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The Bob Hope Soldiers Knew

The Nixon Library Hosts an Exhibit Honoring the Comedian's 60 Years of USO Tours to Entertain U.S. Troops

March 16, 2001|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Thanks for the Memories" has long been Bob Hope's signature song. It's also the theme of an exhibition honoring the 97-year-old comedian-actor at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda.

"Red, White & Hope: Saluting 60 Years of USO Holiday Tours by Bob and Dolores Hope," on display through May 28, showcases photos, awards, letters, wardrobe items and memorabilia from the many performances Hope gave for American troops stationed around the world. His wife, Dolores, a singer and dancer, accompanied him and performed with him on many of the trips.

"You can tell a good exhibit by whether people read and look at everything and comment on it or if they kind of casually walk by," observed Sandy Quinn, assistant director of the Nixon Library. "People are really absorbed by this exhibit." Veterans remember the tours and cherish the memories, Quinn said.

"After the film 'Saving Private Ryan' there has been a great interest in World War II, and that's when Bob played such a magnificent role in helping our troops."

Hope was already a star when he began broadcasting his radio shows from military bases and camps in 1941. In 1948, he and other entertainers performed during the holidays for troops overseas. This began a Hope tradition of presenting Christmas shows for military personnel. The performances, sponsored by the USO (United Service Organizations), continued through the Gulf War in the early '90s.

Hope has received numerous awards and citations for his work, and some of these are on display. "Red, White & Hope" also includes letters of appreciation from presidents, soldiers and soldiers' parents, the bomber jacket he wore during some performances, various golf clubs he took on his travels and a videotape tribute to him.

There are also some items exhibited for pure nostalgia's sake: sheet music from the hit song "Silver Bells," which was featured in Hope's 1951 film "The Lemon Drop Kid," and the honorary Academy Award he received in 1959.

"The Oscar has been a big hit, because people don't often get an up-close look at an Oscar," Quinn said. "I love the photographs. They show Bob with the troops and their reaction to his appearances."

Last year, the Library of Congress opened a wing devoted to Bob Hope memorabilia. Letters, film scripts, radio recordings and a computerized catalog of 88,000 of his best jokes are part of the collection.

But Ward Grant, Hope's director of media relations, said there was plenty of interesting memorabilia remaining to make "Red, White & Hope" an attractive exhibit.

Hope has met all 11 U.S. presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, who occupied the White House between 1940 and 2000. He sang for Harry Truman and played golf with Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Nixon.

He seemed to enjoy a particularly cordial relationship with Nixon, Quinn said. A donation by Bob and Dolores Hope made possible the Pat Nixon Amphitheater at the Nixon Library.

Grant, who has worked for Hope for 28 years, remembers President Nixon dropping in on the Hopes at their Toluca Lake home.

"Nixon landed his [presidential] helicopter in Bob's backyard," Grant recalled. "Nixon said, 'Do you mind if we park here?' Then they went over to [a local course] to play golf."

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In 1973 Nixon and Hope were part of the biggest dinner ever held at the White House, Quinn said. Hundreds of recently released Vietnam POWs and their wives were invited to the event, which was hosted by President Nixon. Hope served as the master of ceremonies. In 1998, the dinner was re-created at the Nixon Library. Hope attended and reminisced about that first dinner.

Hope, frail but otherwise in good health, divides his time between homes in Toluca Lake and Palm Springs, Grant said.

The comedian has told plenty of presidential jokes, some of which are compiled in his book "Dear Prez, I Wanna Tell Ya!"

Of his personal friendship with Nixon, Hope once cracked, "I'll never forget the first time Richard Nixon invited me to dinner at his San Clemente estate. When I got there he took me aside and said, 'Remember, you serve from the left.' "

Hope's work entertaining the troops during World War II may be better remembered than his subsequent military appearances. But Grant said that the English-born Hope may have felt an even stronger sense of duty during the Vietnam War, since it was an unpopular war and U.S. soldiers weren't viewed as heroic by protesters back home.

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Grant recalled the time Hope went to Laos without the backing of the U.S. government and tried unsuccessfully to negotiate the release of American POWs.

"He offered them money. He was well-received. He compared photographs of children and grandchildren [with Viet Cong leaders]. It was very hush-hush," Grant said.

Grant said Hope's USO performances were motivated not by politics but by his deep appreciation for the sacrifices made by U.S. troops.

"I once asked Bob if there was ever a time when he thought nobody could touch his coattails," Grant said.

"He said, 'Oh yeah. My radio show was No. 1. My personal appearances were selling out. I [was a hit] at the box office. I thought nobody was as good as I was. Then I entertained my first GI audience and realized what their contribution was compared to mine, and I was left wanting.'

"So not only were the GIs a great audience but they helped Bob put and keep his head on straight. It was love at first audience."

SHOW TIMES

"Red, White & Hope: Saluting 60 Years of USO Holiday Tours by Bob and Dolores Hope," Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, 18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda. Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Mondays- Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. $5.95; ages 62 and older, $3.95; ages 8-11, $2; younger than 8 admitted free. Through May 28. (714) 993-5075 or (800) USA-8865.

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