A lifetime spent making the world a lighter place
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."
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.