Bob Hope

In addition to his successes on radio, in movies, on television, and in live shows, Bob Hope (born 1903) has developed a reputation for his untiring efforts to entertain and boost the morale of American military personnel stationed all over the world and for the numerous appearances he has made in the name of various charities.

Bob Hope is perhaps the most widely known and loved stand-up comedian in America. On July 13, 1969, long before Hope reached his greatest fame, the Milwaukee Journal stated that Hope had "undoubtedly been the source of more news, and more newspaper feature stories than any other entertainer in modern history."

"Hopeless" Childhood

Born in Eltham, England on May 30, 1903, Leslie Townes Hope was one of seven surviving boys. By the age of four he was a skilled mimic and loved to sing and dance. In 1908 Hope's family moved from England to Cleveland, Ohio. Hope's father, Harry, was a hard-drinking stonemason whose income was irregular. For Hope, who looked and sounded British, the Americanization process was difficult. The Cleveland neighborhood in which he lived was tough, and the neighborhood kids made fun of him. They inverted his name, Leslie Hope, to create the nickname "Hopelessly." When he shortened his name to Les, they countered with another nickname, "Hopeless." Hope was a scrappy kid and to ward off the ridicule he fought easily and sometimes successfully, developing into a boxer of some skill.

As a youth Hope sold two-cent newspapers on the streets of Cleveland to supplement his family's income. On one occasion a gentleman in a long black limousine waited while Hope, who did not have change for a dime, rushed into a nearby store to get change. When he returned he received a lecture about the importance of keeping change in order to take advantage of all business opportunities. The man was oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil Company.

As a teenager Hope once boasted that he would rather be an actor than hold an honest job, and he participated in all kinds of school and amateur training groups, specializing in dancing and in the one-liner jokes for which he ultimately became famous. He gained a great deal of experience in an act Hope formed with a comedian from Columbus, Ohio, named George Byrne. Adopting the name Lester, Hope went with Byrne to New York City in 1926. He and Byrne performed in cities and towns outside New York City, and finally appeared in a New York City vaudeville production called "Sidewalks." They were fired within a month, however, because the show was a success and did not need the short dancing act that Hope and Byrne performed.


Vaudeville Comic

Hope got his first trial as a solo act at Chicago's Stratford Theatre in 1928. For this solo appearance he changed his name to Bob because he felt that would be "chummier" and look better on a theatre marquee. In solo appearances, Hope always made his audience feel at ease and comfortable with his self-deprecating humor. He worked desperately hard and succeeded but soon left the Stratford to tour midwestern cities.

From 1920 to 1937 Hope performed in all kinds of shows in vaudeville both on and off Broadway. Vaudeville was hard work for Hope. A typical show consisted of comedians running a patter of one-liners around various kinds of variety acts ranging from dancing dogs to sword-swallowers but featuring mainly dancing. Hope is considered a master of the one-liner. In later years Hope sometimes employed up to three joke writers at a time. One standard line when he boards an airplane is, "I knew it was an old plane when I found Lindbergh's lunch on the seat." He used a line in 1970 when he met with the English Royal Family: "I've never seen so much royalty. … It looks like a chess game … live!" In 1932, when fifteen million Americans suffered the joblessness of the Great Depression, Hope was earning a thousand dollars a week in his particular kind of vaudeville act. But he was not satisfied. Hope was always ambitious and wanted to improve. He yearned, as he said, "to be the best, " to be the outstanding comic in the business.


Hope and Crosby

Hope met actor and singer Bing Crosby in 1932. They liked each other immediately because their personalities and styles of acting fitted well, and they started performing together in song and dance routines. Hope met aspiring actress Delores Reade in 1933 and later married her. Already well established as a comedian by 1935, Hope that year joined the "Ziegfield Follies" and performed in cities outside New York; then on January 30, 1936, he opened in the "Follies" at New York City's Winter Garden Theatre, with such stars as Fanny Brice and Eve Arden. The "Ziegfield Follies" was a new vaudeville high for Hope. The show was the musical highlight of Broadway, consisting of dazzlingly beautiful girls and costumes, witty lines between the actors and actresses, and music by such great composers as Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin. During his years in vaudeville, Hope was on the stage with such actors as Jimmy Durante, Ethel Merman, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Al Jolson, and many others.

Although Hope had acted in some short motion picture comedies as early as 1934, he began his feature-length movie career in Hollywood in 1938, with the Paramount film The Big Broadcast of 1938 starring Hope, W.C. Fields, Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour, and Shirley Ross. This was the beginning of an active career in film entertainment for Hope, who went on to appear in fifty-two movies; six of these comprise the Road to … series featuring Hope, Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour.

Hope has always been fiercely patriotic about his adopted country. On December 7, 1941, when Japanese attack planes bombed the American naval installation in Hawaii's Pearl Harbor, thereby provoking U.S. participation in the Second World War, Hope denounced the attack. On December 16, during a radio broadcast, Hope declared his patriotism and voiced optimism about the outcome of the war: "There is no need to tell a nation to keep smiling when it's never stopped. It is that ability to laugh the makes us the great people that we are … Americans!"


