When comedian, film star, soft-shoe hoofer, and presidential-golfing buddy Bob Hope ascended to that big country club in the sky at the age of 100 (!) in 2003, his earthly send-off wasn’t all that he might have, well, hoped. The fulsome obituary notices lauded the breadth of his fame and achievements. His landmark status in entertainment history was undisputed. But the praise was threaded with sighs of regret that Hope had outlived his era and then some.
His Republican conservatism, his chumminess with business tycoons, generals, and politicians, the impersonal ticker-tape rat-a-tat of his punch lines as he scanned the cue cards on his later NBC specials—they had dated his appeal terribly, reducing him to a wax relic of the jaunty cutlass he had once been. Even a sympathetic mourner such as the critic Wilfrid Sheed lamented that Hope’s tireless, endless touring to entertain our men and women in uniform “turned America’s military commitments into a species of vaudeville circuit” and eclipsed the gleaming originality of his screen career. For posterity to give Movie Bob his just due, wrote Sheed, “Saint Bob of the Army Bases” must recede in memory.
His landmark status in entertainment history was undisputed. But the praise was threaded with sighs of regret that Hope had outlived his era.
But Saint Bob of the Army Bases keeps bob-bob-bobbing along, Hope’s unmatched record as a roving morale officer refusing to be mothballed. From the frozen wastes of Alaska to the buggy swelter of Tarawa, Hope and company visited hospitals, dodged air raids, and put on shows that can still be heard today at Sirius Radio Classics and elsewhere. The jokes may have dated, but Hope’s insouciance, the swing and swivel of his intros and ad-libs, is evergreen.
To honor the 80th anniversary of the U.S.O., the New-York Historical Society’s “So Ready for Laughter: Bob Hope and World War II,” assembled by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, takes “Ol’ Ski Nose” out for a retrospective spin of the khaki circuit, presenting a trove of film footage, vintage photos, souvenir programs from the Hollywood Victory Caravan, and war memorabilia (including a coconut addressed to Hope). A companion show, “The Gift of Laughter,” covers Hope’s post–W.W. II career as a TV variety host, Academy Awards M.C., and U.S.O. ambassador. It includes costumes from everyone’s fave, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, whose plucky heroine bestowed her perkiness upon the troops in Season Three. —James Wolcott