Authors: Richard Zoglin
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On a balmy October morning in 2010, one hundred people were gathered on a dock in Battery Park at the foot of Manhattan Island. They were a well-dressed group—the men in jackets and ties, the women in business suits. Many were quite old and needed help climbing into the boat that had been chartered to ferry them across New York Harbor to Ellis Island. Once there, they made their way to the second floor of the cavernous Immigration Museum building, where rows of chairs had been set up in a long, book-lined room, which was about to be dedicated as the Bob Hope Memorial Library.
Linda Hope, the late comedian’s seventy-one-year-old daughter, stepped to the microphone to emcee the ceremony. She introduced the smattering of celebrities on hand—actress Arlene Dahl, baseball legend Yogi Berra, two US congressmen—and several clip reels highlighting Bob’s life and career: his childhood years in England, where he was born in 1903, and Cleveland, Ohio, where he and his family emigrated when he was four and a half; scenes from his movies and TV shows; excerpts from his tours to entertain US troops around the globe. His
granddaughter, Miranda, accompanying herself on guitar, sang a folk ballad called “Immigrant Eyes.” Dick Cavett popped up from the audience to tell a couple of impromptu stories about Hope, whom he had befriended in the comedian’s later years. Michael Feinstein, the cabaret singer and musical archivist, closed the event with a wistful solo rendition of Bob’s theme song, “Thanks for the Memory.”
It was another chapter in what has surely been the most determined campaign of legacy building in Hollywood history. A few months before the Ellis Island ceremony, Hope’s family and friends gathered in Washington, DC, to inaugurate a new Hope-centric exhibit on political humor at the Library of Congress, where the comedian’s voluminous letters and papers are stored. A year earlier, the Hope legacy tour made a stop on the deck of the USS
in San Diego Harbor to mark the introduction of a postage stamp bearing Hope’s likeness. Memorials to Hope have proliferated across the American landscape. You can walk down streets named for Bob Hope in El Paso, Texas, Miami, Florida, and Branson, Missouri; cross the Cuyahoga River on the Hope Memorial Bridge in Cleveland, Ohio; and bypass the congestion at Los Angeles International by flying into the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California. Hope’s name is memorialized on hospitals, theaters, chapels, schools, performing arts centers, and American Legion posts from Miami to Okinawa. The US Air Force named a transport plane for him, and the Navy christened a cargo ship in his honor. Bob Hope Village, in Shalimar, Florida, provides a home for retired members of the Air Force and their surviving spouses. The World Golf Hall of Fame, in St. Augustine, Florida, features an exhibit celebrating Hope’s passion for the game, “Bob Hope: Shanks for the Memory.” A dozen colleges offer scholarships in Hope’s name. Another dozen organizations give out awards in his honor, among them the Air Force’s annual Spirit of Hope Award and the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, presented by the Academy of Television Arts & Science.
His punchy, two-syllable name, so emblematic of the optimistic American spirit; the unmistakable profile, with its jutting chin and famously ski-slope-shaped nose; the indelible images of Hope performing for throngs of cheering GIs in World War II and Vietnam—it was
once impossible to imagine a time when the first question that needed to be answered about the most popular comedian in American history would be: Who was Bob Hope, and why did he matter?
By the time he died—on July 27, 2003, two months after his hundredth birthday—Hope’s reputation was already fading, tarnished, or being actively disparaged. He had, unfortunately, stuck around too long. The comedian of the century, who began his vaudeville career in the 1920s and was still headlining TV specials in the 1990s, continued performing well into his dotage, and a younger generation knew him mainly as a cue-card-reading antique, cracking dated jokes about buxom beauty queens and Gerald Ford’s golf game.
“World’s Last Bob Hope Fan Dies of Old Age,” the
’s fake headline announced a year before his death. Writer Christopher Hitchens expressed the disaffection of many of the baby-boom generation in an online dismissal of Hope just a few days after his passing:
“To be paralyzingly, painfully, hopelessly unfunny is a serious drawback, even lapse, in a comedian. And the late Bob Hope devoted a fantastically successful and well-remunerated lifetime to showing that a truly unfunny man can make it as a comic. There is a laugh here, but it is on us.”
