May 30, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
This is a repeat of a column I first posted on July 27th of last year. But with yesterday marking Bob Hope’s birthdate of May 29, 1903, I reread it and thought it was worth reposting, as the history of this one-of-a-kind entertainer is worth remembering. When he passed away just two months past his 100th birthday, Hope was still known to millions. But by 2003, a generation of young people read his obit with little awareness of the tremendous impact he had on American culture. Not only did Hope single-handedly invent the notion of a “stand-up” comic on television, but he came to embody what it meant to elegantly and wittily host an awards program on television, something that today is considered a high commodity.
My first exposure to Hope was exactly that — as the host of the annual Academy Awards. When I first began watching them as a little boy in 1966 (the year The Sound of Music took home Best Picture), Hope was the show’s host. He repeated those chores again in 1967 and 1968, and would make additional appearances at future Oscar ceremonies well into the late 1980s. In all, he hosted the broadcast 19 times, a record unlikely ever to be beaten (and for the record, Billy Crystal, a different host to a different generation, is in second place with nine times).
Hope was a big movie star in the 1940s. His teaming with the actor-singer Bing Crosby in seven Road To… pictures launched into popularity the “buddy film,” still a reliable box office genre today. Before translating his fame onto the big screen, Hope was one of the dominant stars of radio throughout the 1930s. Once television eclipsed films as the primary entertainment for most Americans in the 1950s and 60s, Hope’s TV specials numbered in the dozens. But the place where Hope’s talents were nurtured was on the stage, first in vaudeville, and then on Broadway. Unfortunately, once he headed out to Hollywood in 1937 after he appeared in Cole Porter’s Red, Hot and Blue (co-starring with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante) he never did another musical on stage.
It always surprised me as a kid when I would suddenly see Bob Hope sing or dance. It wasn’t that he did it competently, as if he were being asked to do something out of his range of expertise and acquitted himself nicely. No, he was really, really good. It was like the way it always seemed strange to see James Cagney dance (for dance strangely, he did), since my primary means of identifying his talents originally was as a tough guy or gangster. Like Hope, he began first as a song and dance man and nothing delighted me more than the first time I saw the film The Seven Little Foys which featured them both. This was a 1955 film that starred Hope as Eddie Foy Sr., a vaudevillian who performed with his children on stage. Cagney has a cameo, repeating his Academy Award winning performance as George M. Cohan from Yankee Doodle Dandy. Here’s the dance they do together which never fails to delight me every time I see it (and I have seen it countless times).
It was Broadway’s loss and Hollywood’s gain when the theatre lost Hope to movies forever. He really had a peculiar knack for singing and dancing, which were rarely utilized once his on-screen persona of the cowardly comedian took hold in the 1940s. Woody Allen has claimed time and again that Hope was among his favorite comedians, and the early Allen characters in films like Take the Money and Run and Bananas owe a great deal to Hope. But again, if you watch this clip from his first Hollywood film, The Big Broadcast of 1938, his performance with Shirley Ross is exquisite. It gave him his signature song, “Thanks for the Memories,” which he would sing with specialty lyrics for the next seventy years rewritten for just about any occasion (Hope liked making money and would open a car wash if his price was met), but it sadly diluted his brand. Watching the original though is enough to take one’s breath away. Take in how tender and well-acted it is, never more so than Hope’s action with the glass, the swizzle stick and the piece of fruit. It’s masterful.
Hope is in The Guinness Book of World Records as being the most awarded entertainer of all time (over 1,500 awards) and for holding the longest contract with any TV network (a “lifetime contract” that was finally dissolved after sixty-one years). On that occasion, Hope quipped that he had “decided to become a free agent.” He was ninety-three-years-old.
Hope died at his home of sixty-four years in Toluca Lake, California, less than two miles from NBC where he taped so many of his TV specials. It has been widely quoted that on his deathbed, when asked where he wanted to be buried, Hope told his wife, “Surprise me.” I don’t buy that story for a minute for a number of reasons (who asks that of a multi-millionaire who certainly had a long-standing will in place?), but it sounds like something Hope would have said. All of which brings to mind the great line from the John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
And one fact is for sure: Bob Hope was a legend.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-Historical-Broadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book