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100 YEARS OF HOPE -- Part 2 -- The early years
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/18/2003 8:11:17 AM ET 2003-04-18T12:11:17

As noted, the United States wasn’t even his native country. Leslie Townes Hope was born in England on May 29, 1903, the fifth of seven sons of William Henry Hope, an English stonemason, and Avis Townes, the daughter of Welsh sea captain. When he was 4, he emigrated with his family to Cleveland, where he grew up on the scrappy, scruffy side. Some biographies paint his childhood in slightly lighter shades of “Angela’s Ashes” gray.

A naturally bright lad, Hope found school a slow track and dropped out a year into high school, preferring instead a fleeting career chopping chickens in a brother’s butcher shop and working for a motor company. He also sold newspapers — once, reportedly, to John D. Rockefeller, then “the richest man in America.”

Quickly, he discovered the express routes to get attention — a necessity in a household of six siblings. It often took the physical form of advanced “body English.” Under the name of “Packy East,” he even boxed briefly (this, contrary to the skittish scaredy-cat image he would later cultivate in movie comedies — a franchise that Woody Allen now operates).

The jaunty strut that would become his signature — Hope moved musically — was the walk of a natural dancer, and this is how he entered show business, partnering in vaudeville first with Lloyd Durbin (who died suddenly of food poisoning), then with George Byrne.

“The Sidewalks of New York” led Hope & Byrne to Broadway Oct. 3, 1927, and it was a hit. But, unlike the way these things are supposed to work, the producers opted to cut back on the dancing, and Hope & Byrne found themselves back on the vaudeville circuit.

Their nadir, before the team crashed and burned, was touring and dancing with Violet and Daisy Hilton, the showbiz Siamese twins — a hot (if humiliating) ticket at the time.

New name, special gags
All the above he did under the name of Leslie Hope, then the marginally more masculine Lester Hope. Either way, the name put up a major roadblock. What was needed, he felt, was something more accessible, and what could be simpler than Bob? So he set out to become — and, indeed, did become — the best-known Bob in the world.

Disguised with this new moniker and armed with special gags (squeezed from Al Boasberg, who wrote for George Burns and Gracie Allen), Hope charged back into the remains of vaudeville as a funnyman. Nobody would stand taller or longer as a standup comic, but he was too quick coming out of the gate. He was Rapid Robert — too rapid for Texas, he was told by Bob O’Donnell, an exhibitor there. O’Donnell advised him to observe the speed limits and let the jokes settle. The Hope Style began to evolve.

He and Boasberg came up with a revue, “Antics of 1930,” and toured it to Broadway. While in Los Angeles, he did some of the “Antics” for the Pathe cameras. This qualified as a screen test — and he flunked! “My nose came on the screen about an hour and a half ahead of me,” he shuddered. “I looked like a cross between a mongoose and a turtle.”

During the Palace run of “Antics” in New York, he and Milton Berle had a high-profile tug-of-war over whose jokes were whose. The friction worked to their advantage and got Hope a spot in “Ballyhoo of 1932,” which faded fast but led to Jerome Kern’s “Roberta” with Tamara, Fred MacMurray, George Murphy and Sydney Greenstreet. Stars, as much as smoke, got in your eyes. “Say When” followed ever so briefly, with Harry Richman.

In “Ziegfeld Follies of 1936” with Fanny Brice and Eve Arden, Hope got to introduce the haunting (and cinematically apt) “I Can’t Get Started.” Capping his Broadway career was “Red, Hot and Blue,” in which he was the fast-spinning third wheel to Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante (or Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman, depending on how you read their famous crisscross billing). Hope, with no ax to grind either way, came out on top.

Love of his life
He was doing all right in the romantic department, too. During the “Roberta” run, Murphy introduced him to a chanteuse at the Vogue Club on 57th Street, an Irish-Italian beauty named Dolores Reade. She became the love of his life — and, on Feb. 19, 1934, his one and only wife. As long-running Hollywood unions go, theirs takes the wedding cake.

File photo: Bob and Dolores Hope
Bob Hope with his wife Dolores, in 1939
Dolores Hope’s monumental patience has been key, of course, to the marriage’s success — she who was left to roll over the Yule log alone decade after decade while her husband was away entertaining the world. The fact they could have no children underlined her loneliness, so they adopted four of them — two sons (Tony and Kelly) and two daughters (Linda and Nora) — and Hope, who was brought up a Protestant, allowed them to be raised in his wife’s Catholic faith.

Buoyed by his Broadway successes, Hope opted to try movies again, but, mindful of his aborted first bid, he tiptoed into them with another short. “Going Spanish” (filmed in 1934 at the Astoria studio in Queens, N.Y., while “Roberta” was running) wasn’t much better — but it was releasable. In fact, he quipped to Walter Winchell, “When they catch John Dillinger, they’re going to make him sit through it twice.” That crack made the column and cost Hope a contract for two additional shorts with unamused Educational Pictures.

