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STYLE & CULTURE | AL MARTINEZ

Sifting through memories of a week with Bob

August 01, 2003|AL MARTINEZ

I wrote Bob Hope's obituary about 25 years ago, but he wouldn't die. The obit languished in our files until recently when it was updated by other staff members. Only then did the master of the one-liner slip away.

I followed Hope around the country for a week back then, gathering background material for his final notice because an editor decided that Hope, who was 75, was about to buck and wing to the great beyond. As it turned out, he outlived the editor.

"Oh, God, don't tell him it's for an obituary," one of Hope's former publicists said at the start of our week together. "He's deathly afraid of dying."

The publicist insisted that I say I was preparing a profile of the man for future use and not to use the words dead, death, dying or died in any form while I was with Hope.

I remember at one point I slipped and said "That's a dead issue" in a conversation with someone, and the publicist glared at me. Hope didn't even notice, but went right on peppering the room with jokes.

I first met him at his home in Toluca Lake. After being ushered into an office, I was told to just go on up to the main house. It was a large, empty place and my footsteps echoed into the silence. "Hello?" I called. No response. I wandered from room to room, but still no Hope. I remember looking into one of the bathrooms. There were like 25 bottles of cologne on a shelf. It seemed a bit excessive, but he was one of the wealthiest men in California, so he could afford a little excess.

I finally found Hope in a back bedroom. He was sitting on the bed organizing his golf clubs and looked up in surprise at a stranger standing in his doorway. There had been a communications breakdown and no one had told him I was coming. Once I explained my presence, he accepted me graciously and said I could call him Bob. I said he could call me Al. I don't usually begin an interview sitting on the edge of someone's bed, but I wasn't about to let this legendary man get away.

Hope showed me his extensive joke files. They were contained in dozens of filing cabinets that lined both sides of a narrow room. The cabinets were full, Hope said, and they were all jokes that he used. The son of one of his writers told me once that when he was on stage, Hope insisted that the writers wait for him in the wings so he could see them while he performed. The writers called it "registering on the emulsion."

Hope began his cross-country tour in Washington, D.C., before the Navy League, with me in tow. Military groups constantly honored him for his work with the USO. A war wasn't a war without Hope there entertaining the troops. The Navy League session went on for hours, after which Hope stayed to shake hands and sign autographs. I left at 2 a.m. and was in bed around 3 when there was a knock on the door. It was Hope, asking if I wanted to take a walk. I was half-asleep, so I said no thank you. An aide said later that the boss walked after every performance, usually alone. He shrugged off warnings about muggers, but one night in Philadelphia he was surrounded by a group of toughs who demanded money. Then one of them recognized Hope and instead of money, they settled for autographs, and Hope went whistling on his way.

In Milwaukee, he was the guest of honor at a dinner in an exclusive downtown club. The press wasn't invited, but Hope insisted that I was a member of his party and implied that if I wasn't invited, neither was he. I could have skipped the dinner, but I wasn't about to leave his gracious effort on my behalf spinning in the wind, so I attended. I had chicken, and it was tough and cold. Hope agreed.

It was in Chicago, as I recall, that Hope was onstage for an hour and a half, shooting one-liners to the audience and grinning with delight as they responded with howls. I had never seen him in a full performance before and was amazed at the man's ability to work without a script for 90 minutes and not blow a punch line.

Vaudevillian, dancer, singer, actor, musician, stand-up comic and humanitarian, Hope was a gifted entertainer, and he shared his gifts with millions. During my week with him, I was exposed not only to his talents, but also to his courtesy, his quiet humor and his sensitivities. Hope made me feel special, and I won't forget him for that.

His death at 100 leaves an emptiness in the world. There has never been anyone quite like Bob Hope and there likely never will be again. His enduring presence rests gently in our memories, and we thank him for that.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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