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The Road to Arabia : Bob Hope's Mideast Show Will Air Tonight

January 12, 1991|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During a whirlwind Christmas visit to Saudi Arabia, Bob Hope did 10 different shows in almost as many locations--but never knew where he was.

"I don't know where anything was--they won't tell you, they won't give you the location," Hope, 87, said over lunch at his expansive Toluca Lake home earlier this week.

Hope spent several days, including Christmas, entertaining American troops in the Middle East, where he and his entourage were mysteriously whisked from location to location by two military helicopters.

"I'm not sure who knew where we were going. You just go ," he said. "But when you see the film, you'll see the tanks and the guns, and you'll realize how close we were to Kuwait, you know? They didn't have to tell me where we were--we had to be pretty damn close."

Plenty of tanks, guns and endless miles of sand make up the backdrop for "Bob Hope's Christmas Cheer From Saudi Arabia," a USO show that will be telecast at 9:30 tonight on NBC. Despite battering winds and blowing sand, Hope said that Saudi Arabia was a little bit like home: "The first troop I met was from Twentynine Palms--that's right next to Palm Springs," he said. "And I went halfway around the world to see them."

A few other entertainers--including Steve Martin, Jay Leno, Delta Burke and Gerald McRaney--have visited the troops to shake hands and tell a few jokes; cable TV's Financial News Network recently filmed a special on boxer Thomas Hearns' visit. But Hope's tour marks the first big entertainment show staged for the troops since they landed in Saudi Arabia.

It also marks the last--at least for a while. The USO confirmed this week that the Department of Defense has placed a ban on all USO shows following Wednesday's failed peace talks in Geneva.

"We're still getting calls from celebrities who want to go over, and we're told to hold off for now," said Iona Sherman, producer and tours manager for USO Celebrity Entertainment. "We're not told whether or not it's permanent.

"We are not stopping tours to other areas of the world. Billy Joel is going to the Philippines next week."

The USO ban will close a door to the Middle East that had barely cracked open. Sherman confirmed Hope's report that the Department of Defense was extremely skittish about sending large numbers of performers into Saudi Arabia, preferring to start small with handshake visits by individual performers.

Hope's visit sparked a controversy Dec. 25, when the Pentagon announced it would restrict media coverage of Hope's Christmas Eve show at a site near a military installation.

Hope's daughter, Linda, who produced the special, said that the Department of Defense did not ask for control over the final product, but requested cooperation in obscuring identifying landmarks. The Hopes complied.

"Obviously, there were panoramic shots we would like to have gotten, but we just determined we were not going to do that," Linda Hope said.

Hope said that when the group arrived at a hotel in Dhahran--one of its stops--guards checked under the beds for terrorists before the Hope entourage could enter their rooms. And "when we left, a security dog checked our luggage, looking for bombs," Hope cracked. "I'm glad he didn't find our cue cards."

Hope's act also received substantial editing from a cultural adviser to avoid offending the Saudis. "I took things out about the women, about their clothes--you know, 'They wear so many clothes that by the time you you get through them, it's not worth it,' " Hope said.

Linda Hope said that viewers will see ragged edges rather than a slick production; often the "shows" Hope and his wife Dolores put on for the troops took place on a flatbed truck with one hand-held mike or a lowly megaphone for amplification. She added that they were often required to set up in less than 10 minutes.

The biggest inconvenience was the Saudis' refusal to allow single American women into Saudi Arabia, forcing the group to film performances by guest stars Ann Jillian, the Pointer Sisters and Khrystyne Haje only during the shows staged in Bahrain, a country adjacent to Saudi Arabia.

The special is due to be broadcast in its entirety Monday on the Armed Forces Radio and Television Network, Hope said.

Hope said that his own political beliefs have not--and will not--keep him from visiting the troops anywhere in the world.

"All of (the wars) were the same," he said. "You were there to entertain the kids, you know--no difference if you were in Sicily or Vietnam.

"Vietnam--it was such a sad affair, that war," Hope said. "About the fifth year (of the conflict), one of the biggest laughs I got was when I told them: 'Guys, 50% of America is behind you.' Because I remember the papers kept saying, 'Get out of Vietnam, what the hell are we doing in Vietnam?' There were people who said I shouldn't go, which is ridiculous."

Hope said that the atmosphere is completely different in Saudi Arabia. "There is no war--they're camping out now," he said. "They're up, and they're high."

Upon his return, Hope began relaying messages to the families of the troops--including making a call to one young soldier's father, who is dying of cancer.

"I stand up there and I look at those faces, and I don't want them to go to war," Hope mused. "I want them to have a good life. I wish they (the other Arab countries) could just converge on (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein), where he is, where he lives, and just knock him out. That would be the thrill of my life."

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