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A funnier century, thanks to Bob Hope

On the eve of the comedian's 100th birthday, the applause continues.

May 28, 2003|Charles Champlin | Special to The Times

Like George Burns, Bob Hope has been a man whom applause did more to keep alive than pills or Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth.

There was always another award to be received, another banquet in his honor and another audience to be thrilled by his mere presence. That was true as recently as 1999, when there was another outing for him as grand marshal of a parade, and, with his sight and hearing failing fast and his body frail with his remarkably advanced years, Hope went the distance, waving cheerfully to fans he could hear but only dimly see.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Charles Champlin -- An article about Bob Hope in Wednesday's Calendar incorrectly reported that the story's author, former Times arts editor Charles Champlin, retired from the paper in 1981. He left in 1991.

He's not well enough to make public appearances these days, but as he celebrates birthday No. 100 Thursday, the applause continues to roll in. A two-hour tribute was reshown on NBC Sunday night, a batch of his films is out on DVD from Universal Home Video, and an exhibit of memorabilia, "Bob Hope: American Patriot," is on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley. The state Legislature has proclaimed Thursday as Bob Hope Day in California.

No wonder. When Hope's death was prematurely announced on the floor of Congress in 1998, the first response was that it couldn't possibly be true. He has been part of the cultural life of the nation, and much of the rest of the world, for as long as anybody can remember.

One clue to the longevity not only of his life but also his career is that his lively and likable public personality formed early on and never really changed, even after he had become a pal and confidant of presidents and a millionaire many times over.

He has always been the cocky, wisecracking, hustling clown, a Lothario with a terrible batting average, his unsuccessful eagerness for romance a sort of lifelong running gag. He was a not-half-bad hoofer and an ingratiating and unpretentious crooner. But first and last he was a rapid-fire dispenser of jokes, the output of a large and changing platoon of writers, some of whom, like producer-director Mel Shavelson, went on to other, more individual things.

Like Jack Benny, Hope got a lot of mileage out of his perceived persona as the ever-rejected lover and the schemer whose plans and ego were often, but always temporarily, deflated. Bing Crosby's suave calm was the perfect foil for Hope's hyperactivity. His jokey complaint all the years Hope emceed the Academy Awards show was that he never got an Oscar for a screen role. In fact he eventually had six special Oscars, but for humanitarian work, not -- to keep the joke running -- for his acting.

But more than any comedian this side of Mort Sahl (who qualifies as a satirist, not a comic), Hope's jokes were topical, as fresh as the day's paper but carefully, politically neutral. His palship with presidents was as bipartisan as he could make it, although it seemed clear that, like many a man with a lot to conserve, he was a conservative at heart.

He is probably as far-traveled as any entertainer in history, and I first caught up with him on one of his travels. To promote his new movie "My Favorite Spy" (1951), with Hedy Lamarr, Hope ran a contest on his radio show, with the top prize the chance to have the premiere of the film in your living room. The winner was a dentist's wife in Bellaire, Ohio, and Hope flew in with his radio entourage -- the Les Brown band, Jerry Colonna and a clutch of Hollywood beauties including Mary Murphy and Gloria Grahame. He broadcast from the local high school auditorium to a deliriously delighted crowd.

The day of the premiere, Hope was grand marshal of a parade in his honor, sitting in a sleigh atop a flatbed truck. It was November, and a hard wind off the Ohio River was bitingly cold. The parade was delayed, and after a while Hope, mildly enough, shouted down to an official and said, "Better get this going, pal, or you'll have a blue comedian up here." Hope could turn a neat topical line himself.

That night Hope was coming down with a flu-level cold. He stood at the top of the stairs, waiting for his cue to make his entrance. He looked and obviously felt terrible. When the hostess introduced him, he muttered, "Well, pal, here goes nothin' " and headed down the stairs to thunderous applause. Hope sat in the front row of the rented folding chairs and kept up a breezy, funny commentary all the way through the film.

It was a tour de force turn for a very limited audience, but then as ever, Hope was an indefatigable performer. His famous visits to the troops during World War II and later conflicts were often genuinely dangerous and always great for morale, with jokes tailored to every base he hit. Always an astute businessman, he also got television specials out of the later tours. The troop shows and all the attendant publicity did much to enhance Hope's high status as an authentic American icon.

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