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A lifetime spent making the world a lighter place

By Jim KlobucharSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 29, 2003

Here was a man who was worth - authentically and lovably - a million laughs. It didn't matter the venue. It could be a radio studio in Los Angeles, a dusty airstrip in the South Pacific, or astride what he called a Morocco-bound camel in one of his slap-happy films with Bing Crosby. Or it could be a dilapidated hospital room, where he sat comforting a dying child.

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For the better part of a century, Bob Hope made the world better because he made it lighter and funnier. In the midst of the greatest war in history, he stirred America to smile and howl. For its fighting men and women, he relieved for at least an hour the terrible hazards and the fears of tomorrow.

Before he died at the age of 100, he must have known, should have known, that very few Americans reached the levels of popularity and trust that Bob Hope earned over a lifetime.

Trust? The GIs for whom he gave thousands of shows and hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours can tell you about trust, and today many of them will have to clear their eyes remembering. Half a world away from home, the sight of Bob Hope on the stage, with the crackle of those rapid-fire gags and that celebrated ski-slide nose, gave them an unmistakable bridge to their country and the sound of home. It didn't much matter that Hope was born in England. Not many people in show business caught the American idiom and the heart of its humor - whether hilarious or droll - with his nimbleness and sureness.

The ad-lib outburst and his one-liners, flitting off the top of his pompadour pate, wowed his audiences and his comedic victims alike with their zany thrusts.

"I was well on my way to being a juvenile delinquent," he told an audience, recalling his adolescence. "When I was 16, I had more hubcaps than General Motors."

And: "Those were really tough times. I wouldn't have had anything to eat if it wasn't for the audience throwing stuff at me. Our neighborhood was tough. We had the typical gang. You know, Shorty, Fatso, Skinny, Stinky. Then there were the boys."

He needled his show biz rivals mercilessly and, of course, they loved it. Toward the end he reflected on his travels. "In my lifetime I saw the Berlin Wall come and I saw it go. George Burns [the other nearly indestructible comedian, who died earlier] can say the same thing about the Ice Age."

Hope may have worn better than the Ice Age, performing from vaudeville to Vietnam. He was the mugging face of NBC for more than five decades. He co-hosted or emceed the Academy Awards a record 20 times. On the edge of 90, he told the Monitor how he escaped the potential oblivion of vaudeville and the nightclubs.

"I was going nowhere," he said, "until I decided to try something new. The leading columnist in those days was Walter Winchell, and he had a rapid-fire style. I decided to hit the audience with one gag after another and not wait for them to laugh. Just keeping firing one-liners. It used up lots of jokes. My first movie was a little two-reel masterpiece called 'Going Spanish,' which was shot on Long Island. When Winchell asked me if it was any good, I replied. 'It's so bad, when the cops catch [public enemy] Dillinger, they're going to make him sit through it twice.' "