BIG VAUDEVILLE (BOB)

hOPE IN VAUDEBILLE

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

BOB HOPE

BIG VAUDEVILLE (RED)

Red Skeleton

 

Red Skeleton joined a medicine show at the age of ten. In his late teens he began his vaudeville career. When Red was in his late 20’s he began a successful career in radio and movies. He pioneered in television starting in his late 30’s.

He was in his 70’s when I threw the chair at him.

Red Skeleton was one of the two BIG vaudeville stars that I was privileged to have worked.

 

American vaudeville reached it’ peak in the 1880s. It began it’s decline in the early 1900s, the dawn of movies. At first, when the films were very short, some vaudeville theaters incorporated a film in with the live show. But the films grew in length and in popularity.

The release of D.W. Griffith’s epic THE BIRTH OF A NATION sounded the death warning of vaudeville as America’ favorite form of entertainment. Running over three hours, this film could never be a part of the vaudeville format.

An old stagehand told me how his father, one of the first movie projectionist, toured the movie from city to city. Sometimes there would be a live vaudeville show during the day and a showing of BIRTH at night. Sometimes, depending on how big the city was, the vaudeville theater would simply turn the theater into a movie house and play it for an extended run.

The popularity of movies caused an exodus of the top vaudeville stars. They realized that they could make more money in films with a lot less work and travel. In a very short time, names like W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, and many others left and made their names in the movies.

Another entertainment phenomenon was the birth of the Golden Age of Radio. Actually radio was more popular than movies, because it reached a greater audience, it was free. Some vaudeville stars like Edgar Bergen, Fanny Brice, Burns and Allen, etc., became big stars in radio but never really made a hit in the movies.

When the vaudeville circuits had lost that first wave of headliners, two things occurred. Another wave of talent filled the gap at the top and helped vaudeville survive for another few decades. Names like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, Judy Garland, and Red Skeleton and others headlined the bills and became household names.

The second occurrence was these greats and many of their routines were filmed for posterity. I have never really enjoyed, or perhaps learned to enjoy, much of what passes for today’s comedic movies; but I never tire of my dvd collections the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and others of that era.

 

Richard, (Red), Skelton was born two months after his father, a grocer and prior to that a circus clown, died. His mother lost the store and the house shortly afterwards. Red went to work before he was 7, selling newspapers, to help his mother out. Barely 10 years old, he left home and joined a traveling medicine show, sending money back to his mother, a practice that continued until her s death.

If anyone personifies the entertainment in America in the 20th Century, it would be Red Skelton. Discovering that he had a gift to make people laugh and he could get paid for it, he followed his work in a medicine show with work in a minstrel show, followed by work on a riverboat. He joined a dramatic stock company but he was too comedic for drama. He was 16 when he worked as a clown and sometimes lion tamer with the circus his father had worked for. He worked as a comic in a burlesque theater. He became a popular emcee for dance marathons. And this was before he was even 18.

He fell for a contestant in one of the marathons, Edna, who worked as an usher in a Pantages vaudeville house, and the two were married. He was almost 18 and she was just 16. She ‘home-schooled’ Red and he got a high school diploma. They worked up an act for clubs and toured some theaters in Canada, where a vaudeville promoter offered Red work in New York if he got some different material.

Again Edna to the rescue. She watched how different coffee drinkers dunked their doughnuts and helped Red develop the skit, Doughnut Dunkers. This show of Red’s ability for physical comedy led to more of the same, and he began to create his cast of characters which would grow in numbers and in popularity over the years. He became a vaudeville celeb in 1937. Soon he was too big for vaudeville, and began doing his skits in Broadway musicals.

He got his first radio show gig in 1938, again with under the direction of Edna working out vocal skits and new characters for him. He got his own radio show in 1941. His radio skits numbered well over 300 and his show was so popular, hundreds of people were unable to get seats for each show.

Red had failed a screen test in 1932 but in 1938 he did make two shorts, but no more film offers. In 1940, Mickey Rooney saw Red perform at F. D. R.’s birthday celebration and convinced both Red and MGM to resurrect his short film career. At first he was used as comic relief, but soon began playing leads. He was usually cast as a good hearted, naive, bumbler who saved the day and got the girl.

During these years, his mentor and good friend was a king of physical comedy, Buster Keaton. In later years, Red developed a friendship and collaborated with the great classic mime, Marcel Marceau.

