The Talented Bob Hope Part Two
Jerry Colonna and Bob Hope as caricatured by Sam Berman for NBC’s 1947 promotional book
Hope’s career in broadcasting began on radio in 1934. His first regular series for NBC Radio was the Woodbury Soap Hour in 1937, on a 26-week contract. A year later, The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope began, and Hope signed a ten-year contract with the show’s sponsor, Lever Brothers. He hired eight writers and paid them out of his salary of $2,500 a week. The original staff included Mel Shavelson, Norman Panama, Jack Rose, Sherwood Schwartz, and Schwartz’s brother Al. The writing staff eventually grew to fifteen. The show became the top radio program in the country. Regulars on the series included Jerry Colonna and Barbara Jo Allen as spinster Vera Vague. Hope continued his lucrative career in radio through to the 1950s, when radio’s popularity began being overshadowed by the upstart television medium.
NBC comedy specials
Hope (right) with his brother Jack (seated), who produced his early 1950s show. Standing between them is comedian Jack Benny.
Hope did many specials for the NBC television network in the following decades, beginning in April 1950. He was one of the first people to use cue cards. The shows often were sponsored by General Motors (1955–61), Chrysler (1963–73), and Texaco (1975–85). Hope’s Christmas specials were popular favorites and often featured a performance of “Silver Bells”—from his 1951 film The Lemon Drop Kid—done as a duet with an often much younger female guest star such as Olivia Newton-John, Barbara Eden, and Brooke Shields, or with his wife Dolores, a former singer with whom he dueted on two specials. Hope’s 1970 and 1971 Christmas specials for NBC—filmed in Vietnam in front of military audiences at the height of the war—are on the list of the Top 46 U.S. network prime-time telecasts. Both were seen by more than 60 percent of the U.S. households watching television.
Hope with James Garner (1961)
In 1992, Hope made a guest appearance as himself on the animated Fox series The Simpsons, in the episode titled “Lisa the Beauty Queen” (season 4, episode 4). His 90th birthday television celebration in May 1993, Bob Hope: The First 90 Years, won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music Or Comedy Special. Toward the end of his career, worsening vision problems rendered him unable to read his cue cards. In October 1996, he announced he was ending his 60-year contract with NBC, joking that he “decided to become a free agent.” His final television special, Laughing with the Presidents, was broadcast in November 1996, with host Tony Danza helping him present a personal retrospective of presidents of the United States known to Hope, a frequent White House visitor over the years. However, the special received poor reviews. Following a brief appearance at the 50th Primetime Emmy Awards in 1997, Hope made his last TV appearance, a 1997 commercial with the introduction of Big Kmart directed by Penny Marshall.
Hope entertains soldiers during World War II
While aboard the RMS Queen Mary when World War II began in September 1939, Hope volunteered to perform a special show for the passengers, during which he sang “Thanks for the Memory” with rewritten lyrics. He performed his first USO show on May 6, 1941, at March Field in California, and continued to travel and entertain troops for the rest of World War II, later during the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the third phase of the Lebanon Civil War, the latter years of the Iran–Iraq War, and the 1990–91 Persian Gulf War. His USO career lasted a half-century during which he headlined 57 times.
He had a deep respect for the men and women who served in the military, and this was reflected in his willingness to go anywhere to entertain them. However, during the highly controversial Vietnam War, Hope had trouble convincing some performers to join him on tour. Anti-war sentiment was high, and his pro-troop stance made him a target of criticism from some quarters. Some shows were drowned out by boos, others were listened to in silence.
The tours were funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, Hope’s television sponsors, and by NBC, the network that broadcast the television specials created after each tour from footage shot on location. However, the footage and shows were owned by Hope’s own production company, which made them very lucrative ventures for him, as outlined by writer Richard Zoglin in his 2014 biography “Hope: Entertainer of the Century.”
Hope at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas in 1990.
Hope sometimes recruited his own family members for USO travel. His wife, Dolores, sang from atop an armored vehicle during the Desert Storm tour, and granddaughter Miranda appeared alongside him on an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean. Of Hope’s USO shows in World War II, novelist John Steinbeck, who then was working as a war correspondent, wrote in 1943:
“When the time for recognition of service to the nation in wartime comes to be considered, Bob Hope should be high on the list. This man drives himself and is driven. It is impossible to see how he can do so much, can cover so much ground, can work so hard, and can be so effective. He works month after month at a pace that would kill most people.”
For his service to his country through the USO, he was awarded the Sylvanus Thayer Award by the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1968. A 1997 act of Congress signed by President Bill Clinton named Hope an “Honorary Veteran.” He remarked, “I’ve been given many awards in my lifetime — but to be numbered among the men and women I admire most — is the greatest honor I have ever received.” In what he claimed was an homage to Hope, left-leaning comedian/TV host Stephen Colbert carried a golf club on stage during the single week of USO performances he taped for his TV show, The Colbert Report, during the 2009 season.
Bob Hope and actress Ann Jillian perform in the USO Christmas Tour during Operation Desert Shield, 1990