Hope, Leslie Townes (“Bob”)

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Hope, Leslie Townes (“Bob”)

(b. 29 May 1903 in Eltham, England; d. 27 July 2003 in Toluca Lake, California), famed multimedia entertainer acclaimed for vaudeville, Broadway, radio, motion picture, television, and public appearances, notably his fifty years of bringing laughter to U.S. military personnel at home and abroad.

The fifth of seven sons, Hope was born Leslie Townes Hope in Eltham, England, to the English stonemason William Henry (“Harry”) Hope and the Welsh aspiring singer Avis (Townes) Hope. In 1907 the family immigrated to Cleveland. In 1920, with his father’s naturalization, Hope and his brothers became U.S. citizens.

Ambitious youngster Hope sold newspapers and worked as a delivery boy, soda jerk, shoe salesman, and pool hustler; he even tried his fists as a boxer under the name of “Packy East.” With some of what he earned he took dancing lessons from the entertainer King Rastus Brown and was good enough to take over some of his teacher’s classes. Hope attended Fairmont Grammar School, Fairmont Junior High School, and East High School in Cleveland; he did not graduate from East High School. Early in his career Hope changed his first name from the feminine-sounding Leslie to the more “chummy” Bob.

Hope teamed up with another young Cleveland dancer, George Byrne, and they struggled through tabloid shows, third-rate vaudeville, until they landed a chance at Broadway in Sidewalks of New York (1927) starring the dancer Ruby Keeler. The show enjoyed a long run; Hope and Byrne did not. They decided to head west to sharpen their act but got a short booking at a small theater along the way in New Castle, Pennsylvania. The house manager asked Hope if he would go out and announce the coming attractions. His delivery of joke book one-liners brought enough laughs from the audience and the band in the pit to convince him he might make it solo.

Armed with a new song, dance, and comic patter act that included a big cigar and bowler hat and a cocky attitude, Hope headed for Chicago to look for work. He was luckless through the bitter 1927–1928 winter months and in the spring, just as he was giving up, he ran into a Cleveland pal named Charlie Cooley, who took him to see the agent Charles Hogan. Needing an interim master of ceremonies for three nights at a struggling vaudeville house in a tough Chicago neighborhood, Hogan asked Hope if he wanted the job. Hope grabbed it, and his comedy was good enough (“They let me live!”) for Hogan to risk booking him at the Stratford Theater, a thriving neighborhood theater. Here Hope began honing his comedic style, the rapid-fire delivery, the connecting one-liners stolen from newspaper headlines that formed his monologues, and the distinctive body language that marked his stage personality. His four-week booking at the Stratford lasted six months. He would never be jobless again. Both Cooley and Hogan remained closely associated with Hope until their deaths fifty-nine years later.

Despite the fact that movies and radio were dampening public taste for live stage entertainment in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hope took his comedy act around the country, climbing his way to the top in what remained of the big vaudeville circuits, and eventually he was booked as headliner at America’s preeminent showplace, New York’s Palace Theater. He was noticed there in 1933 by the composer Jerome Kern, who hired him for a leading role in his new Broadway musical Roberta, which opened on 18 November 1933. That same year Hope met the lovely New York cabaret singer Dolores Reade. They married in 1934 (the exact date is unknown, although the couple chose to celebrate 19 February as their anniversary) and remained married for the rest of Hope’s life.

Hope had leading roles in three more important Broadway productions, Say When (1934) with the actor Harry Richman, Ziegfeld Follies (1936) with the entertainer Fanny Brice, and Red, Hot and Blue (1936–1937) with the comedians Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante. In 1937 Hope and his wife traveled to Hollywood so that he could make his first feature film, The Big Broadcast of 1938, for Paramount Pictures. Their “temporary” move to the West Coast became permanent once they saw the San Fernando Valley. They settled in the Toluca Lake area of North Hollywood, California, and raised four children, all of whom were adopted.

Although Hope had performed for radio audiences as early as 1934, he signed his first yearly contract with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1938 to star in the now legendary Tuesday night Bob Hope Show. Hope remained on NBC radio for nearly twenty years.

Hope’s success in radio and his first film (in which he sang his career-long theme song “Thanks for the Memory”) led to a long contract with Paramount Pictures. He made light of the fact that he never won an Oscar for acting (“Oscar night at my house is called Passover”). In truth, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him with five awards: two honorary Oscars, two special awards, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Hope starred in more than fifty films and appeared in cameos in another fifteen movies. He was frequently rated number one at the box office, and the “Road” pictures with the actors Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour (starting with The Road to Singapore in 1940) are considered classics.

