Born Leslie Towns Hope in Eltham, England May 29, 1903, his stonemason father moved the family to Cleveland, Ohio when the boy was four. When he became a naturalized citizen of the United States he became known as Bob.
Perhaps his mother, an aspiring concert singer, was an inspiration. Perhaps a child had to perform to stand out as the fifth of seven sons but he would one day headline, on any stage he chose.
His official website said early in his career he played third billing to Siamese twins and trained seals.
His energy, wit and drive would make him a star in any media he chose to perform in, vaudeville, Broadway, radio, movies or television.
I had a chance to see him twice, once at at the Mid-State Fair and two years later at Cal Poly. His timing and ability to work a crowd was unmatched but don’t forget, he had been doing this for a while. The first time he performed in the area was at Camp Roberts in 1941.
When he was booked for the Mid-State fair at age 86, he was the oldest performer ever scheduled to play there.
The comedian must have set the record for miles traveled and jokes told. Before the Cal Poly show a May 4, 1991 story by John Frees set out the numbers.
Bob Hope keeps up a pace that would have younger men gasping:
At 87, (he’ll be 88 at the end of the month), “Rapid Robert” has traveled more than 9 million miles, entertained millions of GIs since 1941, starred in 52 movies, appeared on TV 500 times, headed 1,000 radio shows earned 54 honorary degrees, written 10 books, holds the Guinness Book records for number of awards…
Long time Telegram-Tribune writer Warren Groshong wrote a column July 19, 1989 about Hope excerpted below. In his column he noted that author John Steinbeck wrote about Hope when the writer was a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune during World War II. Quoting Steinbeck:
“When the time for recognition of service to the nation in wartime comes to be considered, Bob Hope should be high on the list, ” he wrote. “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.”
“He has created a character for himself—that of the man who tries too hard and fails, and who boasts and is caught at it. His wit is caustic, but it is never aimed at people, but at conditions and at ideas , and where he goes men roar with laughter and repeat his cracks for days afterward.”
“Hope and company had worked and gradually they got the leaden eyes to sparkling, had planted and nurtured and coaxed laughter to life.
“A gunner, who had a stomach wound, was gasping softly with laughter. A railroad casualty slapped the cast on his left hand with his right hand by way of applause.
And once the laughter was alive, the men laughed before the punchline and it had to be repeated so they could laugh again.”
Finally it came time for Frances Langford to sing. Her voice was raspy as she did “As Time Goes By.” She had been working so hard that “her voice wouldn’t work any more, and she finished the song whispering and then she walked out, so no one could see her, and broke down.”
Then the writer says Hope walked into the aisle between the beds and said seriously:
“Fellows, the folks at home are having a terrible time about eggs. They can’t get any powdered eggs at all. They’ve got to use the old-fashioned kind that you break open.”
Once again, the sun broke through the gloom.
Hope put on a show at the Mid-State Fair that reflected his roots in radio. Singer Mel Torme opened and finished his act playing the famed Gene Krupa drum solo from Sing, Sing Sing. Hope was backed by an orchestra at one point playing his theme as he sang, “Thanks for the memory”.
Even though he used cue cards, he wrung the most out of every joke and would ad lib lines based on the local environment.
For later comedy fans who grew up with Lenny Bruce, George Carlin or Richard Pryor, the one liner comedy style was not edgy enough, but Hope was true to what worked for him. He never tried to pander to changing styles by changing his. Even Hope’s harshest critics respected breadth of his career and work ethic.
The legend of comedy left life’s stage July 27, 2003 at the age of 100.