II. When peace broke out, he kept up the glad-handing and gag-spewing. In 1948, at the time of the Berlin Blockade, he began his Christmas custom of entertaining troops overseas and the wounded in hospitals and continued that in Korea of the ’50s and Vietnam of the ’70s.

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.”

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