As much an innovator as he is an icon, Bob Hope is the blueprint for Rodney Dangerfield’s self-deprecation, Jerry Seinfeld’s understated but gut-busting observations, and almost every comic species in between.
He invented the deadpan delivery of complicated jokes and fortitudinous waiting for audiences to catch up. Though his delivery seemed off-the-cuff, he was the consummate craftsman, painstakingly cataloguing, crafting and revising material. And his voluminous output in vaudeville, radio and film is only matched by his tireless USO work — entertaining troops — and his record 16 times hosting the Oscars. What a legend, what a man!
Bob Hope was born Leslie Townes Hope on May 29, 1903, in the British town of Eltham. He was the fifth of seven children, his father a stonemason and his mother an aspiring singer. In 1907, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where Bob worked as a delivery boy for his brother’s meat market, a soda jerk and a shoe salesman. He even tried boxing under the name of Packy East, but his real dream was to become an entertainer.
In Cleveland, Hope took dancing lessons and sought work as a stage performer on variety-type shows. Hope then worked as a dance instructor before embarking on a career in vaudeville, where, within five years of his start as part of a two-man dance act, he had toured the country and graduated from the “small-time” stages, where tickets cost as little as ten cents, to the “big-time” — $2.
Hope changed his first name to Lester, and after achieving considerable vaudeville success, eventually to Bob.
Bob Hope played New York City’s Palace Theater, the Holy Grail for a vaudevillian, from 1931-32. Much of Hope’s and other vaudevillians’ material at the time consisted of bits and sketches. Often, these drew on ethnic jokes and parodies, from blackface to the mimicking of accents of Irish, Italian and other immigrants.
As the popularity of vaudeville faded and film and radio became more popular, Hope, an acclaimed live performer, was able to transition and find work in musical theater, radio and eventually film. Hollywood came calling and signed Hope to star in The Big Broadcast (1938). Already committed to a radio contract for the “Woodbury Soap Show,” broadcast from New York, Bob had to perform via wire between L.A. and New York.
By the late 1940s, Hope was one of Hollywood’s best-paid stars, and his film career would span into the 1980s, with the actor-comedian winning three honorary Oscars®. His funniest films include the “Road to… ” series, the first being Road to Singapore (1940) with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, and Alias Jesse James (1959) and The Facts of Life (1960) with Lucille Ball. Comedienne Phyllis Diller also collaborated with Hope in Boy, Did I Get the Wrong Number! (1996), The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell (1967), Eight on the Lam (1967), and more than twenty television specials.
From World War II to the Vietnam War, Hope has worked with the U.S.O., flying to theaters of war to entertain troops.
For his career and social contributions, Bob Hope holds a place in the “Guinness Book of World Records” as the most honored entertainer in the world, with more than two thousand awards and citations for humanitarian and professional efforts, including five Oscars®, 44 honorary doctorates and seven civilian medals.
A centarian in 2003, Bob Hope witnessed and thrived in the 20th century’s biggest innovations in entertainment. And, of course, the human impact of his career and contributions remain immeasurable. He died of pneumonia on July 27, 2003, at his Toluca Lake, CA, home.