When I think of Bob Hope, who celebrates nearly a century in show business next month, I can't help thinking of my dad. Not just because they're roughly the same generation and most of us associate Hope with an earlier time. But because they're both part of what we in the media have dubbed, "the greatest generation," the one that fought in World War II.
Now that war is again on everyone's mind, it seems like the right time to remember that even though Hope embodied virtually every aspect of 20th-century entertainment, he held one job closer to heart than all the rest: entertaining the troops. My dad was a soldier and Hope was the man they all waited for. And not just for the laughs. My dad spent six months on a base in New Guinea where Hope had entertained in 1943. "Hope was funny for sure," he says, "but he also brought along some pretty good-looking gals, too. He knew what half a million GI Joes a world away from home wanted to see!"
When fellow comedians, even the famously nasty Don Rickles, could say with earnest sincerity, "Bob Hope is America," it was largely a tribute to that special place he held in the American psyche, through his devotion to the regular guys in uniform. This may be hard to understand for those that came of age without going to war, but a quick look back may help.
Hope was actually born in England ("I left England at the age of 4 when I found out I couldn't be king," he says). He began as a hoofer in vaudeville and became a radio comedian during the '30s, but his lifelong rapport with the troops began in 1941. His first military gig was a radio show at March Field in California, and for the rest of the war he recorded nearly all of his radio shows from military bases bases around the US, Europe and the South Pacific. The media called him "America's No.1 soldier in Greasepaint," and "G.I. Bob" took his troupe of Hollywood gypsies into combat areas for the first time in 1943.
His Christmas show began in 1948, when the US secretary of the Air Force asked him to cheer up the troops involved in the Berlin Airlift. He continued this tradition throughout the Vietnam years. He tried to retire the yuletide event after that conflict was over, but nearly every December, Hope found a military base or veterans' hospital to visit.
He continued his career as America's busiest comedian - hosting the Oscars more than any other celebrity, starring in more than 50 films, racking up a Guinness world record for the longest-running contract with a network (NBC, which airs its Bob Hope special on Sunday. Review, Page 20). But he was still following his commitment to the boys and girls in uniform. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, he traveled to Beirut; to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans; and to Europe and the Middle East.
In 1997, Hope helped christen the USNS Bob Hope. The Air Force created a new C-17 in his name. Congress created the title of honorary veteran for Hope in 1997. In 2001, the Pentagon gave him the Order of Horatio Gates Gold Medal.
When Dean Martin gathered a circle of top entertainers to roast and toast Hope, it wasn't complete without the military. Gen. Omar Bradley, leader of the Allied invasion in World War II, noted that Bob served with great courage, never afraid to go on, even when he was being shot at. The war hero added, with a twinkle, "occasionally even by the enemy."
As my father would say, "Happy Birthday, Bob. And thanks for the memories."