He was acclaimed ‘the greatest entertainer of the 20th Century.’ He made dozens of movies and television shows. He entertained soldiers over the course of four separate wars. And he died a devout Catholic. Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Hope!
Catholic Credentials: Married to a faithful Catholic, Dolores Hope, for nearly seventy years; entered the Church shortly before his death; frequent Communicant during his final days; donated an estimated $1 Billion to charity over the course of his life.
Nerd Credentials: One of the great screen comedians.
Leslie Townes Hope was born in London on May 29th, 1903 to a Stonemason and an Opera Singer. In 1908 the family immigrated to America, settling in Cleveland. Young Leslie took to street performing; dancing, singing, and cracking wise on streetcars for pocket change. In addition to his self-educational pursuits, he took dance and singing lessons. When he was twelve he won a ‘Charlie Chaplin impersonation’ contest, foreshadowing things to come.
After a few brief careers as a butcher’s assistant, soda jerk, pool hustler, and boxer, Leslie (he had changed his name to ‘Bob’ at this point, partially due to the fact that, during roll-call, his name (Hope, Leslie) sounded like ‘Hopeless’) started performing on Vaudeville as a dancer, singer, and comedian. He experimented with a few ‘characters’ (including performing in blackface) before discovering that he was much more successful just being ‘himself.’
Following five years on the Vaudeville circuit, he screen tested for a French film company. He failed.
His first real success came on the Broadway stage, performing in the highly successful musical ‘Roberta’ as a wisecracking character named Huckleberry Haines. Not only did the public finally notice him, but he noticed a young singer named Dolores Reade, then working at a nightclub. The two fell in love immediately, and after a brief courtship they married in Feb. 1934.
That same year, he signed on with ‘Educational Pictures of New York’ and made the short comedy Going Spanish in 1934. His own opinion of the film was “When they catch John Dillinger, they’re going to make him watch it twice.” Educational Pictures dropped him, and he signed on with Warner Brothers instead, making movies during the day and performing on Broadway at night.
Meanwhile, Hope had started to have success on radio, where his witty banter could really shine through. He had his own regular show from 1937 all the way up until the 1950s, when radio was superseded by television. So, ever the opportunist, Hope transitioned to television, doing TV specials for NBC (his famous Christmas Specials were particularly popular).
While his radio and theater careers prospered, Hope’s film career was somewhat shakier. He worked in pictures fairly steadily, but his Warner Brothers contract didn’t lead to any big hits. He left Warner Brothers and signed on with Paramount in 1938, but on-screen success continued to elude him…until 1940, when Paramount’s planned George Burns and Gracie Allen vehicle “The Road to Mandaley” suddenly found itself without its intended stars. Looking for replacement performers, producer Harian Thompson noticed Hope clowning around with Bing Crosby on the lot and decided that they would work well together. Throw in the gorgeous Dorothy Lamour (whom Hope had discovered working as a nightclub singer), and The Road to Singapore (1940) became the first of a series of seven ‘Road To’ films featuring the trio that cemented Hope’s position as one of the luminaries of Hollywood, and led to a three-way life-long friendship (Hope was so devastated by Crosby’s death in 1977 that he couldn’t sleep for days and later called it one of the worst times of his life).
Here he is performing his signature song, Thanks for the Memories for the first time with Shirley Ross in The Big Broadcast of 1938.
At the same time as he, Crosby, and Lamour were churning out Road pictures, Hope began to find success in solo acts as well, including the horror-comedy Ghost Breakers (1940) co-starring Paulette Goddard and Willie Best, and the spy-film spoof My Favorite Blonde (1942).
The latter film played on the grim events that now preoccupied the country. World War II was in full swing, and Hope embarked upon what would become his greatest role: the GI’s clown. Beginning in May, 1941 Hope began travelling to military bases, both at home and overseas, to perform for the troops. He would stage large shows before the assembled soldiers, or visit them in the military hospitals. Sometimes his wife, Dolores, would come too, as would his co-stars, Crosby and Lamour, among others. His job, as he saw it, was to make the men laugh, smile, and boost their morale, so he made it a firm rule for himself and his fellow entertainers that they could never cry, no matter how traumatic or horrible the things they witnessed. The men that they were entertaining had seen enough tears, Bob decided, and their job was to let them see some smiles and laughter again.
He himself only broke the rule once: when visiting a hospital in Italy, he stopped by a man who had been in a coma for two months. All of a sudden, the man opened his eyes, looked up, and said “Hey, Bob Hope! When did you get here?” Hope was so overcome by the apparent miracle that he had to rush out of the hospital to weep, determined that, even if he did cry, the men shouldn’t see it.
Hope was tireless in his determination to cheer up the troops. He travelled to Italy, England, Africa, and the South Pacific, risking disaster in every trip, and pushing himself to the limit of endurance to bring laughter to the men. After the Second World War, he did the same thing in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. His Vietnam efforts earned him the ire of many of his fellow entertainers (and even some of the soldiers) who viewed him as an enabler of the war, but Hope persisted. He saw it as his duty, and whether he succeeded or not, he would always try.
In recognition of his efforts, the U.S. Congress named him an ‘Honorary Veteran’ in 1997. Hope said, in response, “I’ve been given many awards in my lifetime, but to be numbered among the men and women I admire most is the greatest honor I have ever received.”
Hope’s three great passions, for most of his life, were his wife, entertaining, and golf. He himself said that golf was his real profession; “show-biz just pays the green-dues.” He was introduced to the game in the 1930s and it became a staple both of his personal life and his comedy routines (“President Eisenhower has given up golf for painting; fewer strokes, you know”), to the point that a comedian carrying a golf club on stage is considered a tribute to Hope. He is so associated with the game that he even has his own tournament: the ‘Bob Hope Classic,’ which he opened in 1995 with Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all playing a foursome.
Hope loved his wife and children very much, but he wasn’t exactly faithful. On the contrary, he was a notorious ladies’ man for most of his life, having numerous affairs, which Dolores patiently endured while praying for him. For decades, however, Hope resisted her efforts to draw him into the Church. He joked that he did “benefits for ALL religions. I’d hate to blow the hereafter on a technicality.” Nevertheless, he would attend Mass frequently, both with and without his wife. Then, as his life drew to its close, he finally gave in to the promptings of both God and his wife; he was baptized and entered into full communion with the Church, becoming a frequent Communicant. In 1998, the Vatican made him a Knight Commander of St. Gregory in recognition of his humanitarian efforts.
Bob Hope was, like all of us, a sinner. His personal life is marked with scandal, with adulterous affairs, self-absorption, and greed. But it is also marked by great acts of charity, self-sacrifice, and love. He was not what we think of as a Saint, but he brought joy, laughter, and, yes, hope to millions upon millions of people, including those who needed it most desperately. In the end, the prayers of the many who loved him helped the better angels of his nature win through, and he left the sinner behind to become a saint. He teaches us that, even if we sin and stray far from God, the good that we do and the love that we share can draw us back again.
In conclusion, here are two of Bob’s many, many friends expressing their appreciation for him on his 85th birthday; a fitting tribute to the greatest entertainer of the 20th century.
Vive Christus Rex!