Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans- Bob Hope

Jul 21, 2015 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans- Bob Hope

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. If there is one person that personifies the great American spirit, I believe it is Bob Hope. Where was this great humorist and American born?

Although Bob Hope was one of the best known Americans of the twentieth century, most readers will undoubtedly be surprised to learn three things about him. First, he was born May 29, 1903 in Eltham, England, and thus was not a natural born American. And second, his given name was Leslie Townes Hope. It wasn’t until he was in his mid-20s that he began to use the name Bob. Finally, when Hope did adopt a performing name, he originally chose to go by the name Lester. Indeed, as late as 1942, Hope gave his name on a document as Lester Townes Hope. We thus only remember a created image of a person we know as Bob Hope.

  1. Although he joked about his early childhood, I would like to get at the historical facts. How many siblings did he in fact have, and what were the conditions under which he grew up?

In this regard, the impression that people have about Hope’s family is true, as Hope had six brothers (he was the fifth of the seven boys that his mother bore). Hope’s family emigrated to the United States in 1908, and settled in Cleveland, Ohio. From an early age, Hope demonstrated talent as an entertainer, singing and dancing on the streets of his home town for money.

A good athlete (picking up golf while in his 20s, he eventually became a 4-handicapper), Hope participated in four prize fights when he was 16, winning three and losing one. He also worked as a lineman, and found employment as a butcher’s assistant. For a few years, Hope worked a day job and performed at night, but eventually decided to concentrate solely on making his living as an entertainer.

  1. His early forays into entertainment—what were they like? What were his early projects all about?

Although we remember him best as an actor and comedian, Hope’s first professional success came as a dancer. While taking dance lessons with a girlfriend, Hope had met a person named Lloyd Durbin, and the two of them decided to form an act. Hope’s big break came in1925, when a silent film star known as Fatty Arbuckle attended one of the duo’s performances. Impressed with what he saw, Arbuckle helped them land a contract with Hurley’s Jolly Follies, a traveling dance show.

From that time on, Hope found steady employment on the stage. Having demonstrated skill in bantering, Hope also found success as a comedian on the vaudeville circuit. Radio work soon followed for Hope, and then in 1934 he appeared in his first film. His first unqualified on-screen success came in 1938, when he was cast in the film “The Big Broadcast of 1938.” In that film he performed the song “Thanks for the Memories,” a tune that would be his trademark for the rest of his career. Hope became a box office star in 1940 “The Road to Singapore,” and would remain commercially successful in film through much of the 1950s. By that time, he had also become a fixture on television, most notably through Christmas specials that aired on NBC. Hope continued to star in movies until 1972, and made his last appearance on television in 1997.

  1. Bob Hope also worked with many of the major figures of his time – on stage and in the movies. Tell us about some of them.

In “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” Hope had co-starred with W.C. Fields, one of the most iconic film stars of that era. In the course of his career, Hope would appear with many other Hollywood stars ranging from Katherine Hepburn to Lucille Ball. But of the 54 movies that Bob Hope acted in, undoubtedly the best known were seven films referred to as the “Road” series. In the 1940 film “The Road to Singapore,” he was teamed with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, and this proved so successful at the box office that six more of these movies were produced.

Plans were underway to make an eighth installment of the series in 1977, but unfortunately Crosby died before production could begin. While Hope and Crosby had successful movies on their own, the two will always be tied to each other through the lucrative “Road” franchise.

  1. I would be remiss if I did not ask you to talk about his efforts to support our troops overseas. Could you briefly summarize his travels on the road?

Just after Hope had his breakthrough film role in “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” World War II started. In a similar fashion, America’s entry into the war happened just as “The Road to Singapore” was making him a star. Because he was 38 when the war started, Hope was too old to be drafted, and could thus have pursued his acting career unabated with no dishonor.

Instead, Hope chose to volunteer his time to the newly-created United Services Organization (USO). During World War II, Hope traveled to virtually every theater of action that American forces were fighting in, putting on shows and visiting hospitals. His selfless generosity earned him widespread acclaim.

When the US went to war in Korea, Hope again volunteered to do USO tours, and received similar accolades. Hope would visit American troops during the Vietnam War, but did not have the same experience that he did in the previous two conflicts. Known as a strong supporter of the US involvement in Vietnam, Hope was therefore not received well by the segment of the military in Vietnam who had turned against the war. At some shows, Hope was greeted with silence, and at others he was openly booed. But instead of becoming disillusioned with the USO experience, Hope remained willing to entertain troops when he was asked.

By the time that Hope appeared before troops during the Gulf War, he was once again greeted by enthusiastic audiences. Before he retired from performing, Hope participated in 57 USO tours. For his service, in 1997 Congress passed an act declaring him an Honorary Veteran. Hope was quoted as saying that he regarded that distinction as the greatest honor he had ever received.

  1. He lived a rich full life- what were his later years like?

Unlike a number of his contemporaries in the entertainment industry, Hope lived a long and apparently happy life. His first marriage had been of a short duration, but his second lasted for over 60 years, and ended only with his death. He had two stays in the hospital in the early 2000s, but regained his health both times. He finally succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 100. By that time, it is estimated that he had received over 2,000 awards, ranging from the Presidential Medal of Freedom to an honorary Academy Award. It seems quite fitting, therefore, that his most famous song was “Thanks for the Memories,” as he gave the nation quite a few of those during a long and storied career.

I would like to add here- a You Tube presentation to give our readers a feel for yet one other realm of Bob Hope’s skills:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOoNOs8Ql28

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