At this crucial strike-two juncture, a new medium made to order for his snappy banter came forth, not only rescuing Hope but setting him up tall and straight for all time: radio!

Primed for Hollywood
When he resumed the vaudeville grind, it was with the added cachet of having hit big on Broadway, and that got him a gig at the Capitol in New York. The Loew’s corporation, which ran the Capitol, was at the time putting together “The Capitol Family Hour” for radio and invited him aboard. His one-liners went down well on the airways, and Hope soon was guest star hopping from show to show — “The Fleischman Hour” with Rudy Vallee, “The Bromo Seltzer Intimate Hour” and “The Woodbury Soap Show.” With “The Pepsodent Show,” he became a Tuesday night habit — and talkies lent an ear.

Warner Vitaphone, which had a better sense of humor than Educational Pictures, primed Hope for Hollywood with a series of more short subjects — seven over the next four years. The last of these, a golfing antic called “Don’t Hook Now,” marked his first screen appearance with a crooner he had crossed quips with during the Capitol engagement.

Image: hope_big_broadcast.jpg
Bob Hope and Shirley Ross, in a scene from the 1938 film "The Big Broadcast of 1938."
Bing Crosby had gone Hollywood for “The Big Broadcast” (of 1932), and Hope followed suit with “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” stepping in for an overbooked Jack Benny. As beginners’ luck would have it, the Oscar-winning “Thanks for the Memory” was waiting there for him to sing to Shirley Ross, and he made that wistful song his own, then and forever.

Being pals at Paramount soon proved mutually advantageous for him as well as Crosby. “When Bing and I played the Capitol,” Hope liked to recall, “we did these little bits, and we’d ad-lib every show to keep it fresh because we were doing three shows a day then. When I moved to California in ’37, he invited me down to the Delmar Turf Club, where they had big bashes every Saturday night. Bing and I went on and did this stuff, and everybody said, ‘My God, how these guys work together!’ They didn’t know the years we’d rehearsed it, but it all fell into place. A producer went running back to Paramount and said, ‘You gotta do something with these two guys. They’re naturals together.’”

Those 'road' pictures
Paramount had just the property for them — sort of: “The Road to Mandalay” was leading nowhere; it couldn’t get off the ground as a serious picture, and, when it was overhauled into hokum, it was turned down by Burns & Allen, then by Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie. But Crosby and Hope thought they could get away with it — lickety-quip, at their customary 90 mph — and their instincts were right. When they broke into their rapid-fire repartee, their director (Victor Schertzenger of the old school) glazed over and gave up.

The outrageous results, released as “Road to Singapore,” gave rise to more “Roads” that went gunning for every genre imaginable — jungle films (“Road to Zanzibar”), desert films (“Road to Morocco”), gold-rush films (“Road to Utopia”), South American films (“Road to Rio”), South Sea films (“Road to Bali”), spy films (“The Road to Hong Kong”) — all with Dorothy Lamour along to scrap over and with Crosby usually winning.

Image: Bob Hope
Bing Crosby, left, and Bob Hope, performing on the set of the film "The Road to Hong Kong"
Hope’s personal favorite of the “Road” shows was the zip to Zanzibar — “but ‘Road to Utopia’ and ‘Road to Morocco’ were as funny as any of ’em,” he once recalled. “We were always wide-open on a situation, which is the greatest thing in the world, because it kept us alive and hot and going all the time. We couldn’t relax. We just kept thinking. There’s nothing like it.

“There was chemistry between us. I could feed him a great line and he could feed me a great line, then half the time we were robbing each other, trying to steal each other’s lines so it made for a great circus of gags. When we’d come out of a scene, he’d go over to his gag writer and I’d go over to mine. We had them there on the set just for fun. But after a while, we began to realize how commercial it was.” Once, when one of the credited screenwriters walked by, Hope hollered, “If you recognize anything of yours, yell bingo!”

The quick-click comedy of Crosby and Hope was the hot-air collision of two fast friends, and audiences were caught in the cross-currents of their easy-breezy personalities. They would routinely flick off gag cameos in each other’s feature films, but their big-screen partnership never went beyond “Road” boundaries — although they did try once: Through “Swifty” Lazar, they offered Neil Simon $1 million for the movie rights to “The Sunshine Boys,” but Simon chose to go the ethnic route. At the time of Crosby’s death in 1977, the two were planning an eighth “Road” trip — “Road to the Fountain of Youth.”

Harry Haun is author of “The Cinematic Century: An Intimate Diary of America’s Affair with the Movies.”


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