Hope never recovered from the Vietnam years, when his hawkish defense of the war, close ties to President Nixon (who actively courted Hope’s help in selling his Vietnam policies to the American people), and the country-club smugness of his gibes about antiwar protesters and long-haired hippies, all made him a political pariah for the peace-and-love generation. His tours to entertain US troops during World War II had made him a national hero. By the turbulent 1960s, he was a court-approved jester, the Establishment’s comedian—hardly a badge of honor in an era when hipper, more subversive comics, from Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce to George Carlin and Richard Pryor, were showing that stand-up comedy could be a vehicle for personal expression, social criticism, and political protest. Even before Hope became a doddering relic, he had become an anachronism.
Yet the scope of Hope’s achievement, viewed from the distance of a few years, is almost unimaginable. By nearly any measure, he was the most popular entertainer of the twentieth century, the only one
who achieved success—often No. 1–rated success—in every major genre of mass entertainment in the modern era: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, popular song, and live concerts. He virtually invented stand-up comedy in the form we know it today. His face, voice, and stage mannerisms (the nose, the lopsided smile, the confident, sashaying walk, and the ever-present golf club) made him more recognizable to more people than any other entertainer since Charlie Chaplin. A tireless stage performer who traveled the country and the world for more than half a century doing live shows for audiences in the thousands, he may well have been seen in person by more people than any other human being in history.
His achievements as an entertainer, however, only hint at the breadth and depth of his impact. For the way he marketed himself, managed his celebrity, cultivated his brand, and converted his show-business fame into a larger, more consequential role for himself on the public stage, Bob Hope was the most important entertainer of the century. Viewed from the largest historical perspective—the way he intersects with the grand themes of the century, from the Greatest Generation’s crusade to preserve democracy in World War II, to the social, political, and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s—one could argue, without too much exaggeration, that he was the
His life almost perfectly spanned the century, and to recount his career is to recapitulate the history of modern American show business. He began in vaudeville, first as a song-and-dance man and then as an emcee and comedian, working his way up from the amateur shows of his Cleveland hometown to headlining at New York’s legendary Palace Theatre. He segued to Broadway, where he costarred in some of the era’s classic musicals, appeared with legends such as Fanny Brice and Ethel Merman, and introduced standards by great American composers such as Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. Hope became a national star on radio, hosting a weekly comedy show on NBC that was America’s No. 1–rated radio program for much of the early 1940s and remained in the top five for more than a decade.
He came relatively late to Hollywood, making his feature-film
debut, at age thirty-four, in
The Big Broadcast of 1938
, where he sang “Thanks for the Memory”—which became his universally identifiable, infinitely adaptable theme song and the first of many pop standards that, almost as a sideline, he introduced in movies. With an almost nonstop string of box-office hits such as
The Cat and the Canary
Caught in the Draft
, and the popular
pictures with Bing Crosby, Hope ranked among Hollywood’s top ten box-office stars for a decade, reaching the No. 1 spot in 1949.
Hope brought a new kind of character and attitude to the movies. He was the brash but self-mocking wise guy, a braggart who turned chicken in the face of danger, a skirt chaser who quivered like Jell-O when the skirt chased back.
“I grew up loving him, emulating him, and borrowing from him,” said Woody Allen, one of the few comics to acknowledge how much he was influenced by Hope—though nearly everyone was. Hope played variations on his cowardly character in spy comedies, ghost stories, costume epics, Westerns—but always with a winking nod to the audience, an acknowledgment that he was an actor playing a role. Especially in his interplay with Crosby in the
films, Hope often spoke directly to the camera or stepped out of character to make cracks about the studio, his career, and his Hollywood friends. This improvisational, fourth-wall-breaking spirit was a radical break from the stylized sophistication of the 1930s romantic comedies, or the artifice of other vaudeville comics who transitioned into movies, such as W. C. Fields or the Marx Brothers. And it perfectly met the psychological needs of a nation at a time of war and world crisis. As the newsreels broadcast scenes of thundering European dictators, jackbooted military troops, and docile, mindlessly cheering crowds, Hope’s humor was both an escape and an affirmation of the American spirit: feisty, independent, indomitable.