A lifetime spent making the world a lighter place

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.' "

But in the midst of the Depression, Paramount gave him a role in "The Big Broadcast of 1938," hardly remembered today as a rival to "Gone With The Wind," which was filmed about the same time. But out of that movie emerged a tune, "Thanks for the Memory," which became his theme and his signature.

American filmgoers knew him best for his wacky partnership with Crosby in the "Road" series, in which insiders insist the actual script for their off-the-cuff dialogue lay in shreds before the pictures ever reached American screens. He haggled with Bing from North Africa to Singapore, and when he wasn't doing that he was rolling his eyes at Dorothy Lamour in her swaying sarong. Hope and Crosby golfed together for years, raising millions of dollars for an endless stream of funds and causes.

Regular guy in a cardigan

In private, Hope was just a "regular guy in a cardigan sweater who answered his own phone," says Richard Grudens, author of "The Spirit of Bob Hope." In person, "he wasn't always on" - the wisecracking jokester of his public persona. "I never met anyone who didn't like him."

American service men and women away from home may be the ones who treasure Hope's legacy most intimately. Many of them still carry those shared moments with him like a child's photograph.

Douglas Spangler, a writer and former university administrator in Palm Harbor, Fla., remembers the night, near the beginning of the Vietnam War, when he saw Hope perform at Alaska's Elmendorf Air Base.

"It was at a big hangar, jampacked with people," he says. "It was a two-hour show, and we could have watched it for five hours." Mr. Spangler has forgotten most of the jokes now: They weren't important. It was the spirit that counted, the sense that he was willing to take chances to be with men going through one of the toughest times in their lives. "If he had said 'hello,' we would have laughed.... He was the beacon of light in the darkness wherever the troops were. And, by God, that light lasted a long time."

An antidote to war

It didn't have to be a crisis for Hope to show up. He entertained in Korea, Italy, Vietnam, and in the desert, on the deck of a carrier or in a barracks in the South Seas. If Americans were lonely, Hope enlisted. He remembered doing a special show for a company of Marines, and the commanding officer telling him that they were going into battle the next day.

He learned that 60 percent of the company had been killed in that battle. The next day he had to be funny again. It was a load.

He carried it, a soldier in his own way. He was on the road, in the air, and at sea virtually every Christmas. He logged millions of miles. He remembers the tenderness of some of those visits.

He married Dolores Reade in Erie, Pa., in 1934, and his wife came with him on one of his earlier tours. "She sang 'White Christmas,' and the soldiers loved it."

How do you define credibility after a lifetime like that? He met and told jokes about the nine presidents. Some of them must have been tempted to tell him to knock it off. None did. "How can you get angry at an American treasure?" one of the White House press chiefs said.

He was that, and a treasure still.

Staff writers Amanda Paulson and Gregory M. Lamb contributed to this report.

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