In the spring of 1941, when Bob Hope was invited to perform his radio show for airmen at March Field in Riverside, Calif., he was reluctant. He had never done the show outside an NBC studio, and he wasn’t sure how the GIs would react to his humor.
When the comedian was hit by wave after wave of laughter and applause, he realized he had found a new audience. Thus began a 50-year journey that would take him from Iceland to South Africa, from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf.
Hope was a master at tailoring his shows to the audience. He took along such screen sirens as Lana Turner, Jane Russell, Jayne Mansfield and Anita Ekberg as whistle bait. He had writers interview troops for the latest gossip about the food, the officers, the base - and then used the tidbits for his monologue.
In 1948, Air Secretary Stuart Symington asked Hope if he would entertain weary airmen flying the around-the-clock Berlin Air Lift. Hope flew to Berlin with a troupe that included Doris Day, Irving Berlin, then-Vice President Alben Barkley, Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, and his wife, singer Dolores Hope, who was tired of staying at home with the children at Christmas.
Hope’s annual holiday show on NBC, which featured highlights of his military tour each season, became a highly rated tradition that lasted 22 years.
Hope has played before an estimated 10 million servicemen and women at 700 bases and hospitals. The road came to an end in 1990 when the 86-year-old Hope took Ann Jillian, Marie Osmond, the Pointer Sisters, Johnny Bench and Dolores Hope to Saudi Arabia to entertain the troops of Operation Desert Storm.
But even after Hope became too frail for road work, he had the soldiers come to him. Learning that many Gulf War troops were stationed at Twenty-nine Palms in the California desert, the Hopes invited them to their nearby Palm Springs home when the war was over for a Yellow Ribbon Party on Easter Sunday 1991.