Radio, movies, personal appearances, and charity benefits established Hope’s preeminence as an entertainer and also solidified him as one of the nation’s most celebrated toast- and roastmasters. Besides being master of ceremonies seventeen times for the film industry’s Academy Awards, he found a permanent niche ribbing Washington, D.C., elite at various banquets and White House functions. His jester role to presidents, for example, began in 1945 at the annual Gridiron Club roast of Washington politics and politicians. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was at the head table. Hope cracked, “I think I should apologize to our President for the things I have said on radio—especially about Mrs. Roosevelt—like when Churchill and Roosevelt were discussing campaign strategy, they talked about when to attack the enemy and how to keep Eleanor out of the crossfire.” What followed was silence, then President Roosevelt tilted his head back and laughed heartily—and so did the rest of the room. From that day forward Hope, like the humorist Will Rogers before him, found the presidency and Congress incomparable subjects for humor.

He gained a presidential ally the night the votes were counted in the 1948 presidential election, when newspaper headlines across the country prematurely declared the Republican candidate Tom Dewey’s victory when Harry S Truman had won. Hope got the news at 2 a.m. in California and sent a wire to the president: “Unpack!” President Truman kept the telegram under glass on his Oval Office desk.

Hope’s political barbs were blunter than he often wished, but as he confessed, “My broadcasts have sponsors who are selling products and they aren’t going to risk offending anyone.” However, in the early 1950s all restraints were lifted when he, like many in the country, felt Senator Joseph McCarthy was harming the nation with his overzealous hunt for communists. A typical Hope crack was this: “I hear Senator McCarthy is about to reveal a whole new cell of communists. He’s gotten ahold of the Moscow phone book.”

Hope’s reluctant decision to “try” television in 1950 paid big dividends. His formal debut on NBC television came on Easter Sunday. At first he was uncomfortable because the cameras shielded him from the studio audience, but once he and the NBC technicians had corrected that problem, he was off and running. His monthly comedy “specials” often captured some of the highest audience ratings ever recorded, and this media catapulted him into superstardom. Hope’s final television special for NBC in 1996 closed an unprecedented fifty-eight-year partnership that began with his radio show in 1938.

The media dubbed him “America’s No. 1 Soldier in Greasepaint” for his more than fifty years of unwavering commitment to the morale of America’s servicemen and women. His first military audience was at March Field, Riverside, California, early in 1941. When war was later declared he became “GI Bob,” entertaining troops in outposts of Alaska; training camps in Britain; and battlefields in North Africa, Italy, and the South Pacific islands—bringing laughter to the wounded in hospital wards and often putting himself in harm’s way. He continued to entertain armed forces through four more decades whenever the need arose—Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East conflicts—and to provide his familiar Christmas shows for troops overseas and for television viewers at home.

In October 1997, by act of Congress signed by President Bill Clinton, Hope was made “Honorary Veteran”—the first ever in U.S. history. (Hope said, “I’ve been given many awards in my lifetime—but to be numbered among the men and women I admire most—is the greatest honor I have ever received.”)

The Guinness Book of Records calls Hope “the most honored entertainer in the world,” citing more that 2,000 awards and honors for humanitarian and professional efforts, including fifty-four doctorates as well as numerous named schools and city streets. He has four stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in London his name joins Britain’s top entertainers at the Avenue of Stars, Covent Garden. Chief among Hope’s honors are the Congressional Gold Medal presented by President John F. Kennedy (1962), the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented by President Lyndon B. Johnson (1969), a U.S. Navy ship USNS Bob Hope (AKR 300), a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III The Spirit of Bob Hope, Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE) presented by Queen Elizabeth II (1998), and Knight Commander of Saint Gregory with Star ordered by Pope John Paul II (1998). There is also the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and the Bob Hope Airport serving California’s Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena.

No telling of Hope’s life is complete without mentioning his love of sports. He was a true fan of boxing, football, and baseball, but his passion was golf. A low-handicap player, he and Bing Crosby raised millions of dollars in exhibitions and tournaments during World War II. Frequently after ribbing presidents at Washington, D.C., banquets, Hope would golf with them the next day. He golfed with eight presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald W. Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. His greatest achievement as a golfer was developing his Desert Classic, a Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) tournament that in forty-seven years has raised $40 million for charity.

Hope died of pneumonia at his home in Toluca Lake two months after turning 100 years old. He is buried in the Bob Hope Memorial Garden at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery, Mission Hills, California. The day he died flags were lowered to half-staff across the country, and that night, lights on Broadway were dimmed in memory of a man who wanted to be remembered for “making people laugh.”

Hope’s papers are housed at the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Among his autobiographical books are I Never Left Home (1944); Have Tux, Will Travel: Bob Hope’s Own Story, as told to Pete Martin (1954); The Last Christmas Show, as told to Pete Martin (1974); The Road to Hollywood: My 40-Year Love Affair with the Movies, with Bob Thomas (1977); Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me: Bob Hope’s Comedy History of the United States, with Melville Shavelson (1990); Dear Prez, I Wanna Tell Ya, with Ward Grant (1996); and Bob Hope: My Life In Jokes, with Linda Hope (2003). Recent biographies include Lawrence J. Quirk, Bob Hope: The Road Well-Traveled (1998); and William Robert Faith, Bob Hope: A Life in Comedy (2003). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 29 July 2003).

William Robert Faith