Hope, Bob (1903—)

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Hope, Bob (1903—)

Entertainer Bob Hope is unquestionably an American show-business icon and the facts surrounding his multi-decade, multi-generational success sustain the myth. Hope's entertainment persona has been evident in every decade of the twentieth century, from his 70 movies to celebrating an unprecedented 56 year-contract with NBC in 1993. He entertained American troops in both war and peace time and was hailed as "America's most prized ambassador of goodwill throughout the world" when presented with the Congressional Gold Medal by President Kennedy.

The fifth of seven sons, he was born Leslie Townes Hope in Eltham, England, on May 29, 1903. His father, William Henry Hope, was a stonemason who decided on an impulse to migrate with his family to Cleveland, Ohio. His Welsh mother, Avis Townes Hope, who had been a concert singer, instilled in him a love for music and entertaining. Hope would later claim that he first warmed to an audience laughing at him when his voice cracked while singing at a backyard family reunion. In 1920, by virtue of his father's naturalization, "Bob"—the name by which the world would later know him—and his brothers also became U.S. citizens.

After high school, Hope took dancing lessons from African American entertainer King Rastus Brown and from vaudeville hoofer Johnny Root. A natural, he soon began teaching classes. He also worked briefly as a newspaper reporter and tried amateur boxing under the name of Packy East. At 18, Hope persuaded his girlfriend, Mildred Rosequist, to become his dance partner. Appearing at nearby vaudeville houses they worked their way to the generous wages of $8 an night. But the partnership would not last long: when Rosequist's mother finally saw their act she thought it was just too risqué for her daughter. Hope then teamed up with a friend, Lloyd Durbin. After developing their act in local bookings they were hired by the Bandbox Theater in Cleveland as a "cheap act" for the Fatty Arbuckle Show. Arbuckle, who headlined the touring revue, loved Hope and Durbin's comedy/dancing act and helped the boys get better bookings. Following the accidental death of Durbin, Hope took on another partner, George Byrne, with whom he developed a blackface act.

After several career reversals, Hope and Byrne were almost ready to give it all up when they were hired to emcee Marshall Walker's Whiz Bang review in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Hope went out on stage alone and entertained the audience with his ad-libbed wisecracks. He was using for the first time a technique that would prove good enough to last through seven decades: not only parrying and jousting with anything an audience member or fellow comic could throw at him, but also being brave enough to wait on stage in front of the toughest audience until everyone had gotten his jokes.

In 1929, Hope went to New York and was given a movie screen test, but was told his "ski nose" had killed his possibilities. With material from legendary gagster Al Boasberg, Hope continued his career on stage, appearing in The Antics of 1931. His performance impressed the audiences and led to an even better theatrical gig —The Ballyhoo of 1932—in which Hope was encouraged to ad-lib to his heart's content. But his first major recognition, by critics and the public, came in 1933 for his wise-cracking role as Huckleberry Haines in the highly successful Broadway musical, Roberta. Not only Hope's professional life would change from then on: one of his co-performers in the musical, George Murphy, introduced him to a young singer, Dolores Reade. After a brief courtship, Dolores and Bob got married in February 1934. They went on to have four children and four grandchildren.

With his vaudeville show at New York's Capitol Theater came along his first radio appearance, on the "Capitol Family Hour," hosted by Major Edward J. Bows, which originated from the theater every morning. After guest spots and semi-regular work on a couple of shows, Bob was signed on by Pepsodent toothpaste for his own show on NBC. He went on to become a huge radio star and a Tuesday-night regular for the next 15 years.

On his half-hour program, Hope opened with a monologue which fired off barbs about current news events and usually set the tone for the rest of the show. Every time a news story broke, everybody would look forward to hearing what Hope was going to say about it on his next show. With his "and I wanna tell you" catch phrase, he inaugurated a comedy style in which no joke, whether resulting in irrepressible laughs or a just a smile, was any more important than the next one coming up.

In 1937 Hope traveled to Hollywood to film The Big Broadcast of 1938, in which he sang the Oscar-winning song "Thanks for the Memories" as a duet with Shirley Ross. The song has been his signature theme ever since. Between 1934 and 1936 he had appeared in eight comedy shorts, all filmed in New York, but his first screen hit would come only in 1939 with The Cat and the Canary. In the next year he struck it big with Road to Singapore (1940), the first of seven successful "Road" pictures he was to make over the years with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, highly praised for featuring in-jokes about Bob and Bing's private lives.

