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Friends Recall Hope With Tears, Laughter

Hundreds pay tribute to the late entertainer

August 28, 2003|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

As hundreds of friends of the late Bob Hope -- including generals, comics and a former president -- gathered Wednesday to pay tribute to the entertainer, actor Mickey Rooney seemed to capture what many were thinking. How, Rooney was asked, will Hope be remembered?

"As the best," he answered.

Rooney was among the hundreds of friends who filed into North Hollywood's stately St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church for a memorial Mass for Hope, who died July 27 at the age of 100.

Former President Gerald Ford was there, with wife Betty. Nancy Reagan was there too, as were two Roman Catholic cardinals, several American generals, and such assorted celebrities as Tom Selleck, Phyllis Diller, Brooke Shields, Raquel Welch, Marie Osmond, Barbara Eden and Kathryn Crosby, widow of Hope's longtime friend and co-star Bing Crosby.

Rooney recalled that he and Hope made two pictures together. As to the fabled patriotism of the comic with the ski-jump nose, Rooney said: "Bob Hope was America. He is America, and he will always be America."

A funeral Mass for Hope's immediate family and a private burial at the San Fernando Mission cemetery were held last month.

Hope was memorialized at two invitation-only events Wednesday -- the morning Mass and a raucous afternoon tribute at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

Joining dozens of priests on the altar during the Mass, principal celebrant Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, stood against a backdrop of white roses and other blooms and extolled Hope, not just for his comic genius, but for "his ministry."

"He was leading us to something deeper than laughter -- joy," Mahony said. "He was truly bringing a spiritual message to countless people.... There's a wonderful saying: Joy is one of the infallible signs of the presence of God. I know he never thought of it in those terms, but that is what was happening."

Wearing a royal blue dress and sad smile, Hope's wife of 69 years, Dolores, sat quietly in a wheelchair at the front of the church with the couple's four children and several grandchildren.

Mahony said he frequently told Hope, who often attended St. Charles and whose wife and children were parishioners there, that he should become a Catholic (the English-born entertainer had been raised as a Presbyterian). "His constant response," Mahony said, "was, 'I don't need to become a Catholic because Dolores is doing enough praying for both of us.' "

In fact, the comedian converted to Catholicism during the 1990s, according to longtime publicist Ward Grant, who said Hope had a strong faith but "didn't wear his faith like he did his patriotism."

Hope's love of the United States was legendary, and Grant said it had to do with his being an American by choice.

"Remember, this man is an immigrant," Grant said of Hope, who moved to the United States at the age of 4 and was naturalized in 1920. "He said probably the best thing that ever happened to him was becoming an American citizen."

Hope -- a star of vaudeville, radio, film and television during his 80-year career -- was perhaps best known for entertaining American troops abroad.

Raquel Welch, one of dozens of beautiful women who accompanied Hope on his USO tours, recalled their Christmas show in Vietnam during that unpopular war. The entertainers knew the war was controversial, she said, "but we all felt the morale and the support of the troops was more important than the political agenda."

In a service that began with the national and Navy hymns and ended with taps and "America the Beautiful," California Sen. Dianne Feinstein was among those who eulogized Hope, whose color portrait stood on an easel next to the altar, smiling out at his friends.

Calling him one of the "truly legendary and enduring figures of the 20th century," Feinstein said that Hope "virtually invented the modern comedic monologue."

Hired at the age of 21 by silent film star Fatty Arbuckle, Hope knew every American president beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she said. On his desk, President Truman kept the one-word telegram Hope sent him when Truman defeated Thomas Dewey: "Unpack."

Feinstein used words once said of Abraham Lincoln to characterize Hope's death: "Now he belongs to the ages."

Calling Hope "a hero to America's heroes," Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Hope, an honorary veteran, "absolutely deserved to wear that uniform as much as anyone who served on active duty."

Myers said that Hope's presence among servicemen and servicewomen had a way of instilling pride: "In a very special way, Bob Hope served those who serve," Myers said.

Actor Tom Selleck was sobered by Myers' tribute.

"For those of us who served, he meant so much," Selleck said of Hope. "He is the great comedian of the 20th century ... and he is one of the great citizens of the 20th century."

Larry Gelbart, the creator of the TV sitcom "MASH" who once wrote for Hope, said, "Bob's mind was a wonderful place to be invited to visit."

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