America’s world erupted in 1941. Red was married with children and was undraftable. Like many show business celebs in the same boat, he devoted a great deal of time selling War Bonds and working at places like the Hollywood Canteen entertaining our Service people.

Red’s world erupted in 1942. His wife, Edna, told him that she would stay on as his adviser and money-manager, but not as his wife. He didn’t believe her until the divorce papers were served. Now he was unmarried and he got drafted. Because his birth dates had been juggled many times over the years, both MGM and his radio sponsors tried to keep him out of the Army by claiming he was too old to be drafted. Red gladly accepted being drafted.

He wasn’t placed in the Entertainment Corps but the Regular Army. During Basic the officers pulled rank and he did his required work during the day and entertained the officers at night and on the weekends. A cruel schedule!

He finally got transferred and became a more than full-time entertainer. Alone, no cameras or dancing girls, just Red and his ‘cast’ of his familiar characters toured in both the U.S. and Europe. Sometimes he stayed in one place and one audience was replaced with another. Sometimes he was sent from one sector to another the same day. Shows night and day. There was times he did ten shows in one day. The longest he stayed in one country was in Italy when the fighting was the fiercest.

The constant work, the constant moving around, the constant stress, coupled with his problems with Edna, and the fact that a woman he became engaged to married someone else, all this took his toll on his health. He developed a stutter and throat problems that had to be operated back in the States. He was given a medical discharge and had to undergo months of strict rest.

That early discharged bothered Skeleton and several years later he used his dark time to tour Korea and Japan. Again, no hoopla, no cameras, but his time he took an emcee, Jamie Farr, along with him.

Farr had worked on Red’s radio show before being drafted in WWII. He was on Active Reserve when he toured with Red. Little did Farr know while touring Korea that that country would serve as a backdrop for M.A.S.H., a TV show that would make him a household name. He never would have gotten if it wasn’t for Red. Farr had decided to drop out of show business to support his recently widowed mother. When he told Skelton that, Red gave him money and hired him under a private contract. Farr was able to stay in show business and eventully got the big break playing Corporal Klinger in M.A.S.H.

Red was one of the first to realize the impact TV would have; but because MGM’s contract would not allow him to go on TV, he had to wait until 1951 when the contract expired to make his leap into the new medium. For 20 years his show was a must-view for most of America. From a half hour to a full hour, from black and white to pioneering in color, from basically a vehicle for Red and his ‘cast’ of characters, it became a full blown variety show with the biggest names in the business lining up to be his guest stars.

Then some executive-suit at CBS decided variety shows were old-hat. Red got the bad news while perfoming in Vegas. His, and other popular shows like Ed Sullvan’s and Jackie Gleason’s got the axe.

 

For years afterword Skeleton was in a funk. He devoted his time to writing fiction and to painting his popular clown portraits.

Finally, he remembered his love of entertaining live audiences. He began to tour, bringing his cast of characters to his older fans and to his new fans. It was during this period that I got to work performance of the great entertainer

 

It was at Northrop Auditorium at the U. of Mn. I was head props. My nephew, Mark, had been props for Red a few months before at the State Fair. He told me about a bit that Red did. He asks for a chair. The prop man brings out a folded chair and throws it at Skeleton.

The punch line is as the prop man leaves the stage is, ‘I guess maybe I never should taken his girlfriend out for supper last night.’

Prior to the show, Red explained the schtick to me. ‘Come on stage so the audience can see you. Look mad. Then throw the chair so it lands about ten feet from me. Throw it hard. Don’t worry about it hitting me. Once it hits the floor it slides and I just stop it with my foot. Look mad. The madder you look the bigger the laugh.’

I played the game, but something happened! When the chair hit the floor, instead of sliding, it bounced right up again. It continued to fly toward Red. For a brief second I thought perhaps this happened sometimes. But the look on Red’s face told me this was not something that happened ever before.

One of my favorite comedians. I loved his TV shows. More importantly, my mother loved his TV shows. She would sit in her big chair in the living room and actually watch the entire program without falling asleep, or she would argue, ‘I wasn’t sleeping. I was just resting my eyes.’

And now I am going to be responsible for harming him!

Red remained still, watching as the chair flew toward him. Then at the last second, he reached back to his youth and made like a bullfighter, turning slightly, leaning slightly, and allowing the chair to sail harmless pass past him. It hit the floor but stayed onstage.

I gasped along with the audience. Red ignored the chair. Ignored the punch line. He stepped center stage, crushed his hat and went into a Clem Kaddilehopper skit.

