It is hardly necessary to enumerate the accomplishments, patriotic services, charitable donations, awards, medals, and honorariums pertaining to Bob Hope, a man for whom the word "legend" seems somehow inadequate. Never mind that he was born in England; the entertainer unquestionably became an American institution.
Hope's father was a stonemason and his mother a one-time concert singer; when he was two, his parents moved him and his brothers to Cleveland, where relatives awaited. Since everyone in the Hope clan was expected to contribute to the family's income, he took on several part-time jobs early in life. One of these was as a concessionaire at Cleveland's Luna Park, where Hope had his first taste of show business by winning a Charlie Chaplin imitation contest. (He later claimed he'd gotten his brothers to strong-arm all the neighborhood kids to vote for him). At 16, Hope entered the work force full-time as a shoe salesman for a department store, then as a stock boy for an auto company. At night, he and a friend picked up spare change singing at local restaurants and saloons, and, for a brief time, he was an amateur boxer, calling himself "Packy East."
Picking up dancing tips from older vaudevillians, Hope decided to devote himself to a show business career, first in partnership with his girlfriend Mildred Rosequist, then with a pal named Lloyd Durbin. Comedian Fatty Arbuckle, headlining a touring revue, caught Hope and Durbin's comedy/dancing act and helped the boys get better bookings. Following the accidental death of Durbin, Hope found another partner, George Byrne, with whom he developed a blackface act. After several career reversals, Hope and Byrne were about to pack it in when they were hired to emcee Marshall Walker's Whiz Bang review in New Castle, PA. As the more loquacious member of the team, Hope went out on-stage as a single and got excellent response for his seemingly ad-libbed wisecracks. It was in this and subsequent vaudeville appearances that Hope learned how to handle tough audiences by having the guts to wait on-stage until everyone in the crowd had gotten his jokes; he was still using this technique seven decades later.
Dropping his blackface makeup and cannibalizing every college humor magazine he could get his hands on, Hope took on yet another partner (Louise Troxell) in 1928 and started getting choice vaudeville bookings on the Keith Circuit. A year later, he was given a movie screen test, but was told his ski-slope nose didn't photograph well. With material from legendary gagster Al Boasberg, Hope appeared as a single in The Antics of 1931, which led to a better theatrical gig with Ballyhoo of 1932, in which he was encouraged to ad-lib to his heart's content. He then went back to vaudeville and squeezed in his first radio appearance in 1933 before being hired as the comedy second lead in an important Jerome Kern Broadway musical, Roberta. During the long run of this hit, Hope met and married nightclub singer Dolores Reade, who became still another of his on-stage partners when the play closed and Hope yet again returned to vaudeville. He scored a major success in Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, which spotlighted his talent for sketch comedy, and then co-starred with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante in Red, Hot and Blue. In 1937, he was brought to Hollywood for Paramount's The Big Broadcast of 1938, in which he duetted with Shirley Ross in the Oscar-winning song "Thanks for the Memory," which became his signature theme from then on. Hope's first few years at Paramount found him appearing in relatively sedate comedy leads, but with The Cat and the Canary (1939) he solidified his screen persona as the would-be great lover and "brave coward" who hides his insecurities with constant wisecracking.
In 1940, Hope was teamed with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour for Road to Singapore, the first of the still-uproarious "Road" series that featured everything from in-jokes about Bob and Bing's private lives to talking camels. While continuing to make money at the box office, Hope was also starring in his long running NBC radio program, which was distinguished by its sharp topical humor and censor-baiting risqué material. But it was not so much his show business earnings as his profitable real estate deals and holdings that formed the basis of Hope's immense personal fortune. In the midst of all his media clowning during World War II, Hope worked tirelessly as a U.S.O. entertainer for troops in the U.S. and abroad -- so much so that he was unable to make any films at all in 1944. In 1950, Hope inaugurated a long-term television contract with NBC, which resulted in more than 40 years worth of periodic specials that never failed to sweep the ratings. He also later hosted (and occasionally starred in) an Emmy-winning '60s anthology series, Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre.
With his film box-office receipts flagging in the early '50s (audiences didn't quite buy the idea of a 50-year-old man playing a 30-ish girl chaser), Hope took the advice of writer/directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank and attempted a dramatic film role as Eddie Foy Sr. in The Seven Little Foys (1955). He succeeded in both pulling off the character and in packing a relatively maudlin script with humanity and humor. Hope's last "straight" film part was as New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker in Beau James (1957), in which he again acquitted himself quite nicely. Having long taken a percentage of profits on his Paramount releases, Hope became his own producer in 1957, which at first resulted in such fine pictures as Alias Jesse James (1959) and The Facts of Life (1960, with frequent co-star Lucille Ball). But the quality of Hope's films took a depressing downward spiral in the '60s, and even hard-core Hope fans were hard-pressed to suffer though such dogs as Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966) and The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (1968). It has been theorized that Hope was too wealthy and much too busy with a multitude of other projects to care about the sorry state of his films. Besides, even the worst of the Hope pictures posted a profit, which to him evidently meant more than whether or not the films were any good. His last feature film appearance was a 1985 cameo in Spies Like Us, a spoof of the road pictures he made with Crosby. In 1991, he again traveled overseas to entertain U.S. troops -- this time in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. Though Hope's only onscreen appearances through the remainder of the decade would prove archival in origin, generations of fans would later show their appreciation for his enduring career in the 2003 television special 100 Years of Hope and Humor. Hope proved too frail to attend the celebration in person, though his friends and family assured the public that the star was indeed overwhelmed at the outpouring of public affection.
On Sunday, July 27, 2003, the world lost one of its most beloved comic talents when Bob Hope died of pneumonia in Taluca Lake, CA. He was 100.