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A Man Called Hope

The Troops Came First for 'GI Bob'

May 04, 2003|MICHAEL T. JARVIS

Bob Hope isn't entertaining the troops this time around, and somehow that says it all. The Toluca Lake wiseacre, who turns 100 on May 29, gave his last overseas shows during the Gulf War and stopped performing professionally in 1997.

In an age of high-tech war-making, embedded journalists and terrorism, the memorabilia in the traveling "Bob Hope: American Patriot" display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley seem almost nostalgic.

Along with being one of the funniest human beings on the globe, Hope is an undying fan of the American GI. From World War II to the Gulf War, the English-born vaudeville hoofer-turned-comedy-star did variety shows as well as radio and TV broadcasts for millions of U.S. troops with the United Service Organizations, a civilian nonprofit that offers support to U.S. military personnel in cooperation with the Department of Defense. In 1948, Hope's December show for troops during the Berlin Airlift kicked off a decades-long tradition of Christmas extravaganzas at military bases worldwide. "The guy spent years not [being] at home over the holidays," says John Langellier, assistant director of the Reagan library.

Shows were sponsored by the U.S. military, and Hope was paid for his holiday TV specials under a contract with NBC. Hope and other USO entertainers also took heat from antiwar activists during the Vietnam era.

But Hope had a quip for grunts of every creed under every presidential administration for nearly 50 years. Not every celebrity garners PR by hopping small planes to combat zones to give young soldiers a little comic relief before battle. The first civilian to be declared an honorary veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, Hope weathered his share of close calls, including a night of bombing in Sicily during WWII.

On display in the exhibit is a letter from the mother of a Marine thanking Hope for making her son laugh. He later died in the Pacific during WWII. And perhaps that is the bottom line. The 21st century theater of war may prove to be an inhospitable venue for the USO variety show. But those risking all for their country could always use a few laughs and a little Hope.

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"Bob Hope: American Patriot," through June 8 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, 40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley; (800) 410-8354, (805) 522-8444.

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