Relying heavily on rapid quips and topical wisecracks, Hope built his own style of screen comedy which would reach a peak in the western parody The Paleface (1948). His films of the 1950s were a mixed bag and were less and less profitable. Writer/directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank suggested that Hope should start playing straight dramatic roles. The advice resulted in Hope playing Eddie Foy Sr. in The Seven Little Foys (1955), a character which gave him the chance to combine drama and humor. Hope's last dramatic role was as New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker in Beau James (1957). In the same year, Hope started working as his own producer and brought forward successes like Alias Jesse James (1959) and The Facts of Life (1960), with Lucille Ball as his co-star.

In the 1960s, however, the public began to find Hope's films increasingly less entertaining. With Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number (1966) and The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (1968), he dissatisfied even his most loyal fans. Besides, Hope's conservative political ideas were at odds with the general frame of mind concerning the Vietnam War. At that point, Hope was criticized severely for not being able to separate his stage persona from his political beliefs. When traveling to entertain the troops, he found for the first time a welcome that was less than enthusiastic and his overall career was never quite the same from then on.

Television came calling as early as the 1930s, but Hope was not at all convinced the "new" entertainment medium would succeed. He participated in an experimental show for CBS; in the first commercial television broadcast on the West Coast in 1947; and as a surprise guest on Ed Sullivan's "Taste of the Town" in 1949. But his formal debut on NBC television would only happen on Easter Sunday in 1950. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Beatrice Lillie, and Dinah Shore were Bob's guest stars in the special Star Spangled Revue, sponsored by Frigidaire. His annual trips overseas to entertain the U.S. troops—which had started full bore during World War II and lasted through Korea and Vietnam, to the Persian Gulf conflict of 1990/91—soon became a regular Christmas television event. For 60 consecutive years Hope aired his specials with NBC-TV stars. But his jokes were gradually becoming outdated and predictable, his style getting more and more insipid. In 1996 something that everybody was already expecting happened: NBC announced the end of their contract with Bob Hope. That year's Bob Hope Salutes the Presidents was his final Christmas special.

Hope's work with NBC guaranteed him a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the entertainer with the longest-term television contract. He is also in Guinness as the most honored entertainer in the world, for he has more than two thousand awards and citations for humanitarian and professional efforts, including 54 honorary doctorates. Although he never received an Oscar for his for his acting, Hope frequently emceed the ceremonies and he himself won special Academy Awards five times (1940, 1944, 1952, 1959, 1965), for humanitarian action and contribution to the industry. In July 1976, by order of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Hope was made an Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to British troops around the world during World War II and his lifetime professional achievements were acknowledged by Kennedy Center honors in 1985.

Hope has also been an avid golfer and his name became associated with the Bob Hope Desert Classic, an annual event that produced millions of dollars for charity. The extensive list of his golfing buddies includes presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton.

Hope, who over the years assumed the stature of a national institution, authored several humorous books about his career and travels. He has been honored and befriended by presidents of the United States since Roosevelt. President Johnson honored Bob with the Medal of Freedom and President and Mrs. Carter hosted a White House reception in celebration of his 75th birthday. Harry Truman played the piano for him and Bill Clinton bestowed on him a Medal of the Arts. In his nineties and nearing total blindness, Hope is likely find consolation in knowing his long years dedicated to the entertainment industry were extremely profitable: with his fortune estimated at hundreds of millions, mostly in real estate, securities, oil and gas wells, thoroughbred horses, a broadcasting company, and at one point the Cleveland Indians baseball team, he is one of the richest performers ever.

—Bianca Freire-Medeiros

Further Reading:

Mielke, Randall G. Road to Box Office: The Seven Film Comedies of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour, 1940-1962. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Co., 1997.

Morella, Joe. The Amazing Careers of Bob Hope; From Gags to Riches. New York, W. H. Allen, 1974.

Quirk, Lawrence J. Bob Hope: The Road Well-Traveled. Applause Theatre Book Publications, 1998.

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