Performed for the Troops

One of Hope's former stand-ins who had joined the armed forces knew of Hope's reputation for charitable work and in 1942 asked the comedian to make an entertainment tour of Alaskan Army bases. Hope enlisted Frances Langford, Jerry Colonna, Tony Romany, and other performers to put together a variety show for the troops stationed there. That was the beginning of a commitment on Hope's part that has never ended. Every year, especially during the Christmas season, Hope has spearheaded a drive to present shows to American men and women in the armed forces. His service to American troops added to Hope's established reputation for activity in the name of numerous charities and benefits, including political, cultural, and humanitarian causes. In fact, at the Academy Awards on February 21, 1941, Hope was given an honorary award "to pay tribute … to a man who has devoted his time and energy to many causes. His unselfishness in playing countless benefits has earned him a unique position in a hectic community where his untiring efforts are deeply, profoundly appreciated." Hope also won honorary Oscars in 1940, 1944, 1952, and 1965.

Hope has long been many Americans' favorite comedian, from the average radio-listener and movie-goer to the rich and powerful. He often enjoyed a close relationship with the men serving as President of the United States. Since the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, Hope has appeared many times at the White House. President Jimmy Carter, in paying tribute to the man who had entertained America for so long, commented on Hope's role as White House guest: "I've been in office 489 days. … In three weeks more I'll have stayed in the White House as many times as Bob Hope has." Hope's seventy-fifth birthday party, held in the Washington Kennedy Center to honor the United Service Organization (USO), was attended by members of Congress and many of Hope's acting friends, including John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor, and George Burns.

Another celebration was held at the Kennedy Center in 1983 when Hope turned eighty years old, this time hosted by President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy. Again Hope's friends were present to honor the occasion, including models Cheryl Tiegs and Christie Brinkley. At the celebration Hope was still what Time magazine called "The All-American Wisecracker, " and showed no signs of slowing down.

Hope can look back upon a life that has been full to the brim. One of his writers, Larry Klein, once said: "You know, if you had your life to live over again, you wouldn't have time to do it." Hope answered: "I wouldn't want to live it over again. It's been pretty exciting up to now. The encore might not be as much fun." Behind all Hope's humor is a serious core that directs his life, as evidenced by his efforts to help others less fortunate than himself. Some of his charitable activities involve golf benefits. A twelve stroke handicapper, Hope has played the game all his life, often joining presidents, Hollywood's greats, and golf's immortals on the links. Because of the benefits the game brings to charities, Hope agreed in 1964 to have the Palm Springs Classic golf tournament renamed The Bob Hope Desert Classic, and he has hosted it ever since. Hope's serious side was also apparent in the preface to his 1963 book I Owe Russia $1200, in which he wrote: "Yes, the conquest of space is within our grasp, but as we reach out we seem to have diminished the inward search. No significant breakthrough has yet been made in the art of human relations. So perhaps this is the precise moment in history for each of us to look into his heart and his conscience and determine in what way we may be responsible for our present dilemma."


Celebrated the First 90 Years

In May 1993, NBC celebrated Hope's 90th birthday with the three-hour special "Bob Hope: The First Ninety Years." The show, which won an Emmy, featured tributes from every living U.S. president at that time— Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton. By then, according to TV Guide, Hope had made more than 500 TV shows and 70 movies. Hope concluded his 60-year contract with NBC on November 23, 1996, when his final NBC TV special, Laughing With the Presidents was aired.

The Guinness Book of World Records called Hope the most honored entertainer in the world. By mid-1995, he had received more than 2, 000 awards and citations, including 54 honorary doctorate degrees, The Saturday Evening Post reported. At age 92, he released a book, video, and two compact discs commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The Saturday Evening Post printed this excerpt from Hope's book: "I was there. I saw your sons and your husbands, your brothers and your sweethearts. I saw how they worked, played, fought, and lived. I saw some of them die. I saw more courage, more good humor in the face of discomfort, more love in an era of hate, and more devotion to duty than could exist under tyranny."


Further Reading on Bob Hope

Faith, William Robert, Bob Hope: A Life in Comedy, Putnam, 1982.

Hope, Bob, I Never Left Home, Simon & Schuster, 1944.

Hope, Bob, Have Tux, Will Travel: Bob Hope's Own Story, Pocket Books, 1956.

Good Housekeeping, July 1982, pp. 107-130; December 1994, pp. 88+.

New York Times, January, 1985, p. 50.

The Saturday Evening Post, May/June 1995, pp. 16+.

Time, May 30, 1983.

TV Guide, May 21-27, 1983, pp. 14-16; May 8, 1993, p. 25

Los Angeles Times November 23, 1996, Sec: F, p: 1, col: 2.