Thanks for the Memories

Bob Hope would have been 110 this past week. This article originally appeared on


Bob Hope: Not Afraid of Terrorists

Bob Hope: Not Afraid of Terrorists

by Mary Claire Kendall, Forbes Contributor

Bob Hope at USO (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bob Hope —“the most honored entertainer,” according to the Guinness Book of World Records—was born 110 years ago today. His achievements in theatre, radio, film, TV, philanthropy, business and service to country were unparalleled. He was, of course, particularly devoted to the troops, doing 199 USO shows around the globe from World War II to Desert Storm, inspiring the U.S. Congress to name him “First and Only Honorary Veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces.”

His publicist, Harry Flynn of The Flynn Company in North Hollywood, recalled Hope’s response to the Marine barracks bombing in Beiruit in October 1983, when 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French soldiers, members of the Multinational Force in Lebanon, were brutally killed by Islamic terrorists:

“Hope decided we should go over there and entertain the troops. We did most of our shows on ships, anchored off the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean. But, on Christmas Eve, he wanted to go ashore to see the guys themselves. But the rules were, no civilians could go ashore. And, for some reason we got permission to do it. So the two of us got in a helicopter, a CH46… and flew in to the beach and on the way in—nobody was supposed to know, just the two of us in this helicopter—there were four SEALS with automatic weapons on their laps sitting on the floor of the helicopter… And as we’re going in, we have to do it real low because there are heat-seeking missiles that could take helicopters out, of course. So they did what they call chinking, which means jumping back and forth to keep from being targets for a missile. And as we’re going in, one of the SEALS on the floor tapped me on the knee and said ‘Is he scared?’ And so I leaned over—because of the noise of the helicopter—and said into Hope’s ear. ‘He wants to know if you’re scared.’ And, Hope looked at me like I was a foreigner and said, ‘Of what?’ That’s the way he was. All the time we were on the beach that day, we could hear the small arms fire, the four or five hours we were there saying hello to the Marines… Of course the Marines were very grateful for him coming ashore… then we went down to Haifa where there was a carrier anchored and we did a show there just before we came back to the States. That was Christmas Eve. And, he did a dance with Brook Shields and went through a whole number with her, and then we left.”

Born Leslie Townes Hope on May 29, 1903 in Eltham, England, Bob Hope was the fifth of seven boys.

His mother, Avis, was very devoted and loving. His father, William Henry “Harry,” a stonecutter, “had,” as Hope wrote in Have Tux, Will Travel: Bob Hope’s Own Story “only one fault. It was his theory that as a result of his occupation, stone dust collected in his throat. He stopped off at the pubs to sluice it off…” Along with his father’s alcoholism came womanizing.

It was not always that way. His older brothers—Ivor, Jim, Fred, Jack—recalled more prosperous days when they had ponies and lush gardens and his father was hard-working and temperate. But Harry’s trade gradually proved financially inadequate, as bricks displaced stone masonry, forcing the family to keep moving into smaller homes. The next sibling, Emily, born in 1895 after Jack, died when just a child, escalating the family’s downward spiral—Avis plunging into depression; Harry turning to liquor and women to feel like a real man and bury his feelings of inadequacy.

After Harry immigrated to Cleveland for work, Avis, hopeful for the future given Harry’s promising letters, decided to pack up the family and make the long, arduous journey via Ellis Island. But, once in Cleveland, it soon became apparent not only was the weather colder in America, so, too, were the manners: Nice guys finished last in this fast-rising industrial colossus.

Avis helped the family adjust—to competitive America and her husband’s inadequacies—renting ever more spacious and seemingly unaffordable homes, which allowed them to take in boarders. The children contributed too, taking part-time jobs, such as selling papers, to enrich the family’s coffers. While working as a paper boy, Hope wrote, he met John D. Rockefeller, who counseled him: “Always have change and never trust anyone.” He never forgot that sage advice.

Of his early religious formation, he wrote that “Mom, after making sure we were clean and uncomfortably dressed… sent us off to Sunday school at the Euclid Avenue Presbyterian—a church dad had helped build.”

As a child, Hope was rescued by his brother Ivor, when he got pinned under a pier and nearly drowned; and managed to survive his father’s brutal beatings—physically if not, entirely, psychologically.

He was rescued by his mother, as well, who, a singer herself, encouraged her young son’s theatrical talent early on. Leslie, in turn, determined to avoid his father’s abject failure, worked hard to nurture this talent, winning a Charlie Chaplin contest as a teen. He used his winnings to buy his mother a new stove.

From then on, he set his cap—later his trademark brown derby hat—for the theater, far from the drab, workaday world, convinced that being “on stage” was his true calling. He rose up by dint of hard work, starting in vaudeville as “Lester,” and getting his first break in 1925, when Fatty Arbuckle got him and his partner steady work in Hurley’s Jolly Follies. “I was making forty dollars a week and sending twenty, home to my mother to help out.”

The pace was intense, conditions often squalid, but he always kept a chipper spirit. But, it wasn’t easy. After landing a small, short-lived role on Broadway in The Streets of New York, their star dimmed, prompting a William Morris agent to tell them, “You ought to go West, change your act, get a new start.”

It was in New Castle, Pennsylvania that Hope got his solo break when he was asked to introduce the next week’s show. He told a well-received Scotch joke, and kept adding more in each successive performance to audiences’ delight. At the conclusion of the three-day engagement, he became a “single” and, in 1928, headed for Chicago to make it on his own. But, after running up a $400 tab for the donuts and coffee he was living on, he wasn’t making it. On the verge of giving up, he bumped into a friend from Cleveland named Charlie, who introduced him to “another Charlie… (i.e., Hogan, a theater booker, who asked him) ‘How’d you like to play the West Englewood Theater Decoration Day? (i.e., Memorial Day) Would twenty-five dollars be all right?’… I just managed to say, ‘I’ll take it,’ without bursting into tears…”

He parlayed that break into steady work and, by 1929, renamed “Bob Hope,” was becoming a well-known and well-liked comedian and landing more small parts on Broadway. In 1933, he landed a large Broadway role as Huckleberry Haines in Jerome Kerns’ hit Roberta (November 1933 to July 1934). From there, his career took off—soon including radio, film, and eventually TV, his first special, “Star Spangled Review,” debuting on Easter Sunday 1950.

Roberta teed up another turning point in his life. Early on, his co-star George Murphy took him to the Vogue Club on 57th Street to introduce him to a gorgeous singer named Dolores Reade. (Her Italian-American father, good friend Fr. Benedict Groeschel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal said, was a well-known “singing waiter” on bustling 149th Street in the Bronx; her mother an Irish-American beauty.) Bob began gazing upon her as she sang in her “low, husky voice… soft and sweet… ‘Only a Paper Moon’ and ‘Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?’” And, as he wrote, “That did it.” They wed a few months later—“the smartest thing Bob Hope ever did,” Lucille Ball once quipped—and began a 69-year marriage, rare in the annals of Hollywood, that gradually welcomed four adopted children—Linda, Anthony, Eleanora Avis “Nora,” and Kelly.

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