Bob Hope walked down the steps of the Winnebago and asked us a question, and cracked us up.
In a previous post, BIG VAUDEVILLE (RED), I said that it had been my privilege to have worked two of the top stars of vaudeville. Red Skeleton was one. Bob Hope was the other. The steps they took to become household words in entertainment are quite similar. As far as my working them, I only worked them once, and I never threw a chair at Mr. Hope like I did at Mr. Skeleton.
Leslie, (Bob), Hope was born in a town just outside London, England. When he was four, his parents immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio. His father was a stone mason. His mother, a cleaner, had been a light opera singer and dancer in England, and gave young Hope a foundation in song and dance, which he used at the age of twelve to raise money by entertaining people on the city buses.
He entered amateur dance contests while in his teens; and, after a short career as a boxer and other assorted jobs, he decided to try professional show business. His career lasted eighty years, and garnered over 1,500 awards from US President, the U.S. Military, Hollywood, numerous Social organizations, honorary college degrees, awards from Foreign governments, a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, and another from the Vatican.
He began with a partner in a song and dance act. Tragedy hit when the partner ate a bad piece of coconut pie and died. It was suggested to Leslie that he change his first name, go it alone, and stress comedy. He developed a routine of one-liners in which he usually was the brunt of the joke. He spent the early years on stage and in vaudeville where he became a top name after many of the established stars left to work in films. He tried to get into the movies but failed the screen test. This blow to his ego made him work harder in vaudeville and in Broadway productions.
The year 1934 was an important one in his road to fame. He landed his radio show which lasted into the 50’s. He realized that he needed more than just a quick wit and delivery to make it go. He hired a talented group of gag writers and paid them out of his own salary. Unlike Red Skeleton, who created and portrayed the characters that populated his show, Hope hired characters like Jerry Colonna and Barbara Jo Allen to work off of. He also surrounded himself with guests like Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and his close friend, Bing Crosby. As the Golden Age of Radio waned, he switched to the new form of entertainment, television. His weekly shows were hits and he augmented them with his popular Christmas Specials.
The carefully thought out, business-like approach that he used to insure his radio show would be a hit, became a Hope trademark in all his career moves both in his entertainment moves and his financial investments, which were often done in partnership with Bing Crosby. When Bob Hope died he was considered one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood.
His work in film started also in 1934. He made six comedy shorts that bombed. Walter Winchell, an important newspaper columnist wrote about one of them, ‘When they catch John Dillinger, they are going to make him sit through it – twice’.
Hope’s big break came about when Jack Benny turned down a role in the film THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 and it was offered to Bob. It came with a contract with Paramount so he moved to Hollywood. His work in the movie gave the studio faith in his being able to handle bigger roles.
This was his first time working with Dorothy Lamour who later would become an important part of six of the successful ROAD pictures. In another bit of irony, Bing Crosby, his co-star in the ROAD series, got his start in THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1932.
The movie also gave him his theme song, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, a duet he sang with Shirley Ross. The melody was used as his walk-on music and also to close out his his shows. The melody remained the same but the lyrics were often changed by his writers to suit the situation.
He stuck to a tried and true formula in the films that followed. The self-effacing humor that marked his stand-up routine was expanded in his film roles, and he usually played a likeable coward. Two of the songs he introduced in the movies, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES and BUTTONS AND BOWS went on to win Academy Awards for Best Song; and while he had a pleasant voice, he realized it’s limitations and never tried to compete with the ‘singers’ like Crosby and Sinatra. Both Crosby and Sinatra started out in movies doing light comedy, but both eventually attacked heavy dramatic roles and won Academy Awards in acting. Not so with Bob Hope. He stuck with his standard comedic roles.
The film work he did in the 40’s was his best. The first six ROAD pictures cemented his standing as a legit movie star. He made 54 feature films in his career, but not much of his later work matched his early works in the 40’s.
His fame in Hollywood came as much from his 19 times as host of the Academy Awards as from his films. His main shtick was the fact he had never been nominated for an acting Oscar. It worked and was funny – for a while, but it grew old and became the object of biting jokes by other comedians. The Academy did award him 4 Honorary Oscars, and the important Humanitarian Oscar.
When WWII broke out in 1939, Hope was on the liner, the Queen Mary. He volunteered to entertain the passengers to keep their minds off the bad news. His first USO show took place six months before Pearl Harbor. There were 57 USO tours he headlined to entertain the troops, a few in peacetime, but most in our wars from WWII through the Persian Gulf War of 90. In all, 50 years of entertaining our military personnel.
His hard work during WWII, both for the morale of the troops and the War Effort at home, did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by America. Our taking part in the U.N. ‘conflict’ in Korea was not as popular in America, and Bob Hope’s tours dropped in popularity at home; but certainly not among our military troops fighting and freezing in Korea. And then came Viet Nam!
There was a strong anti-war sentiment when we first entered this war, and it grew greater every week we were there. The criticism extended from the politicians that were responsible for bringing us, and worse, keeping us in this civil war in the jungle, to the troops that were doing what their country demanded of them.
The USO shows had lost their appeal back home. Hope’s USO tours were paid for by the government, but also by by his sponsors and his TV network, NBC, which aired them later as Specials. Facts that were not lost on Bob Hope’s growing critics. It became harder and harder to convince entertainers to go with him. By the time of the Persian Gulf War, he had to enlist his wife, Dolores, and granddaughter to accompany him.
