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The Nation

Signs Indicate a Happy 100th Is in the Cards for Bob Hope

May 29, 2003|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Henry Kissinger sent roses. Sarah Kellerhals of Nashville, Ind., sent a hand-knitted cap, complete with a pompom. A 75-year-old from Lincoln, Neb., made his own card featuring a photo of himself -- with his refrigerator.

Then there was the note, similar to many, many others, signed by a man from Hagerstown, Md. Along with greetings, he enclosed a black-and-white snapshot he had taken of the birthday boy and a bathing beauty on stage back in 1944, somewhere in the South Pacific. "We are grateful we had someone who cared enough to come to the danger zones," he wrote. "You deserve to be an honorary veteran."

On Wednesday, the eve of the big 1-oh-oh for Bob Hope, his Toluca Lake compound was besieged by an onslaught of affection that would warm the heart of any florist or card seller -- and challenge the fortitude of the hardest-working secretary.

"It's like triage," said one, Annette Siegel, as she worked through her lunch hour, trying to sort the mail into "VIP," "fans and friends" and "touching" categories. "When I came in on Tuesday," she said, "I had 6,000 e-mails. I haven't had time to sort them out."

In the foyer of the staff's office, a laundry-sized wicker basket overflowed with unopened cards. One of the family dogs, a yellow Labrador named Luke, lay in the hall and watched lazily as more mail was carried into the small office where longtime staffers Siegel and Jan Morrill coped with birthday greetings from around the world.

There was ice cream from Boston and cake from community leaders who had lined the street with Bob Hope banners.

Some birthday messages to the quintessential American entertainer were simple. "Dear Bob," wrote a woman from Christchurch, New Zealand, "I hope you have a lovely day." From North Hollywood, Mike Phillips, a former corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, sent a Hallmark card with a flag on the front, and the greeting, "It's people like you who make this country great."

Others were a little more complex. Sharilyn Wissink of Maple Grove, Minn., concluded her birthday greeting with additional congratulations for having "remained faithful to your wife and that is wonderful." Then she wrote, "If you ever need a golf partner -- just call" and gave him her phone number.

Reached Wednesday by phone in Maple Grove, just outside Minneapolis-St. Paul, Wissink said she and her husband saw Hope perform in 1965 when her husband was in college and she was teaching school. "We scraped together this money to hear Bob Hope. He was so funny. I just couldn't get enough of him.... But I really feel that he needed to know that people were appreciative of what he has done not only for the troops but as a role model for a great man."

The writers had sent their cards to his business offices, to his home in Palm Springs or directly to the stately Toluca Lake home where he has lived since 1939. In previous years, his assistants said, he has received mail addressed only to "Bob Hope, Somewhere in the United States." He once received a letter with only his picture slapped on the envelope.

In the big house near the offices, Hope was preparing to celebrate quietly with some of his family: his wife, Dolores, who turned 94 on Tuesday, children Linda, Kelly and Tony, and three grandchildren. This evening, there will be an intimate party at home with a 100-candle celebration.

Linda Hope said that while her father is too frail to attend any of today's public celebrations or televised tributes, he does see a sampling of the cards. "Some of the most touching are the cards from people Dad doesn't even know he knows," she said. "When we go up and tell him, he smiles and says, 'Isn't that something' or 'For me?' as if people turn 100 every day."

While mail from veterans is the most typical, Hope has plenty of other correspondents out there, ranging from the queen of England and both Presidents Bush to a middle school student who enclosed his "What Makes an American Hero" speech.

One candidate for the "touching" category: An Englishman who served in the Royal Artillery in World War II and saw one of Hope's films, "Monsieur Beaucaire" three times during his service, wrote: "I know of no other person that could make me laugh three times watching the same film. Thank you for lifting the spirits of so many, especially during the darker days. God Bless You!"

Starting out in vaudeville, Hope became one of the few show business celebrities who achieved star status on Broadway, in radio, in films and on television. He was almost as famous for his "ski slope" nose as for his razor-sharp comic delivery and cowardly persona developed in a series of "Road" pictures with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, and TV specials. He began visiting Army bases abroad to entertain troops with the USO in 1942 and is remembered by U.S. service personnel from World War II through Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.

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