Bob Hope, 100, was arguably the most recognizable entertainer of his era; Bing Crosby would have said it was the nose. When radio and TV's most enduring star died of pneumonia July 27 at his home in Toluca Lake, Calif., the outpouring of affection was immediate and inundating. Tributes blanketed the airwaves that Hope had once commanded. "America lost a great citizen," President Bush said upon learning of his death.
Hope was at least a sextuple threat—vaudeville, Broadway, radio, TV, films and concerts—but his overarching career arc was broadcasting. He was among a handful of stars who dominated radio, then set the style for TV's generation of stand-up comedians and hosts, and arguably become the unofficial emcee of the medium. Through it all, his broadcasts to and for American servicemen left a legacy that endeared him to millions of hearts and minds.
Just plain Bob
Born Leslie Townes Hope May 29, 1903, in Eltham, England, Hope grew up in Cleveland, where legend has it he won prizes for his imitations of Charlie Chaplin, another English import, and sang on the "streetcar" circuit for his fares. He changed his name to Lester, some say after one too many cracks about "Leslie." If so, he also learned to defend himself and his name, fighting briefly under the ring name Packy East. Somewhere along the way, he tired of the name Les Hope or nicknames like Hope-less, and became just plain Bob.
He also became a vaudeville hoofer, eventually forming his own troop, which included future radio stars Edgar Bergen and his wooden sidekick Charlie McCarthy. After adding Broadway and some radio guest appearances to his résumé, Hope made his first starring turn on the dial in The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope, which debuted Sept. 27, 1938, on NBC. It was a hit and the start of a 60-plus–year association with NBC. Hope's radio shows were at or near the top of the then-Hooper ratings throughout the 1940s.
He made the transition to TV in 1950, signing for a series of six, 90-minute NBC specials for a reported $40,000 per show. In June of that year, Hope also signed a five-year radio and TV deal with NBC at a time when CBS was hoping to snatch him and both networks were systematically raiding each other for talent. The TV side of the deal stipulated that whenever Hope decided to concentrate on TV, he would have a budget of $40,000 per show, of which he would get $15,000. The radio side involved Lever Bros.' selling its sponsorship of Hope's Tuesday-night NBC radio show to Chesterfield at a reported talent fee of $30,000 per week.
One of Hollywood's wealthiest stars, Hope was an astute businessman and the NBC contract reflected that acumen. It included what was described by BROADCASTING & CABLE at the time as "a complicated formula" for deferred salary payments to minimize taxes and an asset purchase that would allow Hope to pay capital-gains taxes that would be much lower than income taxes.
Hope also became 50% owner of KOA-AM-FM Denver in 1952 when Metropolitan Broadcasting bought the stations from NBC for $2.25 million. NBC had five TV stations at the time, the FCC limit, and would not have been able to buy the TV license then being allocated and which KOA management wanted to combine with its radio operations.
Under his NBC contract, Hope became a busy and popular emcee of numerous shows, including Colgate Comedy Hour, All Star Revue, Chesterfield Sound Off Time
and his own Bob Hope Show. He also hosted an hourlong dramatic anthology series for the network in 1963-67.
But Hope was probably best-known on TV for his frequent specials, guest appearances on other shows and longtime hosting of the Academy Awards. Many baby boomers fondly recall his salutes to the year's top college football players, in which a procession of suited-up players played often engagingly inept straight men to the comedian.
Time for others
Somehow, Hope also found time to make movies—after the umpteenth Road
picture, he quipped that next they were starting on "the alleys"—as well as to conduct a parallel career as a traveling salesman of millions in War Bonds and of hope and humor to countless American fighting men and women from the Pacific to the Persian Gulf (see editorial, page 32).
But his aid was not limited to the troops. There were gifts to numerous charities and telethons for worthy causes. In 1972, for instance, following Hurricane Agnes, Hope hosted and produced a telethon, teaming with TV stations to create an ad hoc Red Cross Network that raised more than $2 million for relief in only six hours.
He was in the inaugural class when NAB created its Radio Hall of Fame in 1977. He was also among the first to be named to the BROADCASTING & CABLE Hall of Fame in 1981.
Hope had some fun with broadcasters when he was honored by the industry at its 1963 convention in Chicago, but, at the close of his remarks, he turned serious, telling his audience, "You are responsible for the most amazing instrument of mass communication known to man, a 21-inch looking glass that shows the world in full length. Just spin the dial: instant history."