Bob Hope: Master of All Ceremonies

 

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Perhaps no more polarizing figure exists in these annals than that of Bob Hope. Years ago, a baby boomer friend spotted a copy of Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me, Bob Hope on my shelf. “In that case,” he said, “I’ll be sure to take careful aim.” No doubt for this scraggly ex-hippie, Hope was the enemy – a mummified square who performed for the troops in Vietnam, co-starred in films such as I’ll Take Sweden with an equally decrepit Lucille Ball, and staged unbelievably unhip variety shows for which he booked acts ranging from Barbara Feldon to the U.S. Marine Corps Glee Club. A baby boomer’s vaudevillian would of course be an act more like the Marx. Bros – anarchistic, irreverent, anti-everything. Hope, however, is the epitome of the slavish flag-waver, the foremost heir to George M. Cohan of the post-war period. Hope was America’s premiere pro patria stand-up comedian, whose subject matter tended to be girls and sports. (“Say, how about that Dorothy Lamour?”, and “Hey, how about those Dodgers?”) He symbolizes so much about America. In him one can glean much that is characteristic of the successful vaudevillian: the breezy self-confidence, the brashness, the unapologetic affluence. How disorienting, in light of all that, to learn that Hope was born a foreigner!

5146512

He was born Leslie Towne Hope on May 29, 1903 in Eltham, England. His father was a bricklayer, and the family was extremely poor. (Hope was one of seven children). Hope’s father moved the family to Cleveland, OH in search of better opportunities. For Hope senior, there weren’t any. His son would eventually be one of the richest men in the country.

As a teenager he saw Frank Fay perform at Keith’s 105th Street in Cleveland. (No doubt he told himself, “If there’s room for an arrogant jerk like that in show business, surely there’s a place for me!”)  In 1915, he got his first performing experience (in the same way Berle had gotten his) in one of the Charlie Chaplin contests that were so popular at that time.

story.byrne.vaudeville.loc

Hope quit school at age 16, took dancing lessons, and started singing with a  quartet. He was part of that song and dance team Durbin and Hope that performed in a revue starring filmdom’s disgraced expatriate Fatty Arbuckle in 1924. When Durbin died of TB, Hope teamed up with another hoofer named George Byrne. Among their memorable engagements in the three years they were together was a tour with Daisy and Violet Hilton, the Siamese Twins. In 1927, at a gig in New Castle, Pennsylvania, Hope was asked to announce upcoming shows – his first true assignment as a monologist. He threw in some jokes and Frank Fay’s walk and got big yuks. Hope decided that he would be more successful as a single at this point, and fired Byrne. He moved to Chicago that year and – after several weeks without work — began a successful run as m.c. at the Stratford theatre, where he went over big. As added joke fodder, he hired a girl named Grace Louis to play a Dumb Dora for part of the act.

Making the leap to New York, Hope got booked at Proctor’s 54th street. He consciously got this gig as a showcase to impress the Keith booker Lee Stewart. He soon learned that this was the toughest house in the city and that his turn would be a make or break moment. With typical resourcefulness, he devised a show stopping opening line while waiting in the wings to go on. Prior to his entrance, the stage was occupied by a woman named Leatrice Joy who was famously divorcing the actor John Gilbert. So as Joy walked off and Hope walked on (what a felicitous phrase!), Hope snapped to a woman in the audience, “No lady I am not John Gilbert”. The line slayed the audience and from there they were eating out of his hand. He got several curtain calls, and William Morris signed him to a three year contract with the Keith organization.

Hope’s strength was his comic manner, as opposed to his material. Something about his face, the arch eyebrows, the devilish glint in his eyes just before he delivered a punchline helped him sell it. His personality was brash and bold and he instinctively knew how to get a joke over, no matter how bad. Often the material was so weak in the early days (and frankly also the later ones) that in 1930 he hired the consummate vaudeville gag man Al Boasberg to write jokes for him. Boasberg wrote also for Burns and Allen, the Marx Bros. and others before being taken early by a corned beef induced heart attack.

url

Hope was next booked for a revue called The Antics of 1931 at the Palace on a bill with Bea Lillie. He didn’t set the world on fire in the revue, but he got screams hosting something called “Celebrity Night at the Palace”, a Monday night all-star show that gave performers from other shows on Broadway an opportunity to see current performers on their night off. From there, it was The Ballyhoo of 1932, and a succession of other revues and book musicals through the mid-30s, radio throughout the 30s and 40s, film from The Big Broadcast of 1938 (in which he first sang his signature song “Thanks for the Memories”) through Cancel My Reservation (1972), live tours for the military in WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf, and periodic television variety shows in which he helped keep vaudeville alive for another 3 decades.

