At one time, Bob Hope was the hottest thing in comedy, a fresh face with a fresh delivery. Really. He was cutting edge in the 1930s, practically inventing the monologue as a delivery system for jokes. Hope went on to reach the top of every entertainment medium he tried — vaudeville, theater, movies, radio and television — and became omnipresent in American life.
One thing Hope couldn’t do was walk away from the limelight. Long before he died in 2003, at the age of 100, he became the symbol of a bygone era of entertainment, a beloved relic for those who bothered to notice. Such is the danger of one curtain call too many and a hundred more after that.
In “Hope: Entertainer of the Century,” author Richard Zoglin doesn’t ignore Hope’s insatiable ego and other flaws but also doesn’t allow them to overwhelm his considerable talents. It’s a finely balanced and detailed biography that explores, explains and ultimately celebrates an uncomplicated man who probably made more people laugh than anyone in history.
His parents named him Leslie Hope, the sixth of their seven sons, all but the youngest born in England. His father was a stone mason who drank too much when he worked too little — and there was never much work. Hope’s mother was the family’s cornerstone, a tireless worker in and outside the home. Their hand-to-mouth existence continued after they immigrated to Cleveland when Leslie was just 4 years old.
While Hope cited a lack of interest in schooling for dropping out as a teenager, Zoglin reports that nearly two years in reform school (probably for stealing) ended Hope’s formal education. The only subject he had enjoyed was music, which his mother used to brighten their dreary lives. A lively personality as well as music led young Les Hope to the stage.
Zoglin traces the foundations of Hope’s persona to the decade he spent in vaudeville. First, Hope honed his skills as a comic dancer, singer and skit performer. He stood out as a wisecracking emcee at theaters, then discovered that tailoring his material to his audience generated even more laughs. (Speed up the delivery in the East, slow it down in the South.) Talking directly to the people in the seats, even gossiping about other performers and backstage antics, gave him an unusually personal connection to audiences. Along the way he picked up a new name: Les Hope became Bob, a name he thought had a ring of “Hiya, fellas” in it.
That sums up Bob Hope. No tortured soul doing battle with inner demons, just a professional yuckster seeking a winning formula for producing applause. Not that the lack of demons meant a lack of drama in his life. The least perceptive of armchair psychiatrists could connect his threadbare childhood to an unending quest for money, attention and love. The money never stopped rolling in — and with it the means to carry on liaisons with women other than his wife of eight decades. Even in his 80s Hope was racking up millions and keeping a girl on the side.
Without question Hope gave less of himself to his family than to friends and his public. (He left a daughter’s wedding reception early to take in the Super Bowl in Miami with Vice President-elect Spiro Agnew.) While overseas trips to entertain the troops fed his ego and enriched his career — those TV specials were moneymakers and brand builders — there is no doubt that Hope gave America’s men and women in uniform a much-needed boost. At least twice he came close to potentially fatal plane crashes, but that didn’t stop him from putting on shows for the troops until age caught up with him.
Zoglin enlivens his book with scores of jokes from Hope’s routines (he said of President Harry Truman, a former haberdasher, “Never trust a politician who knows how to measure your inseam”) and isn’t afraid to point out that his routines could be tired and obvious. Zoglin also offers fascinating tidbits about the business of being Bob Hope. For example, his fee for personal appearances was up to $75,000 in the mid-1980s. At the same time he was making $1 million a year for a few days’ work as pitchman for a phone directory.
The author rewards the cooperation of Hope family members and intimates by showing how central he was to American culture in the 20th century, a fact all too easy to forget. In turn, Zoglin gives his readers a story told with insight and honesty, even when instances of the comedian’s pettiness and selfishness cast a shadow on his overall generosity and good nature.
Entertainer of the century? It’s hard not to come to that conclusion. That Zoglin must make the case tells us a lot about the generational nature of entertainment. Few comedians have been as welcome for as long by as many. But then everything gets stale at some point — even Bob Hope.
“Hope: Entertainer of the Century”
(Simon & Schuster)
by Richard Zoglin
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