His marriage to Dolores was one of the longest in the history of Hollywood. It began in 1934 and lasted until his death in 2003, albeit it had several shapely road bumps over the years. The Hopes had four children, all adopted, and several grandchildren. Bob died in his 100th year. Dolores lived to be 102. They lived in the same house for almost all their married years. I wonder if anyone has tested that house’s drinking water.
He could always keep his material up to date in everything he did; but because he used the same old schtick to bring it to his audiences, his popularity as an entertainer was not bringing in new fans. The young had no ‘memories’ to thank him for, and using a golf club as a trademark prop didn’t exactly excite them. The comedians that were taking over did it by using language and subjects that were offensive to the older generations of both audience and performers. Bob Hope was old hat.
When I worked Bob Hope, he worked mostly benefits, conventions, and in this particular case, a birthday party. And of course, played a lot of golf.
One of the local billionaires was turning 80 and was going to turn over the reins of his privately owned empire to a person to be announced at the party. His two daughters put together a real gala. They rented the St. Paul Civic Center for a week, put the matter in the hands of Paul Ridgeway, who was just coming off planning and supervising a Super Bowl festivity and the visit of the Pope John II to Denver.
Paul, one of my favorite people to work for, had about 20 local stagehands working about 16 hours a day, for 5 days preparing for this birthday party. And he hired Bob Hope to attend.
We were fine tuning everything for the event to start in a couple hours, when a Winnebago ‘dressing room’ pulled in backstage. The driver came down the steps and then held Bob Hope’ arm to help him down.
His appearance was a surprise to us stagehands, as it would be to the party goers, except for the family. Shadow Show Business. Celebrities come into town for a private function. Do their bit without the press or the general public aware that they are in town. In! Out! Pick up a nice paycheck. Over the years, I worked many in this Shadow Show Business, from oldies like Chubby Checkers to current big timers like Elton John. And of course, Bob Hope.
Hope, like Red Skeleton, had a reputation in the business for being a friend to stagehands and the other workers that made the business go. That day was no different.
‘Hey, guys,’ he hollered to us, ‘Got a question. Do any of you know the name of this old fart that I am suppose to be best of friends with?’ He cracked us up and then continued to entertain us.
‘They tell me you have been working day and night for almost a week to put this thing together. When I heard this, I figured I had better make sure the check cleared the bank. Wouldn’t be the first time I got stiffed on a gig. But you stagehands know all about that kind of stuff, don’t you?
‘This hoopla’s got a bigger budget than the ROAD pictures Crosby and I use to do. At least that’s what Crosby always told me, “just a small budget, Bob, didn’t have much left over to pay the actors a lot. I always got enough from each picture to splurge and get a new set of golf clubs. And Crosby would come and pick me up to go golfing after each picture, and he was always driving a brand new car. You don’t think…Naw, not Bing.
‘This morning the two daughters, a blond and a brunette, and the blond’s husband came up to my room for a Q & A session on what kind of thing I was going to do for their father, you know, my ‘old best friend’.
‘I said I would lay out some golf jokes. Everybody likes golf jokes. The son-in-law agreed. His wife smiled. The other sister, the brunette, said her dad doesn’t golf. Well, then how about some political jokes. Again the son-in-law agreed. His wife smiled. And the brunette said her dad didn’t like politics or politicians. I can do some movie jokes, I told them. Always goes over big at the Oscars. The son-in-law agreed. The blond smiled. And the brunette said she can’t remember her dad ever going to a movie much less watch the Oscars.’
Hope threw up his hands. ‘What does this guy do for a hobby?, he asked us.
‘Makes money,’ one of the hands hollered. We all laughed, including Bob.
‘Well,’ so the son-in-law said, ‘Just do what you want and when everybody laughs, so will Dad. He won’t get the jokes but he’s too nice a guy not to go along with the others.”
‘So I agreed, and then I said maybe for a throw in I’ll sing a couple old songs. He must like old songs. And the brunette pipes up and says, “If we wanted singing, we would have met Sinatra’s price”. So much for thinking I was their first choice.’
I was sitting backstage with a headset on so I didn’t hear any of Bob’s routine, but the audience must have enjoyed it by all the laughter and applause during it.
After the big announcement that the son-in-law would be the new head of the empire, the band began to play and the audience danced and took advantage of the many open bars. Bob Hope came through the curtains. We were trying to get ahead of the long Out, that couldn’t really start until the party goers left, by quietly tearing down what we could back stage.
Before Bob got in the limo, which had replaced the Winnebago, he thanked us and shook our hands.’I admire you guys,’ he said, ‘ You do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Not like me, getting paid for doing some old, old jokes and lying about being a good friend to the birthday boy. But heck, that’s Show Business.’
When he got into the limo, he rolled down the window and said to those of us close by, ‘It was no big surprise to anyone that my newest old best friend made the son-in-law his successor. He’s too old- school to trust his company to a woman, even if she is his daughter. But I will lay you odds that in less than a year, that nice son-in-law quits and the brunette takes over.’
Hope was right. He could read people just like he could read the FINANCIAL TIMES. The son-in-law wanted out and the brunette took over; and it wasn’t a surprise to anyone, except maybe her father, that she did so good and even enlarged the empire. And over the years she hired us stagehands for all her big public functions; and each time I saw her, I thought back on the time, I got to work Bob Hope. And when I think back I hear a song in my head, a song which countless of our military hear whenever they think back on having seen Bob Hope:
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES