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Celebrations galore mark 100th birthday of Bob Hope

| Sunday, May 25, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- One hundred years ago on May 29, a son named Leslie Towns Hope was born to a stonemason and his wife in the London suburb of Eltham.

The boy grew up to become the most American of comedians: Bob Hope.

The family moved to Cleveland when the boy was 4. "I left England when I found out that I couldn't be king," Hope later quipped. Like many immigrants, he became strongly patriotic.

He entertained troops in far-off lands, often near combat zones, during every major 20th century American conflict except World War I. He was a tireless performer for charitable causes. He appeared before 11 presidents, even playing golf with several of them.

As a performer in radio, movies and television, Hope captured the American idiom. His crisp delivery was tuned to the latest slang. His barbs at politicians and other public figures were well-aimed but never hurt. And unlike many later comedians, his humor was always fit for family audiences.

Since appearing on his final TV special on his 90th birthday, Hope's health has gradually worsened. No longer able to communicate, he may be unaware of all the celebrations for his 100th -- and this was a man who cherished honors.

Linda Hope, the oldest of Hope's four adopted children, believes her father realizes that his birthday is approaching. "Every time we talk about it, he has a big grin on his face," she said. "He always said that he was determined to outlive his grandfather, who passed away shortly before his 100th birthday.

"His health is very frail at this point, and the doctor won't let him out in crowds with all the infection going around. He's pretty much home in his room and out on the patio."

In his prime, Hope received more than 1,500 awards -- from Queen Elizabeth, the Pope, the Motion Picture Academy (four honorary Oscars), the White House, Congress and dozens of universities (54 honorary degrees).

As a young man, Hope boxed briefly under the name "Packy East." In the 1950s, he was part-owner of the Cleveland Indians baseball team.

The 100th birthday celebrations include a two-hour NBC special tonight (a rerun from Easter Sunday that drew 12.6 million viewers); a Hollywood Walk of Fame event proclaiming Hope as Citizen of the Century; release of 17 Hope movies on DVD by Universal Studios; a traveling exhibit at the Reagan Library; Hollywood and Vine being renamed Bob Hope Square; a BBC special; an A&E biography; film festivals in Los Angeles, New York, London and Chicago; and renaming the street where he lives Bob Hope Way.

Two days before Hope's birthday, his wife, Dolores, turns 94. The couple met on Dec. 21, 1933, when Bob walked into a Manhattan nightclub and heard a statuesque beauty singing "It's Only a Paper Moon." Hope persuaded Dolores Reade to join his vaudeville act, and they were married in 1934. They've been together 69 years in a town not known for marital longevity.

The usually affable Dolores has been under a doctor's care for severe muscular pain and was unable to be interviewed for this article.

Daughter Linda, unofficial keeper of the Hope legacy, said her dad "was a great father, full of fun."

"He made such fun for all of us, like giving us golf lessons with our own little clubs," she said. "And the ordinary things that fathers do: going out to restaurants, the theater, circuses. It was always a fun-filled thing with him, because he was spontaneous."

For many years the Hope children observed Christmas Day while their father took his troupe of entertainers to far-off places.

"We had two Christmases," Linda explained. "We would open a few presents on Christmas Day. Two or three days later, Dad would return and we'd have more presents. Dad would always bring us little exotic pieces he picked up on his trips."

Those who helped make Hope funny over the years agree that he was a benign boss.

"He was the easiest person for a writer to work for that there ever was," comments Mort Lachman, who also toiled as director and producer for Hope from 1947 to 1975. "He was the opposite of most comics: he didn't hate the writers."

Lachman recalled his first job with Hope. He was in a room with a dozen other joke writers, most from New York, all pitching for the star's radio show. Lachman, "an introvert from Seattle," shyly wrote a joke on a used envelope. Hope grabbed it, read it and crumpled it. When the pitches ended, he recited the young man's joke. Big laugh.

Hope muttered to Lachman, "You didn't think I was that funny, did you?"

Gene Perret, who contributed gags from 1969 to Hope's retirement in 1993, recalls: "There were two things he always wanted with him when he traveled -- a big box with all his makeup in it and a beat-up briefcase full of jokes. That was all he needed on the road."

Hope always steered away from racy material, Perret added, remembering when Hope rejected a joke for the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's reign. "I don't want to do it in front of the Queen," the comedian said.

When Perret argued, Hope said, "You do it. But remember, she still has the power to behead."

"The public Hope was like the private Hope," remarks Hal Kanter, who co-wrote six screenplays for Hope, including "The Road to Bali" and "Off Limits." "He appreciated good dirty jokes, but he never used coarse language."

Mel Shavelson started as a gag writer on Hope's radio show in 1938 and later directed and co-wrote "The Seven Little Foys" and "Beau James." Hope played vaudeville comedian Eddie Foy in the former and New York mayor Jimmy Walker in the latter.

"I had to twist his arm, in a sense, because those were about the only two films in which he did not play Bob Hope," says Shavelson. "I believe every comedian has to be an actor first, and he's a very good actor but he's ashamed of it. So if he played a serious scene, he would always break up the crew afterward with some kind of gag."

Phyllis Diller, who became a regular on the Hope shows, remembers their first meeting: She had been booked into a second-rate hotel in Washington, D.C.

"I had an audience full of hookers," she recalled, "and I was doing my little act about domesticity. It wasn't going over, so Bob saw me bomb. But he told me I was great. That was the turning point in my career."

Lachman touched on Bob Hope's great appeal:

"He was everyman. He wasn't better than anybody else. When we were in Vietnam, he was as big a coward as anybody. He was the guy who never got the girl, who always said the wrong thing, who couldn't quite dance or sing," Lachman said. "That's why he represented all those servicemen out there who were doing the same things."

Bob Hope's film credits


Feature films with Bob Hope:

  • "The Big Broadcast of 1938," 1938.
  • "College Swing," 1938.
  • "Give Me a Sailor," 1938.
  • "Thanks for the Memory," 1938.
  • "Never Say Die," 1939.
  • "Some Like It Hot," 1939.
  • "The Cat and the Canary," 1939.
  • "Road to Singapore," 1940.
  • "The Ghostbreakers," 1940.
  • "Caught in the Draft," 1941.
  • "Nothing but the Truth," 1941.
  • "Road to Zanzibar," 1941.
  • "Louisiana Purchase," 1941.
  • "My Favorite Blonde," 1942.
  • "Road to Morocco," 1942.
  • "Star-Spangled Rhythm," 1942.
  • "They Got Me Covered," 1943.
  • "Let's Face It," 1943.
  • "The Princess and the Pirate," 1944.
  • "Road to Utopia," 1945.
  • "Monsieur Beaucaire," 1946.
  • "My Favorite Brunette," 1947.
  • "Where There's Life," 1947.
  • "Road to Rio," 1948.
  • "The Paleface," 1948.
  • "Sorrowful Jones," 1949.
  • "The Great Lover," 1949.
  • "Fancy Pants," 1950.
  • "The Lemon Drop Kid," 1951.
  • "My Favorite Spy," 1951.
  • "Son of Paleface," 1952.
  • "Road to Bali," 1953.
  • "Off Limits," 1953.
  • "Here Come the Girls," 1953.
  • "Casanova's Big Night," 1954.
  • "The Seven Little Foys," 1955.
  • "That Certain Feeling," 1956.
  • "The Iron Petticoat," 1956.
  • "Beau James," 1957.
  • "Paris Holiday," 1958.
  • "Alias Jesse James," 1959.
  • "The Facts of Life," 1960.
  • "Bachelor in Paradise," 1961.
  • "Road to Hong Kong," 1962.
  • "Critic's Choice," 1963.
  • "Call Me Bwana," 1963.
  • "A Global Affair," 1964.
  • "I'll Take Sweden," 1965.
  • "Boy Did I Get a Wrong Number," 1966.
  • "Eight on the Lam," 1967.
  • "The Private Navy of Sergeant O'Farrell," 1968.
  • "How To Commit Marriage," 1969.
  • "Cancel My Reservation," 1972.
  • "The Muppet Movie," 1979.
  • "Spies Like Us," 1985.

    Highlights in Bob Hope's life


    May 29, 1903: Leslie Towns Hope born in Eltham, England.

    1907: Family emigrates to the United States, settling in Cleveland.

    1920s: Becomes rising vaudeville star, at first as part of a dancing act.

    1927: New York stage debut in "Sidewalks of New York."

    1932: Makes radio debut on "Capitol Family Hour."

    1932-36: Appears in several important Broadway productions, including "Roberta," the 1935 "Ziegfeld Follies" and "Red, Hot and Blue."

    1934: Marries singer Dolores Reade. They adopted four children: Linda, Anthony, William Kelly and Honora.

    1934: First radio show premieres, beginning a record 62-year affiliation with NBC.

    1938: Feature film debut in "The Big Broadcast of 1938," in which he and Shirley Ross sing "Thanks for the Memory."

    Feb. 23, 1939: First Oscar appearance, presenting the awards for best short films.

    Feb. 29, 1940: First appearance as Academy Awards master of ceremonies. In all, he served as an emcee or co-host 20 times between 1940 and 1978.

    1940: Co-stars with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in first of the "Road" pictures, "The Road to Singapore."

    May 6, 1941: Plays first camp show for servicemen at March Field in California.

    1948: First Christmas tour for servicemen taking part in Berlin airlift.

    1950: Makes first television specials, including first Christmas special.

    March 19, 1953: Serves as co-host for first televised Oscar ceremony.

    1969: Receives Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson.

    March 29, 1978: Host of Oscar ceremony for the last time.

    December 1990: Goes to Persian Gulf to entertain troops on the eve of the Gulf War; his last Christmas show for troops overseas. He joked: "If anybody tells you I was in the Civil War, I'm denying it."

    May 1993: 90th birthday celebrated with a TV special featuring President Clinton and former presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush.

    November 1996: NBC airs his last special, "Laughing with the Presidents."

    March 1997: U.S. Navy christens the USNS Bob Hope, a 950-foot, 33,000-ton support ship.

    May 2000: Library of Congress opens the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment.

    Hope's signature song


    "Thanks for the Memory" became Bob Hope's signature song with the release of his very first feature film, "The Big Broadcast of 1938."

    Famed columnist Damon Runyon cited Hope's duet with Shirley Ross as a highlight of the film, writing, "What a delivery, what a song, what an audience reception!"

    The song was an instant hit and won composer Ralph Rainger and lyricist Leo Robin the Academy Award for best song.

    What are lyrics about a faded love -- "Thanks for the memory, of rainy afternoons, swingy Harlem tunes, motor trips and burning lips and burning toast and prunes. How lovely it was" -- doing in a Hope comedy?

    The film, starring W.C. Fields, depicts a race between two ocean liners. Hope plays a master of ceremonies for shipboard entertainment. As a plot twist, all three of his fictional ex-wives happen to be on board for the Atlantic crossing.

    Ross plays his most recent ex-wife, and the song caps a bittersweet look back at their failed marriage.

    Robin said later that the challenge was to write a song showing that the characters accepted the reality of their divorce but had "a large residue of nostalgia and a strong mutual affection."

    - The Associated Press

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