Bob_Hope_and_Bing_Crosby_in_Road_to_Bali

His best films were in the 40s, especially the so-called “Road” pictures with Bing Crosby, in which they formed a sort of loose comedy team. Hope was also at the top of his form during these years as the sole star as such comedies as Monseuir Beaucaire (1946) and My Favorite Brunette (1947). Woody Allen cited Hope’s film persona during this period as a major influence. However, with the 1963 film Call Me Bwana, it is generally agreed that the quality of Hope’s output for the silver screen took a steady and permanent nosedive. At this point, Hope was just phoning it in.

Hope started in show business at just the right time. He came to vaudeville late in its evolution; his ascent coincided with its demise, but he managed to get a foothold elsewhere before it winked out. While there was a vaudeville he was glad to work there but by the time it died he didn’t need it any more. He stepped from his dates at the Palace to book musicals and radio as one might step off a ship that is going under. Though he never particularly distinguished himself in vaudeville per se, it was his training ground. He spent the better part of a decade on its stage, learning timing, improvisation and developing stage presence.

Traces of the vaudevillian remain throughout his 70 year career, notably his noticeably effeminate “swishy” style of walking on and off stage, which he consciously borrowed from monologist Frank Fay (as did Benny). Hope was still doing regular tv specials right up until the early 1990s, when his frail body simply couldn’t do it anymore.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Advertisements

17 Responses to “Bob Hope: Master of All Ceremonies”

  1. […] is remembered today (when at all) chiefly as the father of the 7 Little Foys, thanks largely to the Bob Hope bio-pic (one of my favorite movies), but also due to the fact that the act he had with his children […]

    Like

  2. […] He wrote much of their material for one thing, and his material was consistently good, better than Bob Hope’s, for example. Furthermore, he proved himself a marvelous comedian on his own after Grace retired. […]

    Like

  3. […] a familiar face in films. He was there along with Ken Murray to give encouragement to the neophyte Bob Hope when he made his Palace debut. Billy Rose considered him his favorite comedian. Yet today he is a […]

    Like

  4. […] on a rotating basis). He hosted Chesterfield Sound Off Time 1951-52, this time alternating with Bob Hope and Jerry Lester. His last gig was as a panelist on What’s My Line. He gave the world two great […]

    Like

  5. […] of comparable longevity followed throughout the 1940s. After having been passed over in favor of Bob Hope for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, Berle got to do the 1943 edition, which played 533 performances, […]

    Like

  6. […] the late 20s, Murray moved up to the status of M.C. (Murray was Master of Ceremonies on the night Bob Hope made his Palace […]

    Like

  7. […] attributed to Berlin) “All of Me”. In 1934, she performed at the London Palladium with Beatrice Lillie, and, while there, starred in the film Charring Cross Road. U.S. films included The Song of Love […]

    Like

  8. […] Jumbo in 1935, and Red. Hot and Blue, with music by Cole Porter, in which Durante co-starred with Bob Hope and Ethel Merman in 1936. (Note that the Cole Porter song You’re the Top includes a reference to […]

    Like

  9. […] today, there was no bigger star than Eddie Cantor in his heyday. He conquered more media than even Hope, Rogers or Benny: vaudeville, Broadway revues and book musicals, films, radio, tv and – because […]

    Like

  10. […] speak with reverence about Frank Fay. He originated the stand-up comedy style we associate with Hope, Benny, Carson, Leno and Letterman, the extremely polished “American Institution” style, an […]

    Like

  11. […] mention of the name conjured up a personality: Nora Bayes, Eva Tanguay, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Beatrice Lillie…to name just a few. Henceforth, it was to become an industry where a pretty girl could get up […]

    Like

  12. […] figure in show business history, by both the public and his colleagues. So loved was Benny that Bob Hope, who apparently loved no one, delivered the eulogy at his funeral. In it, Hope called Benny “the […]

    Like

  13. […] Stars of Vaudeville #16 & 17: Bob Hope and Beatrice Lillie « Travalanche Says: April 16, 2010 at 2:21 pm […]

    Like

  14. […] Cohan in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, and the other is his reprise of that role in the 1955 Bob Hope vehicle The Seven Little Foys. His dancing in both films is a treat—athletic and aggressive, […]

    Like

  15. […] movies, television — nailed them ALL. In some respects, he was like Chaplin, Lou Jacobs, Bob Hope, Fred Allen, and Milton Berle all rolled into one. Except…well, he was pretty […]

    Like

  16. […] the same time he freely acknowledged his debt to one of America’s least intellectual comedians, Bob Hope. His comedy routines, New Yorker humor pieces and early films owed much to the Marx Brothers and […]

    Like

  17. […] Blue (born this day in Montreal in 1901) got his start just like Milton Berle and Bob Hope — by winning a Charlie Chaplin impersonation contest. He was a drummer in comedy dance bands, […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: