Bob Hope and American Variety

Shortly after the invention of time, Bob Hope started making people laugh. Through movies and recordings, he's still doing it today, and he's not likely to stop until time does. Through Bob Hope and American Variety, The Library of Congress is offering a glimpse of a career that has lasted longer than most of our lives.

Launched to coincide with the May 2000 opening of the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment, American Variety is the inaugural exhibition of a showcase which over time will focus on various aspects of the master's career. (This first effort concentrates on Vaudeville and variety entertainment, and follows Hope through every entertainment venue - from stage to radio to movies to television.)

Unlike some online exhibits that employ a good deal of interactivity, American Variety is purely concerned with the display of artifacts, accompanied by the same sort of background information that might sit beside a painting in a gallery. Still, if you think this basic design means a quick visit, you should adjust your schedule - the number and variety of artifacts here is phenomenal, and covers every aspect of Hope's career, while providing context through introductions to his community and contemporaries.

First though, Early Life provides the 'context' of the man himself; Leslie Townes Hope, born in England, the fifth of seven children, held several jobs, including boxer (under the name, "Packy East"). Artifacts in this section include family portraits and photographs of his birthplace and childhood environs, as well as an early business card ("Lester Hope will teach you to Dance"). All the images, here and throughout the exhibit, are linked to full-screen versions, but the larger images will replace the contents of the existing browser window, so if you'd rather avoid constant backtracking to exhibit pages, you'll have to manually get the browser to open the images in their own windows. (Click-and hold the mouse button until the option menu appears.)

Next, Vaudeville begins with a brief introduction to the art form (for those of us who don't remember it first-hand) and goes on to cover 'Hope's Vaudeville' - both on stage and behind the scenes. To that end, the site features such artifacts as a 'rundown' of one of his early acts, tour contracts and publicity photos, as well as Vaudeville programs, period sheet music, and photographs of such contemporary performers as Eddie Foy and Harry Houdini.

This section also holds a complete copy of "How to Enter Vaudeville" - a 59-page mail-order 'course,' educating showbiz neophytes about the intricacies of make-up, booking agents, and "Getting your audience right from the start." Even today --though in a different manner-- the book is an education in the form. For example, those who think of Vaudeville as a simple succession of music and comedy sketches will soon discover that programs also included such acts as Billiardists, Banjoists, Bird Imitators, Trick Pianists, Chapeaugraphy (comedic reshaping of a hat) and Travesty (the impersonation of famous figures).

The Bill samples some of Vaudeville's best known performers, (The Marx Brothers, Bill Robinson, Fanny Brice, Sarah Bernhardt, etc.) while Moving On looks at variety entertainment 'post-Vaudeville,' and Bits and Sketches presents comedy (from Vaudeville to the Simpsons) in its latent form - as scripts on the printed page. Further sections follow Hope through movies, radio, television, public service and the USO, and provide a glimpse at the 85,000 pages of "Bob Hope's Joke File." (The entire file is digitally available to visitors to the Washington gallery.) Finally, the Faces of Bob Hope displays interpretations of the venerable visage, from comic book and magazine covers, to sculptures and surrealist art, to G.I. Bob - a limited-edition Bob Hope G.I. Joe doll (sorry, 'action figure').

It appears that Hope kept everything; scripts, (in one case revealing the preparation involved in such 'unrehearsed' appearances as the Tonight show) telegrams, rehearsal sheets, fan mail, (including a letter from an American POW in North Vietnam) and even such minutiae as a 1969 USO tour packing list. The resulting exhibition is almost as entertaining as being able to pick through an attic full of memorabilia, and it serves as a nice reminder that given the right content, bells and whistles are not essential for the creation of engaging websites.

Bob Hope and American Variety can be found at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/bobhope/.

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