He did several other bits, still ignoring the chair, and finished his show. He came back to acknowledge the standing ovation. For an encore he did his popular Pledge of Alligence. He bowed and finished with his familiar sign off line, ‘Good night and God bless.’

When the house was clear, I went and picked up the chair. I thought I found the reason why it bounced back up. Instead of just small rubber tips on each leg, there were large rubber boots. I presumed it hit just right and the boots caused it to bounce.

When Red went to leave, he stopped on stage to tip the spot operator. Then he came to me. I started to apologize and explain why I thought the chair did as it did. He just miled and waved it off. ‘Thanks God,’ I said, ‘Your got out of the way in time.’

‘And thank Buster Keaton for being such a great teacher,’ he laughed. ‘I never liked that shtick. My agent’s nephew thinks he’s a gag writer. Now I have a reason to drop it without hurting anybody’s feelings.

‘You know,’ he continued, ‘first time I forgot a punch line. The very first time. I’m getting old, son.’

He shook my hand and palmed off a $20 bill into it. And then he said,

‘Good night and may God bless.’

 

 

 

BETSY’S SMILE

Betsy Palmer

Yet another one of my favorites died. Betsy Palmer, age 88, died of natural causes.

She started her career in a 15 minute TV soap opera back in 1951 and continued as an actress and television personality the rest of her life. During the 50’s and 60’s she was one of the most popular and well-known entertainers on TV.

And yet, all the news of her death leads off with her playing a murderous cook in the FRIDAY THE 13TH movie series. She was a true pioneer of American TV, and yet they focus on her having played in slasher pictures. Heck, I’d rather they led off with a gossipy fact like she lived with James Dean for eight months, no easy task, or that she remained a good friend of Joan Crawford up until the day Miss Crawford died, again, no easy task. Or, how about the fact that she had a smile that could light up the room and that smile never left her face when she was appearing as herself.

Betsy Palmer was a guest on all the big game shows of the 50’s and 60’s. Those years, game shows on network TV were as big as ‘reality’ shows are today. She was the first ‘letter turner’ on WHEEL OF FORTUNE, a few years before Vanna was even born. She was a mainstay on I’VE GOT A SECRET for 12 years. During those years she also was a regular on THE TODAY SHOW. She had personality, wit, and — that smile.

Palmer studied at the Actor’s Studio and was a fine actress on TV, the stage, motion pictures. During the Golden Age of Television, she was appearing in many of the great playhouse dramas, all live. Her resume includes work on Broadway and theaters all over the country. Heavy dramatic parts, comedic parts, parts in musicals. Her movies credits include MISTER ROBERTS with Henry Fonda, QUEEN BEE with Joan Crawford, among many other credits in movies that don’t center around blood and gore.

I had the privilege of working Miss Palmer in a touring revival of GIGI. She played the part of Gigi’s aunt Alicia.

It was a good production. Louis Jourdan who was the young suitor in the movie, played the part of the old advisor, a part played by Maurice Chevalier in the movie. Sadly, Mr. Jourdan also passed away recently. He was not only a movie star, he was a ‘hero’ in WWII. Refusing to do propaganda movies for he Nazis, he manged to escape and join his father fighting in the French Resistance. In his movies he was known for playing a suave gentleman. That week of working with him, I came away with the impression he that didn’t have to work hard for those portrayals. I found him to be a very suave gentleman in real life also.

As far as working with Miss Palmer… I always remembered her for her perkiness, her wit, and of course, her smile. I must admit I came prepared to dislike her. I just didn’t believe her real persona could ever match the one she had in front of a camera. I mean, how could anyone have that big a smile all the time.

And boy, was I surprised!!!

She was great to work with. She was always laughing and talking with us as if she knew us all her life. One of my cues was to help her down some escape stairs. She would stand on the top step and wouldn’t move until I took her by the arm.

The last performance, at the bottom of the stairs, she confessed that she really didn’t need my help, but she just wanted me to hold her arm. I told her I kind of knew that about half way down the stairs the first performance. She gave me a kiss on the cheek and told me that would be our little secret. I guess now I won’t be in trouble for revealing that little secret.

R.I.P. Miss Betsy Palmer. I pity those who remember you mostly as a deranged knife wielder. I’ll always remember you as a real professional, as a joy to be around, and of course, I’ll always remember your smile.

